In conversation with the Royal Society of Medicine
Michael Berkeley joins Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones OBE, Royal Society of Medicine Psychiatry Section President, for a conversation about his career in music, his process for composing exquisite pieces of music, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the orchestral scene.
In conversation with Dan Shilladay
An illuminating discussion between the Berkeley Ensemble's Dan Shilladay and the Ensemble's patron, Michael Berkeley CBE
Dan Shilladay writes: As a student, I devoured many of the conversations with... books that were a fashionable (and also very readable) way of introducing several of the great post-war composers. When I came to write the liner notes for the ensemble’s 2018 recording of a selection of Michael Berkeley’s chamber music, Winter Fragments, it was with a nostalgia for these books that I asked Michael if we might have a conversation in a similar vein. He kindly agreed, and his fascinating insights drew praise from several reviewers. Here they are again – if they inspire you to take a listen to the music we discussed, the album is available to stream on Spotify, or to buy from Resonus.
Dan Shilladay: The pieces collected together on the disc span more than thirty years of work. How has your approach changed over this period?
Michael Berkeley: I came out of quite a tonal tradition with Lennox [Berkeley, Michael’s father] and Britten, but then I got very interested in a more avant-garde approach to music: I worked with Birtwistle and talked to Lutosławski. I would say as a result my music moved from being fairly tonally based to being much more expressionistic. I often seem to be slightly at odds with fashion; as I was becoming more expressionistic, music was going back to the tonal world of John Adams and others. But what is important in music is being yourself. That’s something I discovered from being Lennox’s son – that if you feel you’ve got something to say, that’s the most important thing, regardless of what else is going on. I’ve always done what I felt like doing at that moment.
That comes across very strongly–on this disc one might compare Catch Me If You Can, which is very frenetic and densely argued, with the almost late-Mahlerian world of Seven. It’s exhilarating to hear all these strands of your work together.
As another example, in the Clarinet Quintet there is a medieval-like melody at the beginning, something I’ve always loved from my days as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral singing Gregorian plainchant. Plainchant is very important in my music; the repeat of notes, the modal melodies. But in the quintet, almost immediately there is very jazzy music. I don’t think the audience needs to sit and think ‘there’s a medieval bit, now there is jazz’–it just needs to work for them, but each piece needs an organic structure in the mind of the composer.
Could you elaborate on your aims regarding your listeners? You’ve described your own music as having ‘a strong emotional content, which audiences react to’.
My mother had Lithuanian Jewish blood; I think there’s a part of me that responds to that in my writing, and to which audiences in turn respond in my music. I think for me, the catharsis of being moved in a piece of music is very important. You mentioned Mahler…
In relation to Seven, yes, which reminded me of the opening of the Ninth Symphony, where Mahler’s simple two-note question finds some kind of interim ‘solution’ at its close. Your harp figure similarly seems to pose a question – ostensibly a simple one, a matter of the note-to-note tensions within that phrase–but in its repetitions, it acquires something more.
Exactly. The emotion can be very distilled, in a way. It’s also a bit like Satie–a very simple thing has a kind of cumulative effect. Similarly, one of the songs of Winter Fragments has a simple, folk-like feel to it.
For the musicians, too, that movement is a relaxation, a contrast from the more heightened music around it.
This idea often appears in my music, because I think it gives a moment of respite in the middle of what is often a very turbulent landscape. Catch Me If You Can is another example. It was written for the Haffner Wind Ensemble to take into schools, which immediately made me think of Janáček’s Mládí(‘Youth’), but also the rather cruel games that children play. So even that piece has a very simple tune in the slow movement, not unlike a viola piece I wrote, Odd Man Out, about the child that is excluded. Amongst all this swirling activity, you focus for contrast on the solitary individual. But the other aim of that movement–as in Winter Fragments – is that less is more. The frenetic activity stops and you have a very small, but hopefully beautifully crafted, touching, lyrical moment.
For me, the most touching and lyrical moment of the disc is your Rilke Sonnet.
I think that’s one of the best pieces I’ve written, because it’s stripped down; there’s no extraneous material. I adored the Rilke poem, the idea of the almost-girl who in a sense doesn’t exist. I’m really glad you recorded it, as that piece gets to the essence of what I can sometimes do. There are pieces like that – often fragments in larger canvasses – where you feel that you touch the beating heart of the music.
