Lord Berners

Active - 1944 - 1947  |   Genres - Drama, Mystery, Fantasy

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Lord Berners enjoyed a long career as a composer, novelist, and painter, with his work in film music marking the final phase of that music career. Born Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson in Shropshire, England, in 1883, he was the son of the 13th Baron Berners, whose lineage could be traced back to Edward III. Berners was, even as a boy, multi-talented and prone to eccentricity in his behavior. He traveled widely as a youth and attended Eton before entering the diplomatic service. In 1919, he became the 14th Baron Berners, usually referred to as Lord Berners. A mostly self-taught musician, apart from some minimal training in Dresden and in England, who got personal assistance from the likes of Igor Stravinsky, he was known for his clever, whimsically humorous compositions and ballets (which included at least one burlesque of Stravinsky's work) as well as his literary works -- mostly of a satiric and humorous nature -- and his paintings. He moved widely in literary circles for much of his life, in England and on the continent, and turns up in veiled form in works such as The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (in the guise of Lord Merlin).

Lord Berners was a colorful and flamboyant figure, to say the least, at one time keeping a giraffe as a pet, and dyeing the pigeons living at one of his homes in bright colors. One gets the impression of something like an Alice in Wonderland surrounding him, all laced with the reality that he seems to have struggled with deep depression at various times in his life. His titled background also allowed him to express his homosexual preferences more openly than was usually the case in England (the law there being especially harsh, and sometimes harshly enforced -- most notoriously in the case of Oscar Wilde -- until the early '60s). Berners traveled in the most prominent literary and artistic company, and lived a unique lifestyle until the onset of the Second World War, which left him cut off from ever-larger sections of the European continent, where he had spent a great deal of his life.

The outbreak of the war, and the resulting psychological depression, led to a halt in Lord Berners' composing activities that lasted for years. In 1943, however, he resumed composing in a field that was entirely new to him, motion pictures, all thanks to the intervention of Ernest Irving. A prodigiously talented conductor, Irving was the head of the music department at Ealing Studios. He was also deeply committed to improving the nature and quality of film music, and made it a policy during the 1940s of approaching serious composers, both young and established, about writing film scores. Unlike most composers in the film world, for whom the attraction lay either in the high, steady fees or the opportunity to write music that would be heard quickly, Lord Berners lacked neither money nor venues for his work, only inspiration. And apparently the challenge of the new medium was enough to get him writing music once again.

Berners' first film score was for a 1943 ghost story entitled Halfway House, which showed his inventiveness undiminished. Additionally, his experience in writing for the ballet proved excellent preparation for the requirements of film composition. Following a smaller contribution to the movie Champagne Charlie (1944), he was engaged to write the score for Alberto Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby (1946), based on the Charles Dickens story. While the film had some severe shortcomings, mostly owing to its structure -- and the inherent inadequacy of trying to shoehorn its highly episodic plot and array of characters into less than two hours of screen time -- the music was praised for its expressiveness, inventiveness, and lyricism and, in the form of a concert suite arranged by Irving, took on a life of its own in the concert hall. It was also the final work written by this unique figure in the history of English music and literature, a renowned eccentric in his own time who has since become even more enigmatic.

In the 1980s, the music for Nicholas Nickleby, along with some of Lord Berners' best-known ballet and concert works, received new recordings by EMI. Additionally, the movie's status in the 1980s and 1990s as a "public domain" title in the United States, and its resulting wide distribution in unauthorized editions, led to the score's becoming the most widely heard and best-known piece of music in Lord Berners' output.