David Matthews composer

Complete article texts available online


Britten and Berkeley

A talk given at the Deal Festival, July 2003

Benjamin Britten first met Lennox Berkeley in April 1936, when both composers were attending the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Barcelona. Britten was there to give the first public performance of his Suite for violin and piano, Op.6, with the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa, for whom he was later to compose his Violin Concerto. Berkeley's Overture, Op.8, later withdrawn, was also played at the Festival. Berkeley had come with a friend, Peter Burra, who had been at school with Peter Pears; and it was through Burra, and in particular as a result of Burra's death in an aeroplane accident the following year, that Britten came to know and to befriend Pears. Britten was 22, Berkeley ten years older. Britten had already heard and been impressed by some of Berkeley's music while at the Royal College of Music. They had both been to the same school (of course they didn't overlap), Gresham's School at Holt in Norfolk, but they came from quite different backgrounds. Britten's family were, as he put it, somewhat misleadingly, "very ordinary middle class" - they lived in Lowestoft where his father was a dentist; but his mother was an exceptional woman who lived for music - she had a fine mezzo-soprano voice and sang in the local choir - and had an obsessive belief in the genius of her son, to whom she was totally devoted and whose musical gifts she encouraged at every point in his childhood and adolescence.

Berkeley was born into an aristocratic family of partly French ancestry. He had read French at Oxford and then, on the advice of Ravel, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, the friend of Stravinsky and teacher of, amongst others, Aaron Copland. Berkeley's music, tasteful and sophisticated, always retained French rather than English manners. Like Britten, he was a fine pianist. Berkeley became a Roman Catholic in 1928; Britten had been an evangelical Christian in his youth but, under the influence of his friend W.H.Auden whom he had met in 1935, he had now turned away from religion and become a convinced socialist and pacifist. Despite their differences, Britten and Berkeley quickly became close friends. They found their musical tastes very much in agreement: both of them reacted strongly against the English establishment, Elgar and Vaughan Williams in particular, and Britten liked the modern French music that had influenced Berkeley. Both of them admired Stravinsky. In Barcelona they heard the premiere of the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, who had recently died and was one of the contemporary composers Britten most admired: he wrote in his diary that the Concerto was "just shattering - very simple, and touching".

While in Barcelona Britten, Berkeley and Burra also visited the red-light district. Britten, as he confided to his diary, was shocked by "the sordidity - & the sexual temptations of every kind at each corner". Britten was still an innocent and very puritanical young man, and one cannot help thinking here of Picasso's rather different attitude to Barcelona brothels! The two composers also heard the sardana, the Catalan national dance. Berkeley wrote: "Ben and I went to an afternoon of folk dancing in a park called Mont Juic. We were very taken with some of the tunes, and Ben produced some old envelopes from his pocket and wrote down them down." Later they would put these tunes to productive use.

A few months later, in July 1936, Britten was on holiday in a cottage at Crantock near Newquay in Cornwall, and he invited Berkeley to visit him there. When Berkeley arrived on 25 July for a five-day stay, Britten had just completed the full score of Our Hunting Fathers, his first big commission, an orchestral song cycle to words by Auden for the Norwich Festival later that year. "He is a dear & is helping me a lot with Our Hunting Fs", Britten wrote on 28 July to his mother. Meanwhile Berkeley wrote to a friend: "Ben is a charming creature and I am devoted to him. I've certainly never met another musician with whom I felt so much in sympathy. Also I seem more than ever impressed by his talent, which I think is very great, and his technical proficiency is extraordinary." Britten recorded his friend's visit in his diary (he had been making dairy entries since he was fourteen).

25 July

Get in bathe before dinner [Britten was a very enthusiastic swimmer, sometimes bathing four or five times a day] … & after dinner a lovely walk on beach with Lennox.

