Obituary: Lady Freda Berkeley, secretary and wife of Sir Lennox Berkeley

Born 25 May, 1923 in north London. Died 21 February, 2016 in London, aged 92.

English composer Lennox Berkeley with his wife Freda Berkeley, London, 24th April 1967. Picture: Getty Images
English composer Lennox Berkeley with his wife Freda Berkeley, London, 24th April 1967. Picture: Getty Images

In 1944 Freda Bernstein was a secretary in the music department of the BBC working principally for Lennox Berkeley who was the programme compiler for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a budding composer. He was 20 years older than her with a complicated private life behind him.

Not only was he the illegitimate son of the seventh Earl of Berkeley and, therefore, could not expect to inherit the title, but he had had a lengthy affair with fellow composer Benjamin Britten. Friends were surprised when Lennox and Freda married in 1946 but it proved very successful and Freda provided a strong support for her husband as his music became more widely known. She was a devoted wife and mother and created a home which allowed Lennox to compose and entertain the many students and musicians that arrived on their doorstep. She was a generous and welcoming hostess to generations of artists.

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Elizabeth Freda Bernstein was orphaned as a young child and was brought up by her maternal grandparents. After school in Berkshire she did a secretarial course gaining qualifications in shorthand and typing and a credit in journalism and then joined the BBC. Her office with the orchestral planning department was in Marylebone High Street and her boss was Lennox. He and Britten had split up (Britten to forge a life-long relationship with the tenor Peter Pears) at the end of the war Lennox was, in fact, living with Peter Fraser an RAF pilot in Pimlico but that was no impediment to the marriage. For such a conservative era their wedding was unusual: Fraser was Lennox’s best man and after a night in Claridge’s together the Berkeleys went their separate ways, Lennox to his flat in Pimlico and Freda to her digs in Hertfordshire.

But slowly the marriage developed and Freda, who was a quiet and determined lady, encouraged her husband in his composing – after their marriage his music took on a richer and more relaxed style and developed a worldly and optimistic style. Within the year they were living together in north London and it is a mark of just how well grounded the marriage was that when R3’s Tony Scotland came to write a biography of Lennox in the 1990s he wrote a joint biography titled Lennox and Freda. In it he quotes Freda’s memory of those early years, “I felt elated, down and elated again”. She was remarkably tolerant as he retained his friendship with Fraser and despite the fears of many friends that the marriage wouldn’t last it did: “I knew it would work out in the end” Freda said.

Freda also became a close confidant of many of the students who Lennox taught and advised including Richard Rodney Bennett, John Taverner, the Scottish composer John McLeod and Malcolm Williamson. Later the poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis credited Freda as “the midwife” of his complete collection of poems.

Prior to the birth of their first son Lennox asked Britten to be the godfather to the child. Britten replied, “I’d be honoured & delighted to be godfather to the infant when it arrives. Please give my love to Freda & tell her how pleased I am . . . . How superb it must feel to be creating a real live symphony! Lucky things. Love as ever Ben”.

Homelife was fulfilling and busy. The house was soon filled with students from the Royal Academy of Music and artistic friends were drawn by Freda’s charm and warmth. She created a convivial atmosphere and furnished the house with a good eye for furniture that she had got at junk shops at the nearby Portobello Road market. These blended well with pictures and artefacts Lennox had inherited from his family.

The music Lennox wrote in those early years of marriage proved to be, arguably, his most inspired. Freda was involved in the creation, for example, included the Serenade for Strings, Divertimento, First Symphony and the beautiful Four Poems of St Theresa of Avila which was premiered by Kathleen Ferrier.

When Lennox died in 1989 Freda became one of the patrons of the Lennox Berkeley Society which was founded in 2000. She often hosted their meetings in her flat in London’s in Notting Hill Gate.

The Berkeleys was a happy marriage and were a close-knit family. At the time of their silver wedding in 1971, Lennox noted: “I can’t imagine what my life can have been without Freda — perhaps I just prefer not to remember it.”

Lady Freda, who was always courteous and distinguished, is survived by their three sons, Michael (who was made Lord Berkeley of Knighton last year), Julian who is the partner of Tony Scotland and Nicholas.

Alasdair Steven