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ClassicsOnline Home » BERKELEY: Crux Fidelis / Missa Brevis / 3 Latin Motets / A Festival Anthem
For all its charm and elegance, Lennox Berkeley’s unique compositional voice is marked in his sacred choral music by an inner conviction borne of a strong personal faith. In this regard he mirrored his lifelong friend Francis Poulenc. Berkeley’s legacy is a significant body of sacred choral music familiar across the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. This selection encompasses his most important works, including A Festival Anthem, the Missa Brevis and Three Latin Motets, written in 1972 for the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Sacred Choral Music
Although Lennox Berkeley had begun composing as a child, he
did not initially plan a career in music and read Modern Languages at Oxford.
There he wrote his first published work, a song The Thresher, and after
encouragement from Ravel he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.
During this time he met Stravinsky and Poulenc, becoming a life-long friend of
the latter. Another significant friendship was begun in 1936 at the ISCM
Festival in Barcelona, when he met Britten, with whom he composed Mont Juic,
based on Catalan folk-tunes they heard in a park. Despite being ten years
Berkeley’s junior, Britten was an important mentor to him in his development.
Berkeley’s reputation was established in the early 1940s with the premières of
the Serenade for Strings (1939), First Symphony (1940) and Divertimento (1943).
Apart from Ravel, Fauré, the neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Britten,
Berkeley’s personal voice was also influenced by Mozart and Chopin. His music
is marked by elegance, charm, wit and masterly craftsmanship. Apart from
composing, Berkeley taught from 1946 to 1968 at the Royal Academy, where his
pupils included John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett. He was knighted in
1974. In over a hundred compositions he contributed to all genres, including
four operas and four symphonies. Among his finest achievements are the
one-movement Third Symphony (1969), Horn Trio (1953) and the Four Poems of St
Teresa of Avila (1947). As demonstrated here, his legacy also includes a
significant body of compositions setting sacred texts and liturgy. These sprang
from his strong personal faith, and membership of the Roman Catholic Church,
which he joined in 1928.
The motet Crux Fidelis (1955) for tenor solo and
unaccompanied choir was first performed in 1955 by Peter Pears and the Purcell
Singers, conducted by Imogen Holst. In this Good Friday hymn the choir vividly
describes the agonies Christ endured, for example, the anguished dissonance at
the mention of the crown of thorns, whilst the tenor solo in the central section
brings a personal response to the meaning of the Passion in a soaring, intense
In an article Truth in Music (1966), Berkeley offered his
views about composing works for the church: ‘Being a Roman Catholic, I have
naturally been drawn to the Latin liturgy and felt at home with it; it’s part
of my life, and I have wanted to bring to it what I have to offer, however
unworthy’. Thus the Missa brevis (1960) was written for Westminster Cathedral
Choir and is dedicated to the composer’s sons Michael and Julian (who were then
choristers at Westminster Cathedral) together with their colleagues. It was
first performed in 1960 conducted by Francis Cameron. Over all, the setting is
characterised by imitative counterpoint, as heard in the opening Kyrie. The
Sanctus is marked by a majestic Hosanna, but the most intense music comes with
the Agnus Dei.
Of the Anglican liturgy, Berkeley only set the Magnificat
and Nunc dimittis (1980), which were first performed by the combined choirs of
Salisbury, Winchester and Chichester Cathedrals in 1980 conducted by John
Birch. The Magnificat has a stately quality having plenty of contrasts in
choral colours. It ends with a Gloria (shared by both canticles) with a quiet
but forceful strength, whilst the Nunc dimittis gradually swells from its
lulling opening to an exultant climax.
The Three Latin Motets (1972) were written for the choir of
St John’s College, Cambridge, and received their première at the 1972 North
Wales Music Festival, St Asaph, under the direction of George Guest. The
scoring is for five-part voices which gives the music added richness of
texture. Eripe me, Domine (Deliver me, O Lord), sets a text for Passion Sunday.
