Michael Berkeley


"Berkeley's detailed and inventive score fizzed in frequent and sustained collision with the emotional charge of Rilke's verse"

Guy Dammann, The Guardian

"it bristles with wit and lyricism, while giving other composers and librettists a lesson in how to drape operatic tradition in modern clothes"

Andrew Clark, Financial Times

"Berkeley's imaginative orchestration holds the attention throughout"

George Hall, The Guardian

"Cerebral, sometimes belligerent, though lightened with lyrical flights and delicate colours, it resounded splendidly through the Albert Hall."

Geoff Brown, The Times

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Michael Berkeley was born in 1948, the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten. As a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, singing naturally played an important part in his early education.

He studied composition, singing, and piano at the Royal Academy of Music but it was not until his late twenties, when he went to study with Richard Rodney Bennett, that Berkeley began to concentrate exclusively on composing. In 1977 he was awarded the Guinness Prize for Composition; two years later he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Since then Berkeley’s music has been played all over the globe and by some of the world’s finest musicians.

His work has been commissioned and performed by artists including André Previn, Sir Colin Davis, Mstislav Rostropovich, Heather Harper, John Harle, Nicholas Daniel, Huddersfield Festival, Cheltenham Festival, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales (where he was Composer in Association for three years), Carducci Quartet and Nash Ensemble. His music is regularly heard at the BBC Proms, where his commissions have included large-scale works The Garden of Earthly Delights, Songs of Awakening Love and Concerto for Orchestra.

He has composed three operas; Baa Baa Black Sheep, premiered in 1993 and based on the childhood of Rudyard Kipling; Jane Eyre, his second collaboration with David Malouf, which has been produced in the UK, Australia and America; and most recently For You written to a libretto by Ian McEwan and commissioned by Music Theatre Wales which was also recorded by Signum Classics.

Berkeley’s significant orchestral work, and much of his chamber music and his operas, is available on CD as part of the Chandos Berkeley Edition.

He was Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Music Festival, where he premiered over a hundred new works and initiated a policy of having a contemporary work in every programme, built the music programme for the Sydney Festival in Australia for three years and, with Judith Weir and Anthony Payne, jointly directed the Spitalfields Festival. He has, for several years, been the featured composer for the New York Philharmusica. He currently presents BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions, which won the Broadcasting Press Guild’s Radio Programme of the Year Award in 1996, and for nine years was Chairman of the Governors of The Royal Ballet until 2012.

Michael Berkeley was made a CBE for services to music in the Queen’s Birthday Honours published on June 16th 2012 and was appointed a non-party political member of the House of Lords in 2013. The 2022-2023 season celebrates Berkeley's 75th birthday.

This biography is for information only and should not be reproduced.

'Insects' world premiere

Snape Maltings, April 2023

The world premiere was Michael Berkeley’s Haiku 2: Insects, a set of six harpsichord pieces written for Esfahani, and each a vivid little virtuoso sketch depicting the movements of a different insect – erratically skittering around the keyboards for The Fly, pugnacious and insistent for The Maybug, and so on. There was also Berkeley’s Snake from 2012, a cor anglais solo, which was preceded by the composer himself reading the DH Lawrence poem that inspired it.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian ****

Winter Fragments - Chamber Music recording

Resonus RES10223, released 28 September 2018

Stylistically ranging from the plainchant-inspired Clarinet Quintet (1983) to the sensuous and Satie-like Seven (2007), to the jostling intensity of Catch Me If You Can (1994), it shows Berkeley at his exploratory and individualistic best, free to follow his instinct, tonal or expressionistic.

Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian

[The recording ranges] from the 1983 Clarinet Quintet, with its medieval-pastoral strain, to an impassioned Rilke sonnet setting for mezzo-soprano and cello: Barron compels here and in the seven Winter Fragments (1996). The wind quintet Catch Me If You Can (1994) makes a spruce opener.

Paul Driver, The Sunday Times

Even when working with large-scale forces such as opera and music theatre, Michael Berkeley's style and expression remain attuned to the more intimate nuances of chamber music. Perhaps this is because the chamber context provides such an effective vehicle for one of his music's most distinctive features - the often dichotomous interplay between the individual and the group... the Berkeley Ensemble, directed by Dominic Grier, are excellent throughout - entirely at one with the music of their namesake composer.

Pwyll ap Sion, Gramophone

There’s contrast aplenty – Catch Me If You Can (1994) a feisty, frenetic triptych, the gentle, self-echoing, harp-centred Seven (2007) pregnant with a pensiveness that collides late Mahler with Satie at his most subdued. The Clarinet Quintet (1983) is spun from sinewy, twisting strands contrasting the playful impetuosity and dark-hued luminosity of John Slack’s clarinet to end in a moment of sublimely subdued beauty. 2010’s Rilke-setting Sonnet for Orpheus and the seven-part song-cycle Winter Fragments (1996) – both benefiting from Fleur Barron’s ardent mezzo – showcase Berkeley’s sensitivity to text, economy of expression and ability to surprise with startling drama or an unexpected flourish.

Michael Quinn, ClassicalEar.co.uk

Coronach 'world premiere' performed by Presteigne Festival Orchestra

Presteigne Festival, August 2018

Arresting...a guttural eruption of grief meets the pure lament of tears.

Rebecca Franks, The Times

‘Haiku’ World Premiere, performed by pianist Clare Hammond

Presteigne Festival, August 2016

Michael Berkeley’s Haiku took the form of a series of sharply etched vignettes inspired by the contrasting movement of various birds encountered in the Welsh Marches. Astutely arranged, these glinting shards of material juxtaposed darting, hyperactive explosions of sound with more measured activity, ominously loitering.

Musical Opinion

Clarion Call – Music for Septet and Octet

Berkeley Ensemble, Resonus Classics (March 2014)

The disc opens with the newest work, Michael Berkeley’ s 2013 Clarion Call and Gallop for septet which was written specially for the Berkeley Ensemble... A high spirited and buoyant piece, it has a very distinctive texture with much high clarinet writing against spikier textures from the other instruments with the whole having a lovely transparency and airiness, combined with a very strong character.

Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill

Into the Ravine

Carducci Quartet ,Signum Classics CD (February 2014)

A study in the varied colours available from oboe and string quartet, reaching an intense unified climax.

Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine

Michael Berkeley’s finely wrought Oboe Quartet (2012) – a single movement spanning 18 minutes – is texturally transparent and plangent in expression.

Edward Bhesania, The Strad

Michael Berkeley Catalogue

Michael Berkeley is published by Oxford University Press

Michael Berkeley Discography

Berkeley Edition on Chandos Records

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