Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, better known as Lord Berners, was born on 18 September 1883 in Apley Hall, Stockton. His father, a Royal Navy officer, was rarely home. He was brought up by a grandmother who was extremely religious and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. In 1918 Berners became the Fourteenth Baron Berners after inheriting the title, property and money from an uncle. As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer, and during the course of his life he was able to sell paintings and publish books. Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point inviting Penelope Betjeman's horse Moti for tea. Other famous visitors to Faringdon included Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali and H G Wells. His Rolls-Royce contained a small clavichord keyboard beneath the front seat, and while driving around his estate he wore a pig-head mask to frighten the locals.
He was indeed a wayward artist with many talents, but his greatest asset was his music, and it is in this medium that his fame rests. Throughout his life he was subject to periods of depression, especially during World War II which practically destroyed him. At the end of his life he lost his eyesight, and when he died on 19 April 1950 aged sixty-six, he bequeathed his estate to Robert Heber-Percy, a close partner of earlier days.
At the beginning of his career the composer's music leaned heavily towards the avant-garde, earning the praises of Stravinsky. Later, his music became more accessible, never again to lose its distinctive style and flavour.
The 1926 ballet The Triumph of Neptune is one of his major works, and probably his most ambitious piece in the genre. Commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, it was choreographed by the famous Balanchine, and critics and public both had words of praise for the work. A ballet-pantomime-harlequinade, its inconsequential plot features music as diverse as it is brilliantly inventive, and the original orchestration took many by surprise.
Listen — Berners: Prelude (The Triumph of Neptune)
(track 1, 0:00-0:54) ℗ 1998 Naxos Rights US Inc :
L'Uomo dai Baffi (The Man with the Moustache) dates from 1918 and is a much shorter composition than The Triumph of Neptune. Still, there are many delicious instances full of stripped-back instrumentation for puppets.
Listen — Berners: Pioggia di Sigarette (L'Uomo dai Baffi)
(track 26, 0:52-1:44) ℗ 1998 Naxos Rights US Inc :
Philip Lane is the outright champion of Berners' music, and it is through his indefatigable efforts that all of the composer's oeuvre has been transferred to CD. So it was appropriate to include in this programme Lane's orchestration of Valses bourgeoises (1919) and Polka (1941), two short but exquisite pieces full of wit and charm.
Listen — Berners, arr Philip Lane: Polka
(track 30, 1:49-2:35) ℗ 1998 Naxos Rights US Inc :
Berners was a man of many talents but, above all, he was a composer of real stature, and despite his eccentricities his music is highly imaginative, upbeat and full of good tunes. Indeed, it invites one and all to dance with it. David Lloyd-Jones has this music under his skin, and his penchant for detail and colour is consistently on display. Indeed, his forces respond with hugely committed performances full of gusto and bouncy swagger that make Berners' works as accessible as possible to new listeners.
This programme was recorded way back in July and November 1996 on the Marco Polo label, but you need not worry about the sonics. Indeed, they are as clear and balanced as any we are accustomed to at present. Detailed annotations and eye-catching presentation complete a disc really worth investigating, if you missed it first time round.
Copyright © 13 September 2021