Its harmony is stark and dissonant and throughout the words are emphasized by being
set to almost each syllable. The text of Veni sponsa Christi (Come thou Bride
of Christ) is proper to the Feast of Virgins and Martyrs; the flowing character
of the music develops into extended lyrical lines on the word alleluia although
the motet ends disturbingly, teetering on an unresolved discord. Regina coeli
(Queen of Heaven) is a Marian anthem which has a dance-like quality with
alleluias sung to joyous scales, and phrases tossed between different
combinations of voices.
The Lord is my shepherd (1975) was the second of Berkeley’s
works dedicated to Walter Hussey, the remarkable cleric who as incumbent of St
Matthew’s, Northampton, and subsequently Dean of Chichester, initiated a
remarkable series of commissions from composers including Britten and
Bernstein. This setting of Psalm 23 was commissioned to mark the 900th
foundation of Chichester Cathedral and was first heard in 1975. The instantly
memorable melody of the solo treble at the beginning, and the mastery of choral
writing in the unaccompanied middle section evoking the ‘valley of the shadow
of death’, are quintessential Berkeley.
The Mass for five voices (1964) was commissioned by Cardinal
Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, and was first performed by the cathedral
choir under Colin Mawby. The character of the music reflects Berkeley’s view,
espoused in the Truth in Music article, that when setting the liturgy his own
compositional voice should become more impersonal, ‘so that it would merge into
the liturgy, and not create a violent contrast or cause too much distraction’.
Although its five-part texture provides a rich sonority, overall the music has
an austere beauty. The Kyrie’s pleading for mercy is anxious and urgent. In the
Gloria, the exhortation for peace on earth is followed at Laudamus te by
athletic music with frequent changes of metre. The Sanctus opens with poised
two-part writing for the uppermost voices. Vibrant, dancing hosannas form its
second part combined with emphasized longer notes sounding like the pealing of
bells. The Benedictus begins with a striking falling phrase passed between the
voices. It gives way to a re-working of the Hosanna music from the Sanctus. The
Mass concludes with a peaceful setting of the Agnus Dei that grows from the
serene melodic phrase sung in unison at the opening.
Berkeley was drawn to mystical religious poetry, such as the
seventeenth century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw whom he sets in Look up,
sweet babe (1955). As befits a text meditating on the Christ child, the music
is characterized by tenderness. The organ accompaniment is significant since it
introduces the essence of the anthem’s musical material at the beginning and
weaves in and out of the choral sections, linking and commenting on them.
In 1943 Walter Hussey’s first commission had resulted in
Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for the annual Patronal Festival of St
Matthew’s, Northampton. Britten recommended Berkeley for the 1945 Festival
commission, and the resulting A Festival Anthem (1945) was dedicated to Hussey.
As befits the celebratory occasion, it is cast on an extended scale and sets an
anthology of verse: Sequence: Jerusalem et Sion filiae (in English
translation), a verse from George Herbert’s poem The Flower and Henry Vaughan’s
Easter Hymn. The rôle of the organ is important throughout, as at the opening
when its powerful introduction sets the mood for the choir’s emphatic entrance.
The setting is notable for its vivid word-painting as the choir’s elated
melismas at ‘sing right merrily’. There is a moment of quietude for
unaccompanied choir with the reference to the wisdom of Solomon, before the
tempo quickens as the first section ends joyously.
The Herbert setting which follows is written for treble solo
over a gently rocking accompaniment; its melody is almost sentimental but
utterly engaging. Vaughan’s Easter Hymn begins dramatically with the choir,
unaccompanied, dwelling on the reality of death. Hope is offered in the tenor
solo that follows, with the trebles providing wordless arpeggios of solace (a
magical compositional idea). After a brief organ flourish a majestic melody
initiates the final section at ‘Then, unto him’ to conclude the anthem in
jubilation, although in a final masterly touch Berkeley ends the work quietly
as if to emphasize a sense of quiet security and that all is well.
Berkeley wrote only a handful of works for the organ. The
Toccata is the last of his Three Pieces for organ (1966-8) which were given
their première by Simon Preston at the 1968 Cheltenham Festival. For the most
part brilliant and virtuosic, it is marked by off-beat explosive dissonant
outbursts in its outer sections.
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BERKELEY: Crux Fidelis / Missa Brevis / 3 Latin Mo...