26 July

I have lunch with Lennox & after a short read - he, my H.F. [Our Hunting Fathers], & I his Jonah [an oratorio, which Berkeley also later withdrew] & also Wozzeck (marvellous work) we go for a glorious walk via Holywell (tea) on to Hoblin's Cove - my famous spot of last Sunday - and even further. He is a dear and we agree on most points & it is nice to discuss things we don't agree on! Get back for a meal at 8.30 - talk read & an early bed - exhausted!

27 July

Don't do overmuch in morning - wander down to the village as usual with Lennox after breakfast & then back here, where it pours with rain. I start piano score of H.F. - he writes letters before lunch.

28 July

A mostly filthy morning. It pelts & there is a vile wind so we stay in - Len. writes letters & I get on with the vocal score - or rather the duets portions so as to be able to try them with him. It clears in afternoon & we have a glorious bathe & then lie together on the beach partly naked - sun bathing. Heavenly. After tea a long walk down the Gannel to look for tennis courts - in vain. Work hard after dinner & late bed & even later to sleep. Lennox has brought with him scores of the new Walton (B flat) & Vaughan Williams (F min) symphonies & we spend most hysterical evenings pulling them to pieces - the amateurishness & clumsiness of the Williams - the 'gitters' ['jitters'] of the fate-ridden Walton - & the over pretentiousness of both - & abominable scoring. The directions in the score too are most mirth condusive! It isn't that one is cruel about these works which are naturally better than a tremendous amount of English music - but it is only that so much is pretended of them, & they are compared to the great Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler symphonies.

29 July

After normal down the village jaunt in morning I work & Lennox goes with Miss Nettleship [Edith Nettleship, who owned the estate on which Britten was staying] to see about a piano for us, which we go to in the aft: but it is a very poor instrument & the effect of Our Hunting Fathers & Lennox' new organ & piano pieces [Op.4] on it is beyond description!


After dinner - much walk & talk with Lennox & then we drive into Newquay with Miss N. & pick up some friends of hers (mother, aunt, child) from a concert-hall - & we afterwards till 12.0 odd have tea with them. Long talks before sleep - it is extraordinary how intimate one becomes when the lights are out!

30 July

Miss N. takes Lennox to catch 11.45 up to town. I go with them & we partake of a very sorrowing farewell. He is an awful dear - very intelligent & kind - & I am very attached to him, even after this short time. In spite of his avowed sexual weakness for young men of my age & form - he is considerate & open, & we have come to an agreement on that subject.

Britten for some time had been aware of his own homosexuality. Auden, who at the time was acting as his moral and intellectual mentor, had been urging him, so far in vain, to do something about it. Auden was a fellow homosexual but someone who had no sense of guilt about his sexual orientation. But Britten's innate puritanism and his fear of hurting his mother still at this time exercised a great restraint on him. In January 1937 his mother suddenly died; it was at the same time a terrible blow and also a liberation.

A diary entry of 5 March 1937, just over a month after her death, records: "I lunch with David Green [an architect friend, also from Lowestoft] - who is very decent - & he emphasises the point (very truly) that now is the time for me to decide something about my sexual life. O, for a little courage." Britten's lack of courage up until then was very understandable. He may have been moving in largely homosexual circles, but it has to be remembered that homosexuality was illegal in Britain in the 1930s and punishable by imprisonment, and it remained so for many years afterwards. The Woolfenden Report in 1957 recommended decriminalization but the law was not changed until 1967. Britten himself was interviewed by the police as late as 1954 (no action was taken). Looking back from our more liberal times, it is hard to imagine the full extent of fear and guilt that homosexuals could be made to feel, especially a highly sensitive and conscientious young man such as Britten.

A month later he went to stay with Berkeley again, this time at Painswick in Gloucestershire. His diary for 30 July 1936 had also recorded ''We have decided to work alot together - especially on the Spanish tunes''. So on this visit they worked on a suite for orchestra in four movements which Berkeley had already started, and which was to be called Mont Juic after the place where they had heard the folk music. The Spanish Civil War was now underway, which gave the project more meaning. Berkeley wrote the first two movements and Britten movements 3 and 4. Again, we can refer to Britten's diary for details of their time together.

