Sir Lennox Berkeley at 80 talks to Jonathan Petre about his faith and his long career as a composer
SIR LENNOX Berkeley, at the age of SO, has at last made it to the pages of Time Out. Such belated recognition of a career spanning more than half a century could be seen as a dubious distinction, but it says much for Sir Lennox's persistence in resisting the gimmickry that can • be mistaken for good music by trendsetters; a difficult task for any composer at this stage of the twentieth century.
"I can't write non-tonal-music," he admits without reluctance. "I find that if you are not afraid of being thought old fashioned, it doesn't sound old fashioned. If you're thinking of that, then its hopeless."
Sir Lennox still holds court for young composers at his 'house in Little Venice. The traffic has got much worse since he moved there 47 years ago, but, he says, it is still possible to imagine one is in the countryside when one looks out over the large tree-filled garden.
When I arrived he was seated at the piano, working on his new grand opera, Faldon Park, which sounds like a novel by Jane Austen, but deals with the contemporary problems of a titled family obliged to leave their ancestral home which they can no longer afford to keep going.
He admitted to being quite excited by the flurry of publicity surrounding his birthday celebrations, and told me in conspiratorial tones that he feared Lady Berkeley was planning a surprise party.
What is not secret, however, are the series of concerts being held in his honour, which include a performance of his violin concerto on Monday performed by his old friend Yehudi Menuhin, and culminate in a world premier of a cello concerto he wrote in 1939.
One tribute he will find particularly pleasing will be the performance on Sunday of his Missa Brevis by the choir of his local parish church in St John's Wood. His Catholicism has been an integral part of his life since his conversion from the Anglican faith in 1928 — a step he describes as an emotional rather than intellectual — and religious themes are predominent in the bulk of his work.
"I don't think of myself as a very good Catholic," he said with characteristic humility. "I have a strong religious sense, but I have to admit to many failures creeping in."
He has not always been happy with the Church, particularly the new liturgy adopted in the mid 1960s. "It was a great shock to me to have this rather badly worded thing put instead of what 1 had by that time felt myself to have been brought up on and I felt very bad about it as many Catholics did, and still do."
He then spoke about inspiration. The spectral late-afternoon light cast much of the tall room in shadow while an ornate gold clock musically chimed four.
"I have always found that music comes in a certain form to one and I don't think you can choose any particular thing to bring it about. There is certainly something there — one can't say what hie)]
induces religious feeling sometimes.
"Of course, it works the other way around — if you have the technique that can be used in a religious sense."
Lady Berkeley interrupted with tea and biscuits and chatted about the house which is owned by the Church Commissioners. The Berkeleys live between John Mortimer and Lady Diana Cooper.
Berkeley finds it something of a contrast with the heady, anti-establishment atmosphere of Paris where he studied composition with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger from 1927 to 1935. There Berkeley met many of the leading composers of the time, including Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger and Roussel.
"It did me a great deal of good to expand in another country. I remember Stravinsky as a very clever, amusing man. He, of course, interpreted music very much through the mind. I wish I could say the same about myself ."
When he returned to this country he became friends with Benjamin Britten and for a few years shared a converted old mill with him in Snape, Suffolk, now the home of the famous opera house. "Ben's great gift was not only thinking of the music but also constructing it."
He writes his music at the piano because, he says, he needs the "actual sound rather than the imagined sound" to work on. Much of his most successful work is for the piano, including the Sonata and the Concerto for two pianos. But his favourite works are the slightly lighter pieces, particularly the one-act operas.
If he is right in his prediction about a revival in interest in melodic and harmonic music, he could, at the age of 80, find himself at the head of this revival. And after the birthday celebrations are over, he will not be resting on his laurels; he will continue composing music in his personal style, waiting for his moment.