That’s the subject of Rilke’s sonnet: the nature of perception, if I’ve understood it correctly.
That’s why I wanted to retain the original German: partly because no translation did it justice, but also because it lends the piece the ethereal nature of the poem, its untouchable quality.
It’s clear that how your music is perceived or its affective power is central to your work.
And of course, a recording such as this one represents an opportunity for listeners to get a bit more under the skin of a composer. Familiarity in contemporary music breeds the opposite of contempt.
As a broadcaster, and particularly as director of the Cheltenham Festival, you’ve done much to make the world of contemporary music more familiar. Similarly, your programme notes for your own pieces often allude to poetic or emotional content, but also to some of their technical workings, too. Do you consider these details to be important for your audience?
People do respond to knowing a little bit about how a piece is put together. When you take something apart for an audience and then put it back together, there’s a gleam of recognition in their eye when they hear it in the concert. To point out how a theme from a piece’s opening is restated backwards at the end…
– as in the Clarinet Quintet –
Yes – you could ask whether that, as a technique, is interesting, but I think it is. Think of how one might talk of an artist and the way they use their palette, or how an architect creates or echoes lines in a building. We should give audiences as much as we can for them to hold on to without baffling them.
But with regard to the actual technical workings of your music: do you consider these as legible, expressive and necessary, as well as interesting? (In contrast to, say, Birtwistle, whose techniques are often hidden or encoded.)
I do, of course, have processes and thoughts that are not revealed. That is why the magic of music lies in its abstraction.
On the question of technique, you write in your programme note to Winter Fragments that ‘composers often tend to destroy words before recreating them’. Could you describe this process of destruction and recreation?
You can of course take a poem &ndash ;Britten is superb at doing this – and just enrich it, just lay it out as its own rhythm suggests. But I think that very often, when a composer sets a text, they need to destroy a poem and recreate it in their own image. If it’s perfect in its own way, what can you add to it? You need to walk around the back of it, or start taking it to pieces – perhaps pulling the head off and putting it on a different way. That is a compliment to the poet: to try and get into their mind, or to rewrite poetry in terms of music.
And this has led you to write your own texts; there are some in Winter Fragments and also Touch Light, another piece the ensemble has played and recorded.
There have been some short pieces where I just couldn’t find anything that encapsulated what I wanted to say. As in the case of Touch Light, which was inspired by the great baroque operatic masters – Monteverdi and others – whose arias set just a few repeated words; why not just create your own? It doesn’t mean to say one is by any means a poet, rather, just creating an addition to the musical vocabulary.
One could view the titles you give to your pieces in a similar way. They are often poetic, but occasionally you’ve chosen generic or abstract ones, such as with the Clarinet Quintet. Where does the titling of a piece sit in your creative process? Does it affect the composition or reflect it? Is it an aid to listening?
By way of an example, I wrote a string quintet with two cellos for the Chilingirian Quartet, which I called Abstract Mirror. I thought that was a completely valid use of a title, because the extra cello could join the upper or lower strings. The two groups offered mirror images of each other in the composition so I felt that particular title worked. With Winter Fragments I just loved the play on the words: these are fragments of winter, but winter also fragments. I suppose as a broadcaster and avid reader I like to play on words.
So, to press a point: why is your clarinet quintet just the Clarinet Quintet?
To be honest, nothing sprang to mind. Titles can be useful, but they do take the listener down a certain road, which one should sometimes avoid. With the Clarinet Quintet, I just wanted it to unfold in its own way.
But it’s a very illustrious field. In calling it ‘Clarinet Quintet’ did you feel the weight of history?
I’ve never worried about that. People used to ask me if it was difficult being Lennox’s son, and I would answer no, because I feel I’m such a different animal. We all have to stand up and be counted next to our famous predecessors. I just wanted to write the piece I was going to write.
You’ve always done what you felt like doing at that moment.
Yes – exactly.
Supporting freelancers in the arts
Many people working in the arts are self-employed, and there is concern that the Government's COVID-19 measures for freelancers don't go far enough. Michael has joined forces with colleagues in the House of Lords to press the Government to take further action. He has signed a letter urging the Treasury to put in place emergency funding to support the 1.7 million freelancers working in music, writing, performing and visual arts, following similar schemes in countries including Italy and Canada. You can read the letter here.
