Lord Berners - Composer, Writer, Painter

Peter Dickinson

The Boydell Press, 265 pages

Lord Berners
Told a crowd of learners
That if they wanted to compose
They should paint or write prose.

Lord Berners - Composer, Writer, Painter

The New Statesman published that clerihew in 1939. Berners (b 1883) was a polymath who composed, talked well and amusingly, painted, and wrote poetry and novels. His reputation suffered a dégringolade after his death in 1950 so that now, alas, if he is remembered at all it is for his music and his eccentric ways rather than for his other artistic accomplishments. But during World War 1, and into the 1920s, Lord Berners was regarded as a leading British modernist. At a Hollywood party in 1950 Stravinsky was asked who he considered the best British composer. He replied: 'Lord Berners'. All present had expected Stravinsky to say Walton or Britten.

In this sympathetic and valuable account Peter Dickinson describes Berners as a child of his time. Unlike Earl Hines, or Duke Ellington, Berners' 'Lord' wasn't just a showbiz title. The composer was Gerald Tyrwhitt until he inherited his barony in 1918. Later, when asked if he went to the House of Lords, he used to say: 'I did go once and my umbrella was stolen by a bishop so I've never been again!' Dickinson includes some forty colour photographs of Berners' Cortot-influenced paintings, and describes how Berners - who didn't drive - carried a Dolmetsch clavichord in a space lined with velvet between the front seats of his 1921 Rolls Royce. He dyed the pigeons on his Faringdon estate and drew moustaches on the family portraits. Rumours of a pet giraffe were no tall story.

Berners was friendly with all the members of Les Six, and a close friend of Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. Multi-lingual, he interpreted when Alban Berg took him and Walton to meet Arnold Schoenberg. The visit was a surprise; Schoenberg was uncomfortable because his piano was covered in manuscript paper, an inadvertent revelation from this famous advocate of composing away from the piano.

Gavin Bryars said: 'I think Stravinsky was right to point to Berners as being one of the best English composers of the century. He didn't produce a lot of work, but what he did produce was remarkable...there is certainly a connection with Stravinsky in the piano writing.'

Berners even wrote his own epitaph:

Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners.
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But praise to the Lord!
He seldom was bored.

An unedited version of this review appeared in Classical Music magazine, 11th October 2008. Reproduced by permission; reproduction forbidden.

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