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Concerto works

Concerto for Cello

Duration: 12 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Cello

Michael Berkeley's Cello Concerto was written early in 1983 to a commission from the Milton Keynes February Festival and first performed by Robert Cohen and the London Mozart Players conducted by Nicholas Kraemer. It is a single-movement chamber concerto deliberately scored for the forces of the Boccherini and Haydn concerti. Light-hearted in spirit, it could easily be described as a divertissement.

A scherzando mood prevails, but the cello does initiate a number of more serious, rhapsodic interludes. Unusually, the soloist enters with a cadenza but this does not preclude a second cadenza-like passage towards the end of the music, providing a moment of repose before the rhythmic drive of the scherzando material takes the work to its lively conclusion.

Michael Berkeley extensively revised the work in 1997 for a performance at the Presteigne Festival, Wales, with Alice Neary, cello, and George Vass conducting the Festival Orchestra.

© Oxford University Press

Concerto for Clarinet

Duration: 20 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

The Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by Emma Johnson and takes the form of one continuous movement. It is the second of two purely instrumental works that I had written over the last two years while preparing for the composition of an opera for 1993 based on Kipling's autobiographical short story Baa Baa Black Sheep describing the traumatic experience of being brought to England by his parents and left with a fiercely Evangelical woman called Auntie Rosa who took violently against the young child and made his life a misery. This painful period as an outcast provided Kipling with the inspiration for The Jungle Book, where a child finds acceptance in the animal kingdom.

The opera combines these two worlds – the austere childhood experience and its magical and imagined counterpart. In very different ways this scenario has influenced both the concerto and Entertaining Master Punch which was written for Lontano. Where in that piece I was experimenting primarily with different colours and textures, including aspects of Gamelan, in the Clarinet Concerto I have been more concerned with single musical argument; there is no percussion, but the role of the timpani is crucial. Although Kipling's childhood predicament is the starting point for the relationship between the clarinet and orchestra, the music develops from there into an abstract essay. The clarinet frequently merges with the woodwind section while at other times stands out against it. I decided to keep two clarinets in the orchestra so that the solo clarinet can be triple-voiced at one point, the orchestral clarinets ape the solo line like rooks mobbing an outsider. Indeed in the first part of the work the clarinet is frequently subsumed by the lines of the orchestra: rather like a beleaguered swimmer in heavy waves it dips, disappears and then bobs above the surface, making large leaps, taking great gulps of air. Gradually, orchestra and clarinet become more distinctly separate, and the wide intervals heard first at the opening grow closer together and become more obviously lyrical. The music closes, as it began, with the muttering timpani and a ticking clarinet, but now the quality of that ticking has changed irreparably.

© Michael Berkeley

Concerto for Horn

Duration: 16 minutes
Year of composition: 1984
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Horn (1: Malizioso)
  •     Concerto for Horn (2: Con Melancolio)

In 1980 while working together with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the horn player Michael Thompson suggested I write a work for him. The resulting concerto was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and first performed there in 1984 by Michael Thompson and the Polish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk.

For the Scottish première of the work given almost exactly ten years later by the same conductor and soloist but with the strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra I considerably revised the music.

There are two movements which are closely related but while the overall mood of the first is aggressive (it's marked Malizioso), the second is more resigned and poignant (and marked Con Melancolio). Various musical ideas heard only in fragments in the opening movement come more sharply into focus in the second. Through a smoky haze of sound the lachrymose notes of the last post are superimposed on a Bach Chorale from the St Matthew Passion, the juxtaposed melodic line of which is heard at the start and continuously throughout the concerto but only now towards the end does it begin to appear in a recognisable form.

© Michael Berkeley

Concerto for Oboe

Duration: 25 minutes
Year of composition: 1977
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Oboe (i: Moderato)
  •     Concerto for Oboe (ii: Scherzo)
  •     Concerto for Oboe (iii: Elergy)

i Moderato - poco piu mosso - meno mosso
ii Scherzo. Allegro vivace
iii Elegy: In memoriam Benjamin Britten. Andantino

Michael Berkeley's Oboe Concerto was commissioned by the Burnham Market Festival in Norfolk with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was first performed in 1977 by Janet Craxton with the Snape Maltings Training Orchestra conducted by Michael Lankester.