Paddington film warmly received at premiere
The family film Paddington received its premiere at the Leicester Square Odeon on 23 November 2014. The famous series of books upon which the film is based were written by Michael's brother-in-law, Michael Bond. Despite feeling some trepidation at the prospect of a big-screen adaptation, and the fear that Paddington might be let down, he is delighted with the result, giving the film "full marks". It has been acclaimed by critics too – the Telegraph proclaims it "a total delight", whilst the Guardian says "as warm as an eiderdown and as fluffy as its feathers". Paddington opened across the UK on Friday 28 November 2014.
Cycle of Songs celebrates Tour de France Cambridge visit
Cycle of Songs showcases and celebrates the talent and diversity of Cambridge and includes many local people of all ages sharing their voice and celebrating the city in song.
Nine pieces were commissioned from a wide range of composers and poets. They were inspired by historical research and based on words from original sources of fascinating and quirky stories at iconic locations along the Tour's route in Cambridge.
Michael wrote, "My composition for Cycle of Songs is called Build This House and was performed by King's College Choristers. I've scored the work to be accompanied by primary school voices. I always enjoy finding new ways to make music and particularly with young singers. I have created a piece that will work in various contexts and with various forces. I love working at King's - great architecture and wonderful musicians. With the Anthem Listen, Listen, O My Child, which was commissioned for the Enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I concentrated on paring things down and this new Anthem Build This House is modeled on a similar kind of skeleton."
Britten and Sir John Tavener
In an interview with the BBC's Newsnight, Michael reflects upon the life of his friend Sir John Tavener, who has died at the age of 69.
November 22 2013 marked Benjamin Britten's centenary. Michael, who was Britten's godson, has made several appearances in the media to discuss the composer's life and work.
On Thursday 21 November he appeared live on BBC Radio 3's In Tune at 4.30pm where he was interviewed by Suzy Klein.
BBC Four has screened the documentary Britten's Endgame where Michael talks about Britten's final years and the extraordinary creativity which led to the final opera Death in Venice.
On Sunday 24 November, BBC Radio 3's Private Passions featured Britten's music and was accompanied by a two-page interview in the Radio Times.
Michael joins Rayfield Allied independent agency
Michael is pleased to announce that he has joined the Rayfield Allied agency. Established in 1971, Rayfield Allied is a highly respected independent agency for classical musicians, including conductors, singers, instrumentalists and composers. Its roster includes many distinguished artists, including the composers Harrison Birtwistle, Steve Reich and David Sawer.
Michael joins House of Lords
Michael was introduced to the House of Lords on 26 March 2013 as Lord Berkeley of Knighton, CBE. He will sit on the cross benches as a non-party political peer. Michael is a passionate advocate for the arts, contemporary music and music education. Commenting on the news, he said he is "very honoured" to be appointed. "I am particularly pleased that the Appointments Commission was keen to increase representation in the field of music and the arts," he continued.
The appointment, which has to be approved by the Queen, is made by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The entrepreneur and 'digital champion' Martha Lane Fox, who at 40 has become the youngest female peer, joined the House at the same time as Michael.
Champagne Fanfare heralds Danish statue
Michael was commissioned by the town of Holstebro in Denmark to create a fanfare to accompany the the daily rising from the ground of their wonderful Giacometti statue. It descends every night for security reasons. This brought to mind the statue coming to life in Don Giovanni so the Champagne Fanfare is inspired by the opening phrase of the Champagne Aria from the opera.
Champagne Fanfare has been recorded for Holsteboro by Onyx Brass and Michael has also re-arranged it for the National Wind Youth Orchestra's summer tour to Switzerland.
Calling all musicians and music lovers, not to mention everyone else who wants to retain their hearing. Michael made a programme for Radio 4, broadcast on Tuesday December 4 2012 at 16:00 showing how the misdagnosis of a virus from a common cold can lead to permanent hearing loss.
How the 9 million people in this country (yes – that's 9-10% of the population) who wrestle with hearing problems but do not get amplification could be risking other cognitive impairment and even dementia, according to the latest research.
How (yes, you have guessed) the level at which we listen to music (particularly on ear buds and particularly distorted pop sounds) is, according to the leading researcher in the field) "a time bomb of hearing loss".
Michael made this programme purely because if he can help stop just one person from undergoing the hearing loss he suffered (through GP ignorance of the subject) it will have been worthwhile.
