Of the many works Berkeley has written for orchestra two stand out as being particularly popular: Divertimento and Serenade for Strings which was composed between September and November 1939 and perfectly demonstrates Berkeley’s love and understanding for string writing.
The Serenade is in four movements, the first being a light-hearted ‘Vivace’ with a strikingly felicitous tune for its first subject. The orchestra play around this idea with long chromatic runs, always leading up to a restatement of the theme, until the end of the movement where the first half of the phrase becomes a coda for a rather cheeky cadence.
The ‘Andantino’ is a much more graceful affair with a plaintive melody that starts on the violins, is then taken into the bass and is finally given a more vehement treatment before being returned to its original protagonists where it dies away to a natural conclusion.
The ‘Scherzo’ is the most boisterous and thematically various movement of the four. A darting motif based on repeated notes gives way to a rousing angular theme which is soon swallowed up to allow the celli their insistent message. This is followed by and extraordinary ‘col legno’ section (the top half of the orchestra using the wood of their bows and the bottom half with a pizzicato figure). Suddenly, as though the air has been cleared, the violins begin a charming, dipping melody that the violas soon get their hands on and, after this has been discussed, the movement is rounded off by a return to the chattering opening.
The ‘Lento’ that ends the work is the most rewarding movement from the point of view of emotional depth (it has been suggested that its moving pathos was inspired by the onset of World War II but if this is so, the composer feels it must have happened subconsciously). The chorale-like tune is sounded straight away and its development leads to a powerful climax with the basses and celli rising step after laborious step to a high A, having travelled over two octaves to get there. As the movement mournfully fades away the violins can be heard slowly reminiscing over their gay little melody that opened the work, but now it is lacking in any joy and sounds more like a quietly receding ghost.