Review: Lennox and Freda

An unlikely marriage of musical minds


By Rodney Greenberg, May 23, 2011
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In tune: Lennox and Freda with  two of their sons, Michael and Julian

In tune: Lennox and Freda with two of their sons, Michael and Julian

By Tony Scotland
Michael Russell Publishing, £28

In 1944, A modest, 41-year-old British composer and radio producer with a history of homosexual relationships was at work in his cupboard-like BBC office at 35 Marylebone High Street. Longing to write his own music, Lennox Berkeley instead earned a living compiling programmes from music by other composers. His was a well-connected family, tainted by scandals and a complex peerage case. His illegitimate father had settled in France to flee bankruptcy, and harbouring murky family secrets had left him with an inferiority complex.

A bright, newly hired assistant began working for Lennox. Freda Bernstein was 21, half-Jewish, beautiful and exuberant. Her father, Isaac, was a successful businessman from a Lithuanian family who had settled in South Wales. Her mother, Grace Nunney, had been a cook in a Swiss Cottage boarding house when Isaac rang the bell there for a room. The prosperous 54-year-old fell in love at first sight with the non-Jewish, 27-year-old working girl.

They quickly married, whereupon his family back in Tredegar sat shiva and ended all contact. Both were dead by the time their daughter Freda was five. She spent years as an insecure orphan with nightmares.

Freda and Lennox seemed poles apart but they had in common a love of music (though she described herself as tone-deaf), and a desperate need for security and fulfilment.

A succession of men she met at the BBC, and in her busy social life, fell heavily for her charms. But Freda came to adore only Lennox, and clung patiently to the confused composer while he anguished about his homosexual liaisons.

These included six years living with Benjamin Britten, before the famed partnership with Peter Pears took hold. Repeatedly, Lennox told Freda he could never marry or be a father. But she never lost hope.

One of the most improbable love stories in the musical life of post-war London has been meticulously researched by former Radio Three announcer Tony Scotland, whose partner is Julian Berkeley, one of Lennox's three sons. It is fascinating to follow the two separate lives Lennox and Freda lived - he a successful composer, she a purposeful secretary who at one time travelled to work on the same bus as Gilbert Harding - until at last they meet in Chapter 27.

They married and became Catholic. Freda ran a comfortable home in Little Venice, having three sons despite three miscarriages. The eldest, Michael, is a composer and for 15 years the presenter of Private Passions on Radio Three,

On their silver wedding, Lennox wrote in his diary: "I can't imagine what my life can have been without Freda - perhaps I just prefer not to remember it." He died in 1989. Freda will be 88 this May and still keeps his ashes in an urn on her piano.

When, in 1994, the author took her to see the graves of her Litvak grandparents in Merthyr, he watched her "looking at alien headstones, visibly moved and thinking of a family she never knew and an exotic community she could only imagine."

Rodney Greenberg has made over 300 television music programmes since 1970, including live concerts presented by Michael Berkeley.

    Last updated: 9:18am, May 23 2011