Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
Sacred Choral Music
Although Lennox Berkeley had begun composing as a child, hedid 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 afterencouragement from Ravel he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.During this time he met Stravinsky and Poulenc, becoming a life-long friend ofthe latter. Another significant friendship was begun in 1936 at the ISCMFestival 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 yearsBerkeley's junior, Britten was an important mentor to him in his development.Berkeley's reputation was established in the early 1940s with the premi?¿res ofthe Serenade for Strings (1939), First Symphony (1940) and Divertimento (1943).Apart from Ravel, Faure, the neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Britten,Berkeley's personal voice was also influenced by Mozart and Chopin. His musicis marked by elegance, charm, wit and masterly craftsmanship. Apart fromcomposing, Berkeley taught from 1946 to 1968 at the Royal Academy, where hispupils included John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett. He was knighted in1974. In over a hundred compositions he contributed to all genres, includingfour operas and four symphonies. Among his finest achievements are theone-movement Third Symphony (1969), Horn Trio (1953) and the Four Poems of StTeresa of Avila (1947). As demonstrated here, his legacy also includes asignificant body of compositions setting sacred texts and liturgy. These sprangfrom his strong personal faith, and membership of the Roman Catholic Church,which he joined in 1928.
The motet Crux Fidelis (1955) for tenor solo andunaccompanied choir was first performed in 1955 by Peter Pears and the PurcellSingers, conducted by Imogen Holst. In this Good Friday hymn the choir vividlydescribes the agonies Christ endured, for example, the anguished dissonance atthe mention of the crown of thorns, whilst the tenor solo in the central sectionbrings a personal response to the meaning of the Passion in a soaring, intensevocal line.
In an article Truth in Music (1966), Berkeley offered hisviews about composing works for the church: 'Being a Roman Catholic, I havenaturally been drawn to the Latin liturgy and felt at home with it; it's partof my life, and I have wanted to bring to it what I have to offer, howeverunworthy'. Thus the Missa brevis (1960) was written for Westminster CathedralChoir and is dedicated to the composer's sons Michael and Julian (who were thenchoristers at Westminster Cathedral) together with their colleagues. It wasfirst performed in 1960 conducted by Francis Cameron. Over all, the setting ischaracterised by imitative counterpoint, as heard in the opening Kyrie. TheSanctus is marked by a majestic Hosanna, but the most intense music comes withthe Agnus Dei.
Of the Anglican liturgy, Berkeley only set the Magnificatand Nunc dimittis (1980), which were first performed by the combined choirs ofSalisbury, Winchester and Chichester Cathedrals in 1980 conducted by JohnBirch. The Magnificat has a stately quality having plenty of contrasts inchoral colours. It ends with a Gloria (shared by both canticles) with a quietbut forceful strength, whilst the Nunc dimittis gradually swells from itslulling opening to an exultant climax.
The Three Latin Motets (1972) were written for the choir ofSt John's College, Cambridge, and received their premi?¿re at the 1972 NorthWales Music Festival, St Asaph, under the direction of George Guest. Thescoring is for five-part voices which gives the music added richness oftexture. 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 beingset to almost each syllable. The text of Veni sponsa Christi (Come thou Brideof Christ) is proper to the Feast of Virgins and Martyrs; the flowing characterof the music develops into extended lyrical lines on the word alleluia althoughthe motet ends disturbingly, teetering on an unresolved discord. Regina coeli(Queen of Heaven) is a Marian anthem which has a dance-like quality withalleluias sung to joyous scales, and phrases tossed between differentcombinations of voices.
The Lord is my shepherd (1975) was the second of Berkeley'sworks dedicated to Walter Hussey, the remarkable cleric who as incumbent of StMatthew's, Northampton, and subsequently Dean of Chichester, initiated aremarkable series of commissions from composers including Britten andBernstein. This setting of Psalm 23 was commissioned to mark the 900thfoundation of Chichester Cathedral and was first heard in 1975. The instantlymemorable melody of the solo treble at the beginning, and the mastery of choralwriting in the unaccompanied middle section evoking the 'valley of the shadowof death', are quintessential Berkeley.
The Mass for five voices (1964) was commissioned by CardinalHeenan, Archbishop of Westminster, and was first performed by the cathedralchoir 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 owncompositional voice should become more impersonal, 'so that it would merge intothe liturgy, and not create a violent contrast or cause too much distraction'.Although its five-part texture provides a rich sonority, overall the music hasan austere beauty. The Kyrie's pleading for mercy is anxious and urgent. In theGloria, the exhortation for peace on earth is followed at Laudamus te byathletic music with frequent changes of metre. The Sanctus opens with poisedtwo-part writing for the uppermost voices. Vibrant, dancing hosannas form itssecond part combined with emphasized longer notes sounding like the pealing ofbells. The Benedictus begins with a striking falling phrase passed between thevoices. It gives way to a re-working of the Hosanna music from the Sanctus. TheMass concludes with a peaceful setting of the Agnus Dei that grows from theserene melodic phrase sung in unison at the opening.
Berkeley was drawn to mystical religious poetry, such as theseventeenth century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw whom he sets in Look up,sweet babe (1955). As befits a text meditating on the Christ child, the musicis characterized by tenderness. The organ accompaniment is significant since itintroduces the essence of the anthem's musical material at the beginning andweaves in and out of the choral sections, linking and commenting on them.
In 1943 Walter Hussey's first commission had resulted inBritten's Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for the annual Patronal Festival of StMatthew's, Northampton. Britten recommended Berkeley for the 1945 Festivalcommission, 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 ananthology of verse: Sequence: Jerusalem et Sion filiae (in Englishtranslation), a verse from George Herbert's poem The Flower and Henry Vaughan'sEaster Hymn. The r??le of the organ is important throughout, as at the openingwhen 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 elatedmelismas at 'sing right merrily'. There is a moment of quietude forunaccompanied choir with the reference to the wisdom of Solomon, before thetempo quickens as the first section ends joyously.
The Herbert setting which follows is written for treble soloover a gently rockin