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À mon chevet: Lennox Berkeley

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The difficulty of assessing the value of contemporary works of art is well known. We can always seem to be either too close or too far away to see them in their true perspective. If we can understand or perhaps even speak their language, we are too close, too grateful for their expression of what we ourselves would express, while if we can only feel at home with the idiom of earlier periods, we fail to grasp their meaning. This is one of the reasons why such diverse and even contradictory opinions prevail on the subject of modern art. In music this divergence of opinion is perhaps not quite so apparent as in the other arts because people find themselves more easily out of their depth in discussing it, and are more prepared to leave the matter in the hands of experts. And yet, the desire for music and for a music that can adequately speak the language of today, is felt by many people at the present time.


Britten is in a sense an extremely traditional composer. The novelty of his music does not consist in any new discovery of musical language or form. He relies on the freshness and individuality of his musical thought rather than on deliberate innovation. True originality in an artist does not consist in his being peculiar, but in his being peculiar to himself. There is no new system here, but a personal and new use of an established one. It is sometimes said that certain composers, even some of the great ones, are a law unto themselves, outside the main stream of music. This can certainly be said of Stravinsky and to some extent of Debussy. Britten, on the other hand, belongs very much to the main stream.

-- Lennox Berkeley, essay on Benjamin Britten's first string quartet (The Listener, May 27, 1943), republished in Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters, and Interviews, ed. Peter Dickinson (Boydell Press, 2012)
Peter Dickinson has dedicated this new book, which includes transcripts of his interviews with musicians who knew Lennox Berkeley, to conductor Richard Hickox, who has made a series of excellent recordings of Berkeley's music. I am most familiar with Berkeley's liturgical music, from performing it, but after reading Dickinson's book, I am keen to hear more of his symphonic and chamber music. His son, Michael Berkeley, is also active as a composer.

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