The work begins quietly, the oboe entering without orchestral preamble. The five-note theme introduced by the soloist permeates the entire movement as the music becomes steadily more animated and interplay between soloist and orchestra more intense. The movement culminates in a solo cadenza and rhapsodic coda where glimpses of the previous music are caught fleetingly before the oboe rises to a hushed conclusion.

The central movement is a playful scherzo. After a vigorous introduction based around the interval of a third, the oboe takes up the theme, fashioning ever more expansive melodies from the germ of the opening. There follows a more relaxed and lyrical middle section, though this is quickly swallowed up by the return of the music of the start of the movement.

The final movement, Elegy, is dedicated to the memory of the composer's godfather, Benjamin Britten. It is based on an augmented fourth - the interval central to Britten's War Requiem. Over these stark chords the oboe traces a melancholy line that gradually becomes infused with warmth. After a central climax a fugato section leads back to the opening subject – but now with three soloists (oboe, violin, and viola) weaving between the shifting fourths.

The concerto ends with the oboe intoning the notes Britten used to depict Wilfred Owen's line, 'let us sleep now', whereupon the music gradually comes to rest.

© Oxford University Press

Concerto for Orchestra

Duration: 20 minutes
Year of composition: 2005
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Orchestra (1: Con energia - Calmo - Energico)
  •     Concerto for Orchestra (2: Threnody for a Sad Trumpet)
  •     Concerto for Orchestra (3: Con fuoco - Calmo - Fuocoso - Maestoso)

BBC Proms Commission 2005

This is the second piece I wrote as associate composer to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and is dedicated to the orchestra's principal conductor, Richard Hickox. The first, Tristessa, featured the viola and cor anglais but this new work requires a degree of virtuosity from the whole orchestra. The Concerto is in three movements with the outer two having a fast-slow-fast design which indeed mirrors the overall structure of the piece.

In thinking about the music I was conscious that the finding of ideas is seldom the problem; it is how they are developed that matters. So, I deliberately began with a very simple motif: falling tones (think Three Blind Mice!) and soon decided that the first two movements would be based on a downward progression while the third should invert the whole process and move constantly upwards.

If you extend three falling whole tones to a fourth you end up with the more angular sounding interval of an augmented (or sharpened fourth) – say C to F sharp. This led me to the second principal subject of the first movement, indeed the whole piece, and a slightly oriental pattern that was a prominent melodic figure in my first opera, Baa Baa Black Sheep. Each of the outer movements begins with a gaudy, scherzo-like atmosphere but becomes increasingly serious, even desperate, as the music progresses. The first is marked Energico (energetic) and has a slow section in which quiet, held strings form a background to the falling tones on the piano with gently lapping and overlapping woodwind (alto flute, clarinet in A and cor anglais). The somewhat driven conclusion to this opening movement sets up the still, beating heart of the piece, Threnody For A Sad Trumpet.

The principal trumpet of the orchestra, Phillippe Schartz and I had previously had some interesting discussions about things like mutes when he had often suggested a piece featuring his instrument. This slow movement seemed the perfect opportunity and it unfolded so naturally that I did away with anything that would corrupt the natural open bore beauty of a quiet trumpet played with great control.

The falling scale is here put to a melancholy purpose and as I was working on the music on Boxing Day 2004 so word of the Tsunami filtered through. We all deal with these world tragedies at a certain layer of consciousness but they hit deeper when we can put a face and a personality to the victims. When I heard that Jane Attenborough (who I had met through her work at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) had perished, along with her daughter and mother-in-law, I was profoundly shocked. It seemed natural that this music which is both grief stricken and yet strangely tranquil should be an In Memoriam to some one who had worked so passionately to bring the arts to a wider cross section of society.

