Lord Berners: The Last Great Eccentric?

If you open up a score of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the main work of next week’s concert at Fairfield Halls, you will find a dedication at the top of the opening page “To Lord Berners”, but who was Lord Berners?

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, was a 20th century Renaissance man but also a truly extraordinary person, a real product of the Roaring Twenties. Not only was he a novelist, a painter and an aesthete but also a composer.

His most well-known musical work – the ballet The Triumph of Neptune, which he wrote in 1926 for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – gives some idea of Berners’ eccentricity. One of the ballet’s movements is a sailor’s hornpipe followed by a polka. However the sailor of the hornpipe re-appears when he repeatedly interrupts the polka as a bass soloist with an inebriated rendition of The Last Rose of Summer! The original drunken sailor of that other familiar song perhaps?

However, Berner’s eccentricities were certainly not limited to his music, and there is a lengthy list of other examples. He dyed the pigeons on his estate various shades of bright colours, and he once invited a horse to tea – but not just any horse. This was Moti, the steed belonging to Penny, wife of the future Poet Laureate John Betjeman.

He had a purpose-made folding clavichord installed in his Rolls Royce, and had paper flowers planted in his garden. He also had imitation pearl necklaces put round his dogs’ necks. Near his home he had a 100-foot tower built as a folly and he would drive around his estate wearing a pig’s head mask to frighten the locals.

He was very much a socialite with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances: Salvador Dali, H.G. Wells and Igor Stravinsky were among those who visited. In 1950 Stravinsky said that Berners was the best composer of his generation.

And having met the young William Walton via their mutual friends, the remarkable Sitwell siblings Sacheverell, Edith and Osbert (who put together the libretto for Belshazzar’s Feast), Berners then helped out Walton when he was struggling to make a living. Lastly, Berners also acted as interpreter for Walton in 1922 when he met the twelve-tone composer Alban Berg in Salzburg.

And one other link which joins together the stories behind Belshazzar’s Feast and Elgar’s Enigma Variations (two of the pieces in our November concert) is William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp. Lygon was an old friend of Berners and brother of Lady Mary Trefusis – the probable inspiration for one of the variations – and the grandmother of our very own soprano Morwenna Orton! But to know more about that story, you’ll have to come to the concert and read our programme!

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Our Walton and Elgar concert is at Fairfield Halls in the Phoenix Concert Hall on Saturday the 16th of November, and tickets can be purchased now.

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