Siren Swan Song: Lord Berners’s Last Plié

268x0w.jpgHere’s the strange assignment I set myself. To listen critically to the late music of Lord Berners (1883-1950), the “last eccentric,” the “English Satie.” Friend of Stravinsky—you can read their published correspondence!—diplomat in the foreign service from 1909-20, painter whose exhibitions graced London’s Reid and Lefevre Galleries, novelist and autobiographer. Oh, and ¡¡¡LoRd!!!, by Jove. If you want a taste of the sort of thing at which his lordship excelled, give ear to the ballet suite from The Triumph of Neptune (1926) in this classic recording from 1937 of the London Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Fun, dry, spiky, clever—this is precisely the kind of Berners of which Master Igor was thinking when he condescended to note that it was “as good as the French works of that kind produced by Diaghilev.” And who of us, I ask you, wouldn’t blush at such condescension?

Nexus entry.

A particularly pedestrian method led me to late Berners. After lounging last week on Alcina’s island and mulling over Bloody Mary the week before that, and, after having observed that both are basically Circe stories, I thought it might be fun to search around for “siren” music. You know, in keeping with the lure-you-to-your-demise-through-song kind of thing. One spreadsheet search, et voilà: the complete ballet of Les sirènes (1946), Berners’s last ballet, penned and premièred just a few years before his death. Philip Lane is nice enough to include writer-choreographer Frederick Ashton’s full draft synopsis in the liner notes for this recording by the RTE Sinfonietta under the direction of David Lloyd-Jones, but it doesn’t get a listener very far. One is left with the impression that it’s all very silly and slightly absurd without being particularly acerbic or pointed. Sounds like the English Satie, all right.

But here’s the rub. I don’t hear that same kind of silliness in the music. Set “at dawn on a French watering-place,” where “Sirens are sitting on a rock combing their hair and singing the latest waltz,” it sounds much less like a sardonic play on conventions and much more like an affectionate longing for the time that gave them birth, a valentine shot backwards across the unfathomable darkness of the war.IMG_1785.JPGAnd how could I ever convince anyone of such a claim?

It’s tricky. Berners is clearly enamored of Debussy in Les sirènes: He borrows heavily from the sonic environment that Monsieur Croche unforgettably established in the first movement of La mer (1905). That makes sense, of course; the Sirens are at a beach, and a French one at that. But then they start singing a waltz. Really, they do: Berners asks for a wordless women’s chorus in what I suppose is another bow to Debussy, or else to Ravel. (Too much to hope that he would make a bow to Holst!) The waltz itself doesn’t sound like anything Debussy or Ravel would ever have written—La valse is light years away. Nor does it sound like the Waltz King cutting a belle époque rug. It does, however, sound a bit like Richard Strauss’s waltz language in Der Rosenkavalier, minus the opulence. And what does that leave us with? The foam-flecked waters of Debussy’s La mer with a splash of women’s chorus from the “Sirènes” of Trois Nocturnes, plus a well-behaved version of Richard Strauss’s nostalgic waltz idiom, all conveyed with a Satie-like knowing wink?

Berners’s most remarkable accomplishment, I think, is in skillfully creating a stylistic amalgam that sounds like a style, like a consistent voice. The problem is that the smoother the “joins” between styles, the less opportunity to mug for the camera, and so the less the music matches the absurdity of the scenario. In Peter Dickinson’s article on Berners for Grove Online, he explains that the English Satie “felt demoralized by the onset of war and told Gertrude Stein that he felt ‘confronted with the breakdown of all the things that meant anything to me.’” If this was true when Berners was writing Les sirènes, it must have been difficult to muster even a knowing wink. 41A0Z16FPSL.jpgNot difficult at all, though, or at least not emotionally dishonest, to affectionately craft a sort of pastiche-synthesis from the sounds of that loved and lost prewar world. Lane writes in his liner notes that Les sirènes, the first new work given by Sadler’s Wells Ballet at Covent Garden, by one of the only two Brits ever commissioned by Diaghilev, was “not a success,” “deemed to have been have out of touch with the times.” What does that mean, I wonder. I can’t help but think of the sound and character of Peter Grimes, which had its première at Sadler’s Wells the year before Les sirènes (albeit at a different location). It’s hard to think of the two works inhabiting the same two years, much less the same city, all while sharing the name Sadler’s Wells. The world was indeed changing.

Nexus exit.

51Gg7jkaaBL._SY355_.jpgThis disc of late Berners also includes the suite from his ballet Cupid and Psyche (1938), which displays just as much craft, shares with Les sirènes a delight in dance and dated national styles (Viennese waltz, “Spanish” music through a Parisian fin-de-siècle filter, the occasional touch of Offenbach or Tchaikovsky). My favorite moment is the Entr’acte, which apparently depicts Psyche in her custom-made palace, where “she lives happily awhile.” The music is atmospheric, placid, suggesting a place outside of time. The flute solo that flits over the top of the gently rolling texture cleverly calls to mind another placid Entr’acte with a flute solo, the one from Carmen. The other piece on the disc, Caprice Péruvien, was arranged by Constant Lambert from Berners’s opera Le carrosse du Saint Sacrement (1923). It’s generally an essay in the “Spanish” mode so loved by early twentieth-century French composers, but without the strange magic of, say, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. It’s a bit of a task both to shake one’s perception of the nonsensical use of this idiom for the story of a commedia dell’arte troupe in eighteenth-century Peru and to forgive the music for not being Ravel, but if one can do all that, Berners’s undeniable fluency and apparent delight in writing in familiar idioms come through.

Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.