Rudely breaking the mood, the final movement, Con Fuoco (with fire), begins with splashy and metallic Chinese Cymbals that trigger waves of upward rushing sound in the orchestra at a point where, in the first movement the equivalent passage was racing downwards. This last third of the work is essentially a synthesis of what has passed and in the slow section the cor anglais and trumpet sadly remind us of where we have been. The music builds to a climax that pivots on the harmonic axis at the heart of the music and the upward striving scale. At its apex there is a moment of silence, an intake of breath, before a brief reflection on the Threnody is brutally curtailed by a final reordering of the opening; but now the thirds on the brass have inexorably and enharmonically (same notes, different context) moved from a bright and vaguely A major to the far more disquieting world of C sharp minor.

© Michael Berkeley

Concerto for Organ

Duration: 18 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Organ

This work is seen as marking a turning point in the composer's music. The writing includes distinctive harmonic clusters breaking into great upward sweeps, buzzing (often menacing) mobiles under carefully controlled melodic lines, inventive timbres, and above all, a heightened sense of drama.

Michael Berkeley writes: The concerto is not a concerto in the conventional sense, but is, more than anything else, a work of "ritual", inspired by my impressionistic days as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, and in particular, the liturgy of Easter: the bringing of light after the darkness of Lent. The music begins with three trumpets quietly chanting out a phase - the bearers of light. The Orchestra flickers, and the flame finally catches, but it is ultimately used destructively. Thematically the music is derived from the opening call on the trumpets and the contrasting string phrase that occurs after the first climax. There is also a quotation from one of my motets which is particularly pertinent to Easter. It describes the three denials of Judas, which arrive like "diatonic lies" when set against the less specific language of the rest of the work. This chorale-like music is heard first on the violas and 'cello, next on brass. The actual writing for organ is very much concerned with texture. The instrument weaves in and out of the orchestra, sometimes complementing, sometimes contrasting ideas with it. On another level, it plays a role of overwhelming power.

The piece is in a single movement, which rises and dies like a fire, leaving the trumpets playing the open chant in retrograde amongst the dying embers of the orchestra.

© Michael Berkeley

Concerto for Viola

Duration: 15 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Concerto for Viola

The Viola Concerto was commissioned jointly by the Lichfield Festival and Philharmonia Orchestra and partly funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain.It was first performed in Lichfield Cathedral on 16 July 1994 when the soloist was Roger Benedict with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Since then the work has been substantially revised.

Only recently have we come to realise the full expressive power of the viola as a solo instrument. The relative paucity of the repertoire being an indication of how until this century the viola has been all too hidden in the shadow of its sister, the violin.

But a great player like Yuri Bashmet can open your eyes; listening to him playing the Bartók concerto at the 1993 Proms led me to a radical re-think of my approach to the instrument and its tessitura. When Roger Benedict tried out my sketches for the concerto, he soon reinforced my intentions to concentrate on the very high and very low parts of the viola compass. As soon as he played certain phrases I could hear how, in simple terms, the middle of the instrument has a sudden dip in power that is not there in the corresponding part of the violin compass. Conversely and excitingly the high part of the viola register normally considered the domain of the violin has, in the hands of a good player, an exceptional and quite individual quality - penetrating yet still dark - that I find very beguiling.

Like its predecessor, the Clarinet Concerto - to which it is related both in terms of compass and emotion, my Viola Concerto is cast in a single movement. The first two thirds of the music (some ten to twelve minutes) are built over a slow pulse with the viola sounding immediately the motif on which the piece is based. Intervals derived from the whole tone scale (augmented 4ths and 5ths) provide the harmonic nucleus of the score. The orchestration is fairly standard, but one unusual variation is that all three trumpeters double on flugel horns. These instruments have a more rounded, mellow tone than straight trumpets. Indeed the difference is rather similar to that between viola and violin.

Throughout the music the soloist weaves in and out of the orchestral texture, sometimes riding the growing waves of sound and sometimes being overtaken by it.

In the last third of the concerto the music breaks into a much faster tempo (almost twice as quick as the opening) and the viola is pushed to the bottom of its compass where it feverishly races around like a trapped insect, constantly striving to rise above its orchestral surroundings. When it finally does, it is only to lead into the coda, a modified re-working of the opening.

