The schooldays of OG composer Lennox Berkeley
This historical article is drawn from Tony Scotland’s biography, Lennox & Freda, published by Michael Russell in 2010 (www.lennoxandfreda.com). The photograph of Lennox Berkeley at Oxford in 1925 is by the Elliott and Fry Studios, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the Lennox Berkeley Estate.
Within weeks of the outbreak of World War I, one hundred years ago, eleven year old Lennox Berkeley set off on a train from his home town of Oxford bound for his new school in Holt. His father had searched carefully for a small, experimental school that could give ‘an unusual boy’ a better chance of developing his full potential, having abandoned plans to send him to the Royal Naval College in his own footsteps owing to the boy being both colour-blind and a complete ‘goose’ at mathematics.
Young Lennox had been brought up in an aristocratic family where music was very important and family connections on his mother’s side meant regular trips to France. His father Hastings was invalided out of the Navy and became an author, whilst his mother Aline was daughter of the British Consul for Monaco. A dark family scandal involving bankruptcy and illegitimacy left Hastings disinherited, and the family chose to live quietly and unobtrusively. Hastings was passionate about music and purchased a mechanical pianola on which he played Beethoven sonatas and concertos. Aline and several other family members played and sang, accompanying visiting musicians who formed an important part of the family’s social life. Long summer holidays were spent at Frinton Hall or on the Riviera, and shortly before Lennox started at the unconventional Dragon School aged eight, the family moved into one of the finest houses in north Oxford, a seven-bed whitewashed villa complete with its own coach house, set in a small park. Suffering from chronic ill-health as a child, Lennox remembered spending hours in bed listening to the music of the pianola, and was only allowed to attend school as a day-boy where he soon began piano lessons.
His father’s search for an unusual school led him to Gresham’s with its rising progressive reputation under headmaster Howson, which had the added advantage of the fees being half that of Rugby. A lack of hero worship for sportsmen, the encouragement of self-guided study and a certain amount of freedom to explore the surrounding countryside, as well as very little corporal punishment combined to make the School very attractive. Music had become very important under Howson and there were regular concerts and recitals by staff and boys in Big School. It was also central to the annual Shakespeare play performed in a delightful theatre in the woods from 1902. A small choir had existed since 1900, and in 1906 the ‘long expected and much talked of’ orchestra had made its debut.
Arriving in 1914, though, Lennox was to endure four long years dominated by war, with OGs back from fighting at the front staying in his boarding house (Howson’s) and reports of serving men and their deaths haunting the pages of the school magazine. He recalled the time in January 1915 when two Zeppelin airships swooped low over Holt, dropping the first bombs to fall on English soil in the Glaven Valley, and having to take part in rifle practice and to learn about musketry. Boys were not obliged to join the cadet corps, but by Christmas 1914 it had become more important than games, and Lennox joined a boy scout troup instead, obtaining a second class certificate. On 11th November 1918 a telegram confirming the signing of the Armistice was pinned up outside Holt Post Office. At noon the headmaster broke the news to the School, announcing a half-holiday and the Corps celebrated by firing blanks over the playing fields. Howson was to die two months later, some said broken down by the loss of over 100 of his beloved boys and three of his staff.
The quiet and shy boy who arrived at Gresham’s in 1914 had never spent a night away from home on his own before, and like a later OG composer Benjamin Britten, found the whole experience rather miserable. Lennox never spoke of his schooldays, but it was generally felt by those who knew him that he was nervous, insecure, often ill and homesick. He did join the choir and continue to take piano lessons, though, and found an ally in the kindly presence of director of music Walter Greatorex who selected him to help choose and accompany evening house prayers, Lennox diplomatically including the master’s own hymn ‘Woodlands’. The School’s Chapel was consecrated in 1916 and it was here that Lennox developed his lifelong love of Gregorian chant. A half-term report of 1916 showed ‘little or no improvement’ in his schoolwork, except for French in which he won the second form prize, perhaps not surprising given that he was bilingual. He was later to regret being’ so lazy at school’, abandoning the classics in favour of continuing the French language that came so naturally to him.
One contemporary, Henry Kemys Bagnall-Oakeley, claims that the staff was much reduced and teaching ‘pretty inadequate’ at this time, and that bullying was so bad due to poor supervision that he and Lennox went around together for protection. He also remembered Lennox as a ‘flamboyant’ pianist, similarly, Richard Higham remembered him playing Bach ‘on a horrid little upright piano … with great confidence’. According to his friends he was a kind boy with good conversation and bags of charm, who loved animals, once releasing a captive butterfly from a breeding cage for fear it would harm its wings. Lennox left Gresham’s at Christmas 1918 owing to poor health and was to spend the next nine months being tutored at home. Biographer Tony Scotland has claimed that “Whatever the carnage and the honour system and homesickness may have done to Lennox’s psyche, the gently undulating landscape of North Norfolk made such a positive impression on his romantic imagination that it is hard to believe that his time at Gresham’s was all that bad.”
In 1919 Lennox started at St George’s School, Harpenden where he began playing in concerts and won a prize for a piece he composed on the piano. It was here in 1920 that the first performance of his music took place, and he also managed to find the confidence to speak at the debating society and gained a certificate in Diocesan Scripture. He went on to Merton College, Oxford to study French, Old French and Philology. Here he met OG W.H. Auden whose poems he was later to set to music, coxed a rowing team, took organ lessons and had some of his compositions performed. It was at Oxford that he decided on the musical career that was to bring pleasure to himself and many others. He retained a love of East Anglia, spending time at Aldeburgh with Britten, visiting the royal family at Sandringham and attending the Kings Lynn Festival for which he later wrote a piece of music, eventually purchasing a holiday cottage at Morston.
Although not a contemporary of OG Benjamin Britten, Lennox fell under the spell of the younger composer on meeting in Barcelona in 1936 and the two maintained a lifetime of personal and professional connections. At Gresham’s they had shared ill health and homesickness, but disagreed over their opinions of Greatorex, who Britten detested but Berkeley admired. Similarly, both wrote music for films early in their careers and performed at festivals and concerts together for many years. Whilst Berkeley shared Britten’s pacifist views, he believed intervention was necessary in 1939, making his friend deeply resentful. Britten was very supportive of Berkeley’s career, and the latter would often send work for approval, apologising for its inadequacies. Berkeley paid tribute to Britten on many occasions, featuring his work in articles and lectures and following his career with great interest, claiming that he was the first British composer with whom he felt any affinity. On Britten’s death in 1976 Berkeley consoled himself that his friend had become known as the greatest musician this country had produced in recent times, achieving the meteoric success that eluded his own work during his lifetime.
The Lennox Berkeley Society was founded in 1999 to rescue and share the composer’s somewhat neglected music (www.lennoxberkeley.org.uk)