It is ultimately a redemptive, if frightening, programme because composers can write from their head but also because the brain has the plasticity to re-wire, re-process the hearing of music and filter out distortion and especially if its owner is a musician.
Michael has also written about Beethoven and deafness in the Guardian.
Funding composer commissions
Michael Berkeley writes in the BASCA house magazine, The Works, on the vanishing sources of commissioning money for composers
Presenting the British Composer Awards gave me the chance to highlight a subject that causes me considerable concern and should worry composers and publishers throughout the country.
In a time of economic austerity the arts are, of course, going to have to share the pain of diminished funding as is everything else, though one might argue that never have the arts been more needed.
Having been on both sides of the commissioning fence (composer and assessor) I feel that the ability to support the creation of new work, especially for young composers, is a vital part of our cultural life.
The fact is that, even without the cuts, commissioning money has deteriorated in the last few years by quite staggering proportions; indeed as much as 70 per cent in some cases.
What are the main sources of funding for commissions?
- For many years the Arts Council was open to a wide variety of applications from performers and festivals. It now operates a policy in which it helps to commission largely through its organisational clients like orchestras and opera houses. The onus is on these 'clients' to choose their composer (as opposed to the distinguished panel who made sure that all kinds of music were considered and over a wide geographical area). Money from that panel’s pot has been devolved to the Regional Arts Associations but they have inconsistent and often incoherent policies on commissioning, so much of the original and quite considerable amount has simply washed away.
- Trusts, like the Britten-Pears, the Vaughan Williams, the Holst and the Hinrichsen have been generous sponsors of new music. However VW and Holst are moving to a cessation of their copyright terms. BP has diminished hugely its commissioning budget and is unlikely to return to the very significant patronage of a few years ago.
- The BBC is therefore now one of the main commissioners, largely for the Proms and its orchestras, and its commitment remains strong, according to Andrew Kurowski who is in charge of contemporary music at Radio 3. But everyone knows that the BBC is under huge financial pressure and commissioning will, like everything else, come under considerable scrutiny.
- There are foundations like Paul Hamlyn (which gives just a few but very significant bursaries) and the PRS.
On the whole, therefore, a huge swathe of commissioning money has already gone and what is left tends to be focused on a small group of exceptionally talented and established names. That is important but it tends to reinforce the status quo and leaves nowhere to go for groups who want to take risks and commission up-and-coming but relatively unknown composers. Even a group like the Nash Ensemble is unable to commission as it has in the past and as it should and would like to in the future.
Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to find that I have infuriated some mandarin into writing a riposte disputing what I say. I would so love to be proved wrong but my experience at the coal face leads me to believe that we are in very worrying times for composers and that we need to make our voice heard. I hope BASCA will lead the way.
Michael Berkeley, February 2012
Throughout his career Michael has been passionate about dance. His first string quartet was written for dance, which Michael Pink choreographed for Northern Ballet Theatre. He then collaborated on two projects with the great dancer Lynn Seymour — Bastet, a 30-minute ballet for the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, and The Mayfly, a short piece for children and Wayne Sleep, for the remarkable, one-off Nether Wallop Festival. Most recently Michael created a complete score from the film cues that Prokofiev composed for a 1936 film, the Queen of Spades. The ballet Rushes - Fragments of a Lost Story was choreographed by Kim Brandstrup and included several stars of the Royal Ballet, including Carlos Acosta, Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo. The score was highly praised and has now been recorded in a slightly different form with the title Symphonic Suite adapted from the Queen of Spades. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos 10519.
Michael Berkeley was Chairman of the Governors of the Royal Ballet until 2012 with responsibility for overseeing the legacy and standards bequeathed by Dame Ninette de Valois to the Royal Ballet, what is now Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.
Lennox and Freda by Tony Scotland is published
Lennox & Freda, Tony Scotland's revealing book about Michael's father, the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, has been published by Michael Russell. More than a biography, this is a portrait of an unconventional marriage and a record of Berkeley's generation and a vanished way of life. Drawing on his own original research, Tony Scotland presents fresh perspectives on the Oxford of Auden and Waugh; the Paris of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Poulenc; Somerset Maugham's set on the French Riviera; Dylan Thomas, William Glock and Humphrey Searle during the Battle of Britain; Eddy Sackville-West, Tippett, Bliss and Boult at the BBC; and Britten and Pears at Aldeburgh.