5 April

Lennox Berkely [sic] meets me & we drive together to Painswick where his friend Miss Bryans is putting me up with him. Spend a pleasant evening playing violin (!) & piano.

6 April

Lennox & I get down to work on the Spanish Suite in the morning. He has sketched two movements which we discuss fully & alter accordingly, & then while I sketch a third (having settled form etc) he makes out a rough score of the first. Everything goes very amicably & tho' of course we don't agree on everything at once I feel the final arrangements are satisfactory. Certainly the music seems nice.

11 April

It is a curse having to go on with this awful bore of Uncle Arthur [King Arthur, incidental music for a radio play which Britten was also writing] - especialy [sic] when we are here especially to work together on the Spanish Suite. However one must live - but we get alot of the Spanish Question settled before lunch.


Then before bed - long & deep conversation with Lennox - he is a dear & I am very, very fond of him; nevertheless, it is a comfort that we arrange matters to at least my satisfaction.

28 April [back in London]

Tho' feeling desperate [this was the day after Peter Burra's death] I hurridly [sic] finish off the last Spanish tune before going to Lennox Berkeley to work at them all. This we do fairly satisfactorily. Lunch with him … See Ralph Hawkes [Britten's publisher] about the Spanish tunes & he is very pleased indeed.

It's clear that Berkeley had now fallen in love with Britten: he set two poems of Auden for voice and piano and dedicated them to Britten, one of them Auden's famous love poem 'Lay your sleeping head, my love'. Britten, it seems, did not respond - this is what ''to my satisfaction'' must mean. He was still very uncertain about committing himself to anyone, and he was beginning, perhaps, to be a little uncomfortable about Berkeley's hero worship. He preferred to be the one in charge of his feelings. Besides, Berkeley had a boyfriend in Paris: a young man called José Rafalli, with whom he shared an apartment there. However, when that summer Britten bought his first house, the Old Mill at Snape, Suffolk, near Aldeburgh where the Snape Maltings Concert Hall is now situated, he invited Berkeley to share it with him. "Dinner with Lennox at his Reform Club - much talk", he wrote in his diary on 28 July 1937. ''He is a dear & I'm glad I'm going to live with him.'' 'A dear' was Britten's blanket term for his intimate friends: he had recently used the same words in regard to Peter Burra and Peter Pears. At the same time that negotiations were going on to buy the Mill, Britten was writing his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, one of the pieces that really established his reputation as a composer, and was forming another close friendship, with the young tenor Peter Pears. From March 1938 Britten and Pears shared a flat together in London, although their relationship was to remain Platonic for more than a year after this.

After several interruptions, Mont Juic was finished and was given its first performance in January 1938. Berkeley wrote to Britten from Paris, where had listened to it on the radio: "I hope you were pleased with the performance of our joint 'chef d'oeuvre' - I heard it fairly well, but not really well enough to judge the standard of the playing, nor quite how successful 'our' orchestration was … I must say I thought your two pieces more effective than mine though I couldn't judge of no.2 - there were too many passages that didn't come through … I thought the last one the most successful - it is exciting and snappy, and the false starts are brilliantly effective.'' Berkeley dedicated his Introduction and Allegro for two pianos and orchestra to Britten, and in return received the dedication of Britten's Piano Concerto, which Britten wrote for himself to play at the 1938 Proms. Berkeley wrote to Britten some time during the summer of 1938: "I hope you will find time to get on with the Piano Concerto. Of course there is no hurry, but I'm so excited about it, and very proud about your dedicating it to me (if you really want to). In a way I feel that I almost deserve it, because you have no greater admirer. I'm afraid that I go on liking your music better than my own - it just is better, and though it rather annoys me to admit it, I am at the same time delighted because the music itself pleases and satisfies me so much."

