Berkeley’s Sacred Choral Music

Organist & choirmaster Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, talks to Adam Pounds about Berkeley’s favoured place in the King’s repertoire – and about the impact of technology

AP: The Director’s role must have developed greatly since you took up the post thirty-two years ago. Presumably composers these days present their music to you in quite a different form – perhaps they even expect the choir to perform an entirely different type of music?

Adam Pounds with Stephen Cleobury
Adam Pounds with Stephen Cleobury

SC: Well, mostly, nowadays, what I call unsolicited music, arrives on computer, rather than in an envelope, and I think that the main two difficulties I have about this are, one, that it is not always easier to read, and, two, the effect on the spacing of the notes – for example, if you have one part that’s got fifty-three notes and the other’s got only three. I remember reading about Britten’s insisting to his publisher that in a bar of 4/4 the notes should be placed within that bar in such a way that they look as they are going to sound – so if it’s a longer note there should be more space. I’ve got up here [sitting in his study adjacent to the great Chapel, he indicates to the bookshelves behind him] a couple of volumes called Composers’ Autographs, and I think you can tell an awful lot from looking at people’s handwriting and how they wrote their music. There are experts who can tell all sorts of things about a person’s state of mind at the time of writing. Now, once it’s on a computer all that is gone. There won’t be a twenty-first century version of these books. So your music, or Michael Berkeley’s music, or any other current composer’s music, will most likely be rather impersonally notated.

AP: Can you bring to mind what Lennox’s musical handwriting was like?

SC: Well, yes, it was a bit scrawly, wasn’t it? But I think it’s rather nice.

AP: When did you first come across his music?

SC: I have a clear memory of 1964, when I would have been in my mid-teens, and I went to the Southern Three Choirs Festival at Salisbury and heard a performance of the Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila and I thought that they were really very beautiful; I was extremely lucky just last year to have my first opportunity to perform them myself on Good Friday, here. I met some more of Berkeley’s music at St. John’s, Cambridge [when he was Organ Scholar in 1967], and most particularly when I went on to Westminster Cathedral [where he was Master of Music from 1979 till 1982]. That was the time that I had the closest contact with Lennox.

AP: An interesting remark was made at the last Lennox Berkeley Society AGM, when we heard some of the guitar music performed. Julian Berkeley commented that Lennox enjoyed the world of the guitar and the voice because of its intimate quality. Do you see that in the way that he composes?

SC: Yes, I recognise that exactly. As a pupil of Nadia Boulanger Lennox imbibed something of the French style which is very different from the English style. When you compare his orchestration, it is much more translucent than, say, that of Vaughan Williams, which tends to use quite a lot of instrumental doubling. I think that Lennox was more interested in the use of single strands of sound, and a really clear texture – and I’m sure that came from the French influence. For that reason, I think his music has a lightness that’s refreshing. I have also found this clarity in his organ music. It makes it stand in contrast to the music of Howells that I also love.

AP: What other pieces by Lennox have appealed to you?

SC: I enjoy the Magnificat – in fact, I use a passage from that for my stock sight-reading test for prospective choral scholars. I think, actually, if you asked people to name a modern avant-garde composer, they probably wouldn’t say Lennox Berkeley, although, in my experience, his music is quite tough to master for choirs. What we’re really talking about now are the smaller-scale choral pieces such as the Mass for Five Voices, the Missa Brevis, The Lord Is My Shepherd and the Festival Anthem. I commissioned a setting of Ubi Caritas from him when I was at Westminster Cathedral, and that was really quite tough, in the sense that Poulenc is tough: it isn’t that the harmony is terribly abstruse, but some of the voice-leading and so on can be a challenge. We do his Chichester Service here, and you can never take that for granted – you always have to rehearse it very carefully. I always enjoy The Lord Is My Shepherd and the Festival Anthem – he clearly responded to the soprano voice. His music is melodically appealing, but he had a harmonic idiom that is nicely seasoned with chromaticism which is what sometimes makes it tricky to perform, but it also means that the music is never bland. He is very successful in The Lord Is My Shepherd, particularly in the darker sections of it, such as ‘Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death’.

AP: Could you talk about Berkeley’s settings of liturgical texts compared with those of his contemporary, Britten?

SC: I think this is a terribly difficult area, because one person can listen to a piece of music and can think it spiritually rich, and another person may not be moved in that way, so part of it depends on the disposition of the listener. That said, one is then influenced by what we know about the religious standpoint of the two composers. As far as I’m aware, Berkeley was a practising Catholic, whereas we know that Britten was much more sceptical – he was brought up in the Anglican tradition and went to a school where the Anglican repertory was sung – rather like Vaughan Williams did. Britten had the knowledge but he no longer embraced it spiritually or religiously, certainly not in an orthodox way. It wouldn’t be for me to presume what his views were. So I think there is a difference, but when we think we are perceiving it in the music it is very difficult to be sure whether we are doing so at an objective level or whether it is because of what we know about the two composers.

AP: How do your choristers take to Berkeley’s music?

SC: They like it very much. We often do The Lord Is My Shepherd, the Missa Brevis and the Chichester Service. My experience in general is that children are much more receptive to contemporary music than adults – particularly in amateur circles (of which I am a great supporter), the adults will often say, ‘Oh, that’s a modern piece – it must be very difficult’, ‘I don’t really like it’, or ‘It doesn’t sound very nice’. But children are like blotting paper, soaking up everything that’s put in front of them. I find that my choristers generally learn new contemporary repertoire more quickly than they learn sixteenth-century repertoire.

AP: The Christmas Carol Service at King’s is now a British tradition, and I believe that the annual commissioning of a new carol was your idea?

SC: Well, I wouldn’t say that I was the first person to commission a carol. I couldn’t quote to you what my predecessors might have done, and I’m sure that there were carols especially written, but I think it is true to say that I made it an annual event and I resolved to do that on coming to King’s. The first was in 1983 and it was Lennox’s In Winter Time.  The reason that I approached Lennox was because I had got to know him at Westminster Cathedral where I had been for the previous four years.

AP: Did Lennox meet the criteria of what you would expect a composer to be?

SC: Well, I’m fortunate enough to meet a lot of composers - particularly through my work with the BBC Singers, when we did a lot of first performances - and they come in different shapes and sizes, like all other human beings, so I don’t think I have a single idea in my mind as to what a composer might be like. In the case of Lennox, I found, and it’s a very old-fashioned word to use, but I think he was a gentleman: courteous, always generous in his appreciation of what one had tried to do with his music. He was a man of decency and integrity.