© Michael Berkeley

Double Guitar Concerto

Duration: 20 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

When, in the late 90s, the Katona twins first asked me to write for them, I went to a couple of their recitals and was amazed at their intuitive playing; it was as though each knew exactly where the other was heading before the notes were sounded. So I became intrigued by the idea of using the instruments not so much as contrasting or antiphonal voices but rather as one double instrument, hence the title. In another recent work, Tristessa, for viola, cor anglais, and orchestra, I also have the soloists playing together to create a two toned single voice for much of the music. But where that is a single span, this concerto is in three contrasting but related movements with the guitars having a role rather akin to a harpsichord in a Concerto Grosso. In yet another recent piece, Glass Tears for the OAE, a Shakuhachi was partnered by two Kotos which are indeed interchangeable with a harpsichord. There is a feeling then of revisiting the Concerto Grosso of Handel or the Brandenburg of Bach, but informed by a contemporary sensibility.

The first movement, Intrada, is the shortest and suggests material that will emerge later. The slow central movement, Stillness, animation, stillnesss, opens and closes with an opaque sense of space and clock-like chimes. In the finale, Pursuit, ideas from the previous two movements are brought together with the guitars being constantly harried by the ensemble. There is a slow middle section before the clarion motif of the Intrada further encourages the idea of a chase.

© Michael Berkeley

Violin Concerto

Duration: 20 minutes
Year of composition: 2016
Published by Oxford University Press

In 2014 I wrote At A Solemn Wake for the cellist, Adrian Brendel and the pianist, Chris Glynn. It was commissioned by the Ryedale Festival in memory of my wife, the literary agent, Deborah Rogers, who had died very suddenly earlier that year.

As I began work on the Violin Concerto I found that that cello piece was constantly invading my thoughts and in particular a melodic idea that just would not go away. Another influence was hearing Nigel Kennedy play a quite extraordinary electric violin tribute to Jimi Hendrix at Ronnie Scotts. The volatility of this amplified sound seemed to me to echo the elements of rage that are so often a part of the grieving process. Listening to the amazing timbres Nigel was getting from this instrument, its ability to wail and to ride over everything else, it occurred to me that it would be a vibrant colour to have on the sound palette I was starting to mix for the concerto.

The third contribution to my emerging soundworld came from working with Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan on programmes for the Radio 3 series, Private Passions, and then watching Akram’s sculptures in movement with his dance company. Both Akram and Nitin talked about their love and use of the Tabla which, as it happens, Deborah and I had relished in India on one of our last trips together. It occurred to me that the peculiar watery gurgling of the tabla would make a sympathetic aural continuo to the solo violin and that at a moment of hiatus the bol interjections (spoken percussion) could be rhythmically dramatic.

Somehow these disparate elements coalesced in my mind to form a twenty-minute continuous score which began to write itself. This is one of the best feelings for a composer - when a piece begins to be propelled by its own momentum.By one of those happy chances, in 2013 Deborah and I were at Angela Hewitt’s Trasimeno Festival in Italy where we and other artists were staying in a lovely farmhouse. There we met tonight’s soloist, Chloe Hanslip and were struck by the musical and emotional intensity of her playing.

The Concerto starts with a percussive summons to a ritual. Over this the acoustic violin keens and wails, growing increasingly more agitated.The thematic source of the opening music becomes clear in the elegiac, slow middle movement which recapitulates At A Solemn Wake with the accompaniment formed by harps and celesta.

The ritual summons returns to trigger the final, fast section and to discover the soloist now armed with the electric violin. As the closing bars arrive the central theme reappears and reveals its own source: the notes Bach used to spell out the letters B.A.C.H. in the closing bars of The Art of Fugue - as far as we can tell, the last music he ever wrote - and which simply stops mid-sentence. But here in the final moments of the concerto the acoustic violin alights on a shaft of hope and light, though an angry drum has the final say.

The Violin Concerto is commissioned for the BBC and receives its world premiere at the BBC Proms, 27 July 2016.

© Michael Berkeley