Whether Britten and Berkeley's relationship was ever a sexual one is hard to say. (Britten stopped keeping his daily diary in June 1938, so that useful source of information dries up.) But if it was, there was certainly little involvement on Britten's side. In any case by the autumn of 1938 Britten was in love with someone else, a young man called Wulff Scherchen, the son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, whom he had befriended on a trip to Siena four years earlier, and who was now living in Cambridge. Wulff was eighteen, Britten now 24, and it was a relationship in which Britten this time was the instigator and to a certain extent the controller. His feelings, from the letters he wrote, were clearly very strong, for the very first time. This new relationship was painful for Berkeley, as we learn from several emotional letters he wrote to Britten around Christmas 1938. "Actually I'm bearing up all right - feeling a bit depressed, but human nature being what it is it's almost impossible for me not to be haunted by the green-eyed monster when Wulff is with you, but still I keep saying to myself that you are happy and that it's only this mean and horrible jealousy that I can't get [to] the bottom of that prevents me from being happy too. If only I could stop thinking about you so much, but that's very difficult. When I wake up in the morning, before I can control my thoughts, they rush to you and then I long to see you and wonder how I can live a whole month without you. I'm not being extravagant - I really do feel that, but mercifully not the whole time. When I've pulled myself together a bit I feel an awful fool to have let myself fall in love so violently - I really ought to know better at my age."

Another letter begins: "I must write because I can't think of anything but you, everything seems drab and uninteresting except you, and I can't give my mind to anything else, so I'm writing in despair, hoping to feel better after … It's a sort of illness which I suppose I shall recover from some day…" Britten was having none of this, and responded with deliberate detachment on 1 January 1939: "My dear Lennox, A very happy New Year to you! I'm sure you're feeling fine now that you're in Paris with José & all those friends of yours", and he concludes, after a recital of chatty news, "Much love, my dear; cheer up - I know you'll enjoy Paris alot."

Britten's relationship with Wulff Scherchen was then at its height, but Britten soon began to get cold feet. One senses that he was afraid of getting too involved in anything that was emotionally demanding; his emotions had almost certainly been crippled by his mother's excessive love. Other factors were influencing him to leave England and go to America. In February 1939, he saw a Hollywood producer with a view to writing a score for a film about King Arthur: he was excited, and though ultimately it never came off, the project was kept alive for several months. Wystan Auden and Christopher Isherwood had already left for New York, and Britten missed them both. He himself said in an interview in 1960 that he had "felt Europe was more or less finished", and that his future lay in America. Meanwhile Berkeley hadn't given up his pursuit of Britten, even though it was now hopeless. Knowing Britten's weakness for fast cars, Berkeley bought a new sports model, "a heavenly thing - 16 h.p. A.C. Coupé & goes like the wind", Britten wrote to his friend Enid Slater, and he gave Britten free use of it. "Well, the car is a wonder, & I've become suddenly fearfully car-minded", he wrote to Pears, sounding more and more like Mr Toad. "Spent most of yesterday pulling her (or him!) to pieces at the garage … I let L.B. drive for a bit and it wasn't too bad. However, re. him we've had a bit of a crisis and I'm only too thankful to be going away. I had the most fearful feeling of revulsion the other day - conscience and all that - just like old days. He's been very upset, poor dear - but that makes it worse! I wish you were here, old dear, because I want terribly to tell to someone."

At the end of April 1939, Britten set off in the liner Ausonia for Canada, with Peter Pears. In his luggage was the manuscript of two songs he had composed the previous month, settings of poems from Les Illuminations, the extraordinary sequence that Arthur Rimbaud wrote as a teenager, mostly in London when he was living out his stormy relationship with his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine. Britten had been introduced to Rimbaud by Auden, and recognized in him a perhaps unlikely kindred spirit, for Rimbaud's frantic bohemianism was quite alien to Britten's meticulously ordered lifestyle. These first two songs he wrote in what was to become a cycle were 'Being Beauteous' (which he eventually dedicated to Peter Pears, but which was certainly inspired by Wulff Scherchen) and 'Marine'. He wrote them for the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, the soloist in Our Hunting Fathers and at that time still his first choice of singer; they were broadcast, as part of an all-Britten concert, a week before he left for Canada. On the voyage, Britten wrote to Aaron Copland: "A thousand reasons - mostly 'problems' - have brought me away … I got heavily tied up in a certain direction, which is partly why I'm crossing the ocean!" Nonetheless, it was Wulff's photograph that was on his cabin table.

