Friday, March 11, 2011

Lennox and Freda

Tony Scotland has written a whopper of a biography of Lennox and Freda (Berkeley of that ilk). What makes it so expansive (575 pp) and expensive (£28) is because Scotland (former BBC Radio Three announcer, partner of Julian Berkeley) has not written only of the composer and his wife Freda but also, copiously, about teachers, colleagues, friends and antecedents. He writes well, sympathetically, critically and guidingly, assessing shrewdly Berkeley's plentiful output of works in many genres, also pointing the way towards good recordings of the many highlights.
A few statistics show the way the biographical wind blows, thus teacher and friend Ravel is mentioned on 30 pages, mentor and friend Nadia Boulanger 70, lover on-and-off Benjamin Britten over 200, friend (also bisexual) James Lees-Milne 30; and there are many pages devoted to Lennox's lovers before he went 'straight'.

The chapters on Freda née Bernstein are shortish until their marriage in 1951 – twenty years his junior. She was pretty, innocent, understanding, Jewish as opposed to Lennox devout (converted) Roman Catholicism – his faith inspired many of his best works. She worked at the BBC as a secretary to Lennox. The story of their gradually entwining lives reads like a cliff-hanger: will he, won't he, and more importantly finally, CAN he? At least she gets him into bed and they begot three lusty boys, Michael, composer and brilliant Private Passions broadcaster, the afore-mentioned Julian, and Nicholas.

For a long time Lennox lacked self-confidence and he was a great ditherer. Domestically he was a duffer (I once had breakfast with him, Laurens van der Post and Desmond Shawe-Taylor on a train. Lennox was utterly flummoxed when confronted with a boiled egg; Desmond had to deal with it for him). Lennox was blessed with youthful good looks, aristocratic, right up to his sixties. Indeed, but for some wrong side of the blanketry on the part of relatives, Lennox might have been a duke living comfortably in a castle, instead of being a modestly wealthy commoner living in Little Venice.

Lennox was a sweet and gentle person and, for all his vacillations, had a good career, producing a large and varied output; he was also a good teacher, adored by his many students at the Royal Academy of Music, pupils as varied as Tavener and Ferneyhough. The marriage was happy and long-lasting although his life ended with a sad loss of mind so complete that he had to be put into care. He died in 1989 at the age of eighty-six, Freda surviving him.

Was he a great composer? Perhaps not quite, but there are many fine works, like the intensely beautiful Four Poems of Tersa of Avila and the marvellous but neglected Stabat Mater. Other excellent and entertaining pieces (not for nothing was he a friend and admirer of Frances Poulenc) are the various concertos for piano(s), the Serenade, the captivating Divertimento, choral pieces and many winning numbers for guitar. The heroic was not for Lennox as he and we realised when his opera Nelson was put on. Berkeley spent a lot of time in France; indeed most of his music seemed to belong to France than England.

1 comment:

terryteachout said...

That Sonatina he wrote for Julian Bream was as good as guitar music gets.