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String orchestra works

Coronach

Duration: 9 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Coronach

Gethsemane Fragment

Duration: 10 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Gethsemane Fragment

Music for string orchestra has played a significant part in Michael Berkeley's list of compositions. It was his Meditations for String Orchestra that won the composer the Guinness Prize for composition in 1977, and it was that piece and the Concerto for Strings that first brought critical attention to Berkeley's music. More recently Coronach (1988), which is based on a Scottish highland lament, has begun to be widely played, and Gethsemane Fragment (written for the New English Orchestra and first performed by them in 1991) might be seen as its companion piece, both pieces being about eight minutes long and dealing with various aspects of grief.

The commission for Gethsemane Fragment required the composer to take a biblical passage as his starting point and Berkeley recalled how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ was overwhelmed with sorrow and torment and asked "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."

"I chose this passage", Berkeley says, because it seemed to me that at Gethsemane we see Christ at his most human, revealing a frailty that is all the more moving for its being a flash of weakness with which we can all identify. But combined with the human foreboding is the additional and awful visionary knowledge of what is in store. My piece, while abstract rather than programmatic, simply attempts to capture a brief glimpse of the gnawing and nagging doubts racing through the mind of Christ. One does not, I think, have to be religious to identify with this touching moment.

© Oxford University Press

Meditations

Duration: 14 minutes
Year of composition: 1975
Published by Oxford University Press

Meditations for strings is Michael Berkeley's first acknowledged orchestral work. It was written at the beginning of 1975, in response to a commission from Colin Mawby and the Westminster Cathedral String Orchestra, who gave the first performance. It was the work that led to Berkeley, a late developer as a composer, doing post graduate studies with Richard Rodney Bennett. In 1977, Meditations won the Guinness Prize for Composition and it was this piece and the Concerto for Oboe and Strings that first brought critical attention to Berkeley's music.

The composer writes:

The piece is called Meditations because its atmosphere is essentially contemplative, though the nature of the subject is far from being continuously passive. Another reason for the title is the inspiration behind the thematic material - though the actual melodies are original, they use rhythmic and melodic patterns suggested by Gregorian chant which I sang every day as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral.

The piece falls quite clearly into two sections bound together by the tolling ostinato figure in the bass of the orchestra that begins and ends the work. Virtually all the material that follows can be traced back to this opening music. Each section begins with an Introduction followed by a statement of themes and a discussion, and a coda rounds them off. Broadly speaking, part two considers what has passed and adds to it, but now the argument becomes more intense - an agitated solo violin attempts to move the conflict onto an altogether more agitated plane and soon the whole orchestra bursts into a fast animated passage. Gradually, via a recapitulation, the music becomes more settled, and the work ends as it began, with the repeated note E on the double basses.

© Michael Berkeley