In 1992 the well-established genre of the British composer biography underwent a step change. Humphrey Carpenter’s Benjamin Britten, published that year, claimed to draw ‘a disturbing and unforgettable portrait of “a man at odds with the world”, in Leonard Bernstein’s phrase’. By allowing many different voices to make their presences felt through extensive quotation from interviews, letters, and ... [Show full abstract] other documents, Carpenter sought to move beyond celebratory hagiography into the kind of psychological interprtation that attempted to lay bare not just the man behind the music but the motives and manners that often seem to link life and work in a richly interactive dialogue.
Three years before Carpenter’s epoch-making work, Meirion and Susie Harries had published A Pilgrim Soul: The Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens. In its more economical way, this anticipated many aspects of Carpenter’s forensically documentary approach: but Carpenter’s example is probably more germane to such later enterprises as Mike Seabrook’s Max: The Life and Music of Peter Maxwell Davies (1994), Stephen Banfield’s Gerald Finzi: An English Composer (1998), and the three collaborative volumes by Anthony Meredith with Paul Harris: Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius (2004), Malcolm Williamson: A Mischievous Muse (2007), and Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician (2010). Outweighing all of these in length and scope is John Tilbury’s Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished (2008). But even Tilbury retains one link with all his fellow post-Carpenter biographers: the formality of keeping both surname and forename in the title is preserved. And so the first thing to say about Tony Scotland’s Lennox and Freda is that it is emphatically not a lurch into fiction, for all that the title evokes multiple precedents in drama and literature from Shakespearean romances to L. P. Hartley’s classic Eustace and Hilda. The ‘factional’ potential of the tale might seem to be being played up when Scotland includes a prefatory section headed, not ‘Personalia’, but ‘Dramatis Personae: an alphabetical list of the principal characters’. Scotland is not, like Carpenter, a biographer who never met his subject, and he played his part in the family dramas of the composer’s last years; but he is no less dedicated than any of those earlier writers to documenting as fully and as frankly as possible the details of the life—and the eventual marriage—that underpinned the work.
Another distinctive feature of this book is its bias towards the earlier years: only on p. 398 do we reach 14 December 1946, the day on which Lennox Berkeley married Freda Bernstein, and fewer than fifty subsequent pages are devoted to the composer’s later life. The book is also much more about ‘life’ than ‘works’, but the fact that Berkeley’s actual composing, along with other aspects of his professional life like conducting and teaching, are only briefly discussed is best seen as the positive result of Scotland’s decision to focus on the composer’s relationships—social, sexual—with an extraordinarily colourful cast of characters. Although the story of his association with Benjamin Britten is already well known in outline (and the Barcelona visit in 1936 is recounted here as a preludial device before the narrative proper begins) the range of Berkeley’s acquaintances during the inter-war decades creates an almost Zelig-like aura around his character. Was there anyone who was anyone whom he didn’t know? His privileged, if stressful, family background explains many of these connections, and sets up such colourful counterpoints as the French connection and his ability to move between devotion to Nadia Boulanger in Paris and contact with W. Somerset Maugham and his louche Cap Ferrat establishment As Scotland makes abundantly clear, Berkeley’s slow progress from life as a gay man in an era of repression and duplicity to (at the age of 43) marriage, fatherhood, and domestic contentment was effected by a supreme yet never negative kind of passivity, a personality that welcomed the possibility of being decisively moulded by circumstance. Nor did the transformation lame his creative powers, as the quality of his later work—especially in the first decade of his married life—attests.
The story of Freda Bernstein’s progress from...