Goldsmith’s student


Occasional Writings
January 20, 1999

Dear Richard Turner,

Many thanks for your letter of December 9th asking me about Lord Berners. I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to respond but I have been away a lot over the last few weeks and I am only now catching up on mail.

With an address such as yours there is probably no other possible choice of dissertation subject….

To answer your questions.

1. I was aware of Lord Berners’ work as a whole by the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s. By that I mean that I knew of his existence as a composer and I also knew that he had written books and painted. I looked at his work more actively in 1976 when I was involved with the publication of a special issue of the art magazine Studio International (November/December 1976) dealing with the connections between art and music. The editor, Richard Cork, asked me eventually to do four pieces for the magazine and in one of them I dealt with work by three artist/musicians by talking about their lesser known side (Berners’ painting, Douanier Rousseau’s musical compositions, Erik Satie’s drawings). When I was researching this article I spent some time at Faringdon House and after the article was published Robert Heber-Percy asked me to do the biography. I worked on this for a few years and eventually had to take the decision either to be a biographer or to be a composer. This was at the time of Medea in the early 1980’s and I decided, wisely or not, that I was a better composer than writer and I passed all my research on to Mark Amery who eventually brought out his book last year. Mark admits quite freely that, as he puts it, I know more about Berners than anyone living (!) and that he does not discuss the music very well at all.

2. There are several individual pieces that I like very much and I don’t go along with the view that his earliest works are the most interesting just because, at that time, he is closer to contemporary modernism. His work does become a little easier in terms of its approachability but this starts to happen once he begins to write for the theatre (from the opera onwards) rather than because he acquired the peerage. I like his songs very much, especially the songs which deal with national ‘types’ (German, French, English). There are no particular aspects, as you put it, which stand out though I do think that he had a very clear idea of music for the theatre and, ultimately, A Wedding Bouquet is entirely his (you can see from the differences between Gertrude Stein’s published text and the libretto that Berners has manipulated this a good deal). One aspect of Berners as a person that I like is the fact that he worked artistically even though he had no need to. This is what I think Stravinsky meant that Berners was an amateur, but in the “best sense”. Paradoxically this allies him with Satie in that economics (and I include in that term the sense of setting up and following a ‘career path’) had nothing to do with the production of art for either of them. However, the only time that Satie ever referred to Berners, when he described him as an amateur he meant it in the pejorative sense….

3. As far as I’m aware there has been no influence from Lord Berners on my own work.

4. The answer to the last question makes this one redundant.

5. There are only a couple of moments that I can think of where I have quoted from Berners’ music. (There may be others but I have no recollection of them).

One is the sequence of harmonies in Out of Zaleski’s Gazebo – the first half descending, the second half ascending which I think may have come from Berners, possibly the Valses Bourgeoises.

The other is for a couple of cadences that appear in a recitative by Creon in Act 2 scene 3 of my opera Medea. When I was working on Berners in some detail I remember making up tapes to give demonstrations of individual Berners’ characteristics and devices. I made, for example, tapes of waltzes, parodies of national types and so on. One of these tapes was to show his very skilful endings to pieces (e.g. the various movements of The Triumph of Neptune, but they can be found everywhere). I took some of these endings as cadences for that recitative.

I hope this is useful

With best wishes

Professor Gavin Bryars

PS If you want anything supplementary please note that I will be away almost entirely between now and February 10th, except for a brief return overnight next Monday (January 25th-26th).

I will be happy to give you anything else you need of course.

Gavin Bryars