Thursday April 30 2020

Britten Pears Arts is delighted to have acquired for its collections the papers of composer Lennox Berkeley and his wife Freda. The purchase of these papers was made possible by grants provided by The Friends of the National Libraries, The Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and one anonymous donation. We are grateful for their generous support which has enabled this significant resource for study in history of music as well as mid-20th century British arts more widely to be preserved at the Britten Pears Archive. We look forward to cataloguing this outstanding collection and making it available to researchers and visitors to The Red House site.

Britten and Berkeley, 1961. Britten Pears Archive.

The collection provides important sources for the study of the life and work of Berkeley himself. His work demonstrates an unusual progression from purely tonal music in his earlier years to a willingness to incorporate more serialist elements later in his life. As a member of the generation of British composers who came to initial prominence during the interwar years, his work can be studied to examine the impact of early 20th century modernism in music.

Programme for Berkeley’s 70th birthday concert. Britten Pears Archive.

Berkeley studied, from 1926, in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel – and during this time came to know Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud – becoming part of the transmission of European ideas to the British music scene. After his return to London in 1935, Berkeley composed his Overture which was performed at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music at Barcelona in 1936. There he met Britten, with whom he collaborated in composing Mont Juic, an orchestral suite based on Catalan folk dances. They were close sharing a home at the Old Mill, Snape in 1938. Their friendship endured with a number of first performances of Berkeley works taking place at the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts.

Berkeley had strong links with the English Opera Group whose papers are also held at The Red House. He composed Stabat Mater for the Group, the premiere being conducted by Britten in 1947. The Group also commissioned three operas from Berkeley; A Dinner Engagement (1954), Ruth (1956) with libretto by Eric Crozier and Castaway (1967).

Pears with the Berkeleys and writer James Lees-Milne, 1960s. Britten Pears Archive.

Berkeley taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1946 to 1968, his pupils including David Bedford, Richard Rodney Bennett, Nicholas Maw and John Tavener, and he will clearly have been an influence on the work of his son Michael Berkeley, also a composer. Berkeley’s papers illustrate the web of relationships and influences that connect all these creative figures.

In particular, his papers are of considerable significance in illuminating Britten’s early years as a professional composer. Much stress has been placed in existing historiography on Britten’s membership, in the years before WWII, of the circle around WH Auden: these new papers will provide a counterbalance to this by shedding light on another important influence in Britten’s life at this time, correcting a picture that has perhaps been distorted.

Letter from Berkeley to Britten, 1937. Britten Pears Archive.

Lennox and Freda Berkeley’s extensive correspondence includes letters from creative figures from various arts, not merely music: correspondents include Laurie Lee (some of whose poems Berkeley set to music), Iris Murdoch and John Betjeman as well as Britten and Pears themselves. These letters reveal the extraordinarily wide range of both Lennox and Freda’s professional and personal friendships including composers, musicians, singers, actors, artists, writers, academics, as well as other significant figures and members of society.

The letters between Lennox and Freda themselves tell their own story and provide a solid documentary foundation for their individual lives, their marriage and their friendships. Lennox gives detailed and vivid accounts of his experiences – in particular, compelling personal accounts of life in wartime London and his work as a voluntary air-raid warden. Berkeley’s position in the years after WWII, as a composer and music educator, sheds an important light on the arts in mid-20th century Britain: how they were taught, commissioned and funded, the role of state-funded bodies, and the profile of their envisaged audiences.

Berkeley’s diary. Britten Pears Archive.

The collection also includes manuscripts of Berkeley’s own writings on music and musicians, his superb diaries, especially from the 1960s, press reviews and articles, programmes and photographs. It comprises a rich resource for biographers and musical scholars as well as for social and cultural historians.