Crossing from Canada to the USA, Pears and Britten became lovers and began their lifelong partnership. Wulff Scherchen gradually faded from Britten's life. In New York State in the autumn of 1939 he continued to work on, and to finish Les Illuminations, the piece in which he came to full maturity, and one the best things he ever wrote. It glows with the ardour of sexual love; although one of the songs, 'Parade' is a nightmarish vision, "a picture of the underworld", Britten wrote to Sophie Wyss. "it should be made to sound creepy, evil, dirty (apologies!), and really desperate." It foreshadows other dark visions in later works such as the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings - Blake's 'sick rose' and the 'Lyke-wake dirge' that follows; the Nocturne, and above all Death in Venice, where the pursuit of beauty inevitably becomes tainted by guilt and corruption. It was hard for Britten ever to escape from his ingrained puritanism. Incidentally, though Les Illuminations was a work that later became strongly associated with Peter Pears, it sounds much better, more sensuous, when sung by the soprano voice for which it was originally conceived.

Berkeley stayed in England and continued to live at the Old Mill, and he and Britten exchanged letters. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Britten wrote: "I'm working terribly hard, all in desperation, thinking that one may be stopped any moment. Art is all important at this time - and faith if you have it. I'm soaking myself in El Greco, Benvenuto Cellini, and Buxtehude - who's absolutely astounding, so much better than Bach [he would not hold on to that rather eccentric opinion for long]. He has a wonderful harmonic sense, and a most extraordinary tonal feeling. More and more, I'm being pushed off my old materialistic beliefs. I feel I'm at last growing up. Don't laugh. Much love, Ben." This letter crossed with one from Berkeley: "Well, we're for it this time, but everybody's very calm. There can never be any real peace in the world until the Nazi regime is smashed. Not very nice to have to do the smashing, though. I'm in rather a dilemma about what I should do. Moral dilemmas seem to be a chronic complaint with me. I've always been a pacifist at heart - how can one be anything else? - but I think if ever there was a case when force has got to be used, this is it… Since I knew you, I've honestly felt that I understood and sympathized with the left point of view. But since the Russian-German pact, the absurdity of the Communist and semi-Communist press has been enough to discourage anybody. Ben dear, for heaven's sake don't come back. It's going to be absolute hell. I want to see you again, I think more than anyone else in the world, but I'm glad you're not here now. The Proms have closed down, along with all cinemas and theatres, so the performance of Mont Juic which was to have been on Tuesday is off. Very much love, Ben dearest, Lennox." The hypersensitive Britten, who was only too aware that people in England were criticizing him for using his pacifism as an excuse, as they thought, for deserting his country, was unreasonably upset by what Berkeley was saying, writing to Enid Slater, "You cannot think what distance does! Things can be examined in the cold light of 3000 miles, & don't look so nice! Besides letters from the Mill have been dreadful. The only person who wrote to me about 'duty', 'conscience' - 'being a pacifist at heart, but this was a war, etc' … - (sic, sic, SIC!!!); was he of that noble ancestry." And to the singer Hedli Anderson, the wife of the poet Louis MacNeice, he wrote "oh, Hedli, what a bloody fool I was about all that - one sees so much more clearly when one's away. He's just NO GOOD."

Berkeley was unaware of what Britten was saying about him behind his back. He wrote to him: "I miss you terribly, Ben dear, and though I don't need your physical presence quite in the way I did, I feel just the same about you as I did the day you left, in a more interior sort of way. Nothing will ever change that even if I were never to see you again in this life, but I hope it won't come to that. You are still the most thrilling person I've ever had in my life, and it's been awful to lose you so completely." Britten by now would be finding such sentiments merely embarrassing. Between September and November 1939 Berkeley wrote his Serenade for strings, the best piece he had written so far and, rather appropriately, it was premiered in the same concert as Les Illuminations, by the Boyd Neel Orchestra in January 1940; so it will be a welcome opportunity to hear the two pieces side by side again [they were to be played in a concert the next day]. The string writing in the Serenade is quite as assured as Britten's in Les Illuminations, and the piece is a true Serenade, written consciously against the spirit of the time, full of gentleness and wistful lyricism, with the slow finale providing the most heartfelt and poignant music of the piece.

In September 1940, Berkeley decided he must do something to contribute to the war effort, so he volunteered for the R.A.F. He was not accepted - he was now 36 - but instead he became an air raid warden in London. A letter he wrote to Britten at this time continues to encourage him to stay in America and write music: "An artist's business is to get on with his work, and your work is very important. It's so much more important that the few people who can make something of lasting value should do it, all the more now that the world seems to have nothing but destruction to offer as a solution. Since I have seen people crushed to death beneath a mass of masonry and tried to extract dead and dying innocent people, I can't feel that anything can justify exposing them to that, and it has really rather changed my attitude. Previous wars didn't involve all this, and it really makes the problem quite difficult, and the London people have really such unbelievable fortitude that it makes me want to do something to help." A wholly admirable position, one might think, and it is a pity that Britten's own sense of guilt - for that is mostly what it was - left him to remain, for a time anyway, unsympathetic.

Berkeley's Catholicism offered him, at least, a religious solution to the problem of human suffering. Britten and Berkeley both wrote much religious music, and Berkeley's religious music is among his best: the Mass for Five Voices, written in 1964 to a commission from Cardinal Heenan for Westminster Cathedral, is one of his finest pieces [it was performed that evening together with the Festival Anthem and Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb]. In the Mass, Berkeley uses a neo-Renaissance polyphonic technique with fluidity and assurance, combining it with poignantly chromatic harmony: as in Stravinsky, the music sounds at the same time old and new. The Festival Anthem was commissioned in 1945 by the Revd. Walter Hussey for his church of St Matthew, Northampton; two years earlier, it had been Hussey who commissioned Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb. What Britten wrote in his letter to Berkeley about going beyond mere materialism was undoubtedly true, though his attitude to religion remained unorthodox and skeptical. Because he was at heart the Good Boy always anxious to Do His Best, in some of his religious works one may feel that dutiful piety occasionally gets the upper hand. However, the religious spirit one senses in Rejoice in the Lamb is entirely genuine. Britten set words by the little-known 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, to whom once again he had been introduced by Auden. Smart, like John Clare, was cruelly confined for many years in a madhouse, but his poem Jubilate agno - 'Rejoice in the Lamb' - is a celebration of the Creation that almost entirely transcends his personal misfortunes. Smart's childlike innocence ensured his appeal to Britten, and Rejoice in the Lamb, while acknowledging in its setting of the lines beginning 'For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour' the unjust persecution of an outsider, is overall one of his most joyous works; its unforced, unselfconscious happiness is a kind of restoration of the lost paradise of his childhood.

Britten overcame his unjust criticism of Berkeley when he returned to England in 1942, and Berkeley, who was now working for the BBC, was instrumental in helping to overturn some of the prejudice against Britten within the Corporation because of his conscientious objection to war service: for a while Britten's music and Michael Tippett's - Tippett was also a conscientious objector who went to prison for his beliefs - was banned from being broadcast. Their relationship was never the same as it had been for those few years before the war, but they remained supportive friends until Britten's death. Berkeley eventually married and had children, and Britten willingly became Godfather to his eldest son Michael. Two of the Berkeley's four operas, A Dinner Engagement and Castaway, received their premieres at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival. Berkeley became a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1946 to 1968, where his pupils included John Tavener, Nicholas Maw and Richard Rodney Bennett. His career never equalled that of Britten, who went from strength to strength after he had achieved international fame with Peter Grimes, but Berkeley fulfilled his potential as a good minor composer, whose centenary this year [2003] is certainly worth celebrating.