The feature in our last issue about 'Jan Berenska' certainly intrigued several members, with letters, emails and telephone calls criss-crossing the country!
Ken Wilkins was certainly very interested, partly because he lives in Leamington Spa where Jan Berenska used to broadcast from the famous Pump Rooms. Ken writes:
I was interested in the article by John Smith trying to trace the life and times of Jan Berenska as he and I have been in contact by telephone and email on this very subject. Unfortunately he wrote his article before I'd managed to unearth a few facts about JB.
Most of the references John wrote about refer to Charles Bye when in fact Frederick Charles Bye was Jan Berenska and born in 1905. Here I must thank Peter Worsley of Evergreen and This England magazines for sending me a print of a page from a 1997 edition of Evergreen which included information and a photograph of Jan Berenska and was published in response to a reader's request as to what happened to him.
Considering the number of concerts and broadcasts he made from the Pump Rooms here in Leamington and elsewhere, there's not a lot of information available about him. So I turned to Google with not a lot of success, but three videos of one of his compositions being performed, Taps in Tempo, are available on YouTube and a very catchy number it is too. A xylophone solo with a brass band backing, two of the videos have young men, teenagers by the look of them, the first being accompanied by I think the Birmingham Schools Brass Band at an outdoor concert, possibly in Bruges. The second, also with a young man was taped in a theatre - again abroad I think - but the third is played by a young woman (not Evelyn Glennie, at least it doesn't look like her from the distance photographed) but the express speed which she played the piece, accompanied by Kingdom Brass, takes the breath away.
Still with Google, mention is made of a Jan Berenska broadcast concert as John points out from the Roxy Cinema, Ross-on-Wye on September the 26th 1943. But for the most unexpected reference I found I needed to click on to The Straits Times of Singapore of the 7th of May 1935, and there in the radio broadcast lists was a relay from the Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa at 10:35 to 11:20 (followed by a speech made by Rudyard Kipling). Amazing what a PC turns up.
After all this the trail seemed to be petering out, so I returned to our library where I had been before but this time I managed to speak to a local historian who worked there. For some time I'd had the nagging thought that Cubbington, a village now joined to Leamington by development, had something to do with JB and so it turned out. The lady library historian said, quite out of the blue, that he was buried there.
Without further ado I drove straight to Cubbington Church and after about twenty minutes' search I found the grave with the inscription "Frederick Charles Bye" and underneath his name Jan Berenska, passed away on 20th December 1968. He was 63. and had died in hospital.
Also interred with him was "his beloved wife Mary" who died in 1974 aged 53. Whether they had any children I don't know, but a cutting from the Leamington Courier of that time that the library historian obtained for me only mentions he left a widow and sadly the grave looks rather neglected.
One other thing I found out thanks to the library was a cutting from the Coventry Evening Telegraph dated the 28th of May 1947 which states that 'Mr Jan Berenska has issued a writ for slander and libel against Leamington Borough Council" and it mentions that the amount of money involved "is believed to be considerable". I've yet to find out what this libel action was about but the Council couldn't have held it against him because some years later a new road was named after him, Berenska Drive.
Harold Rich, pianist and conductor of the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, had a surprise when he read about Jan Berenska in Journal Into Melody. He tells us:
During the thirties, and the war years, I listened avidly on the radio (sorry, wireless!) to the orchestras of Harry Fell (Aston Hippodrome), William Pethers (Coventry Hippodrome) William Hand (Dudley Hippodrome) - the latter of course became a member of the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, and was my leader when I conducted the MLO in the series "Barry Kent Sings". Another musician I enjoyed was that wonderful musician and multi-instrumentalist. Jan Berenska. I believe he once made a recording, playing violin, cello and piano! He mainly broadcast from the Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa, a venue I grew to know very well over the years.
I only met Jan once, towards the end of his life, in rather unusual circumstances. I had taken a band engagement at a hotel in Birmingham (playing truant from the MLO!) and when I mentioned this to my good friend Norman Parker, he said that he was playing that evening for the Frank Carter band in a hotel on my way home, and as my gig finished an hour earlier, why didn't I call and meet Jan, who was deputizing for Fred Kelly.
This I did, and was promptly invited up on to the stage. However that wasn't all. Frank said "Why don't you and Jan play a duet for the next quickstep?" which we duly did, Jan insisting that I played "up the top"! But imagine my amazement when we had finished, and there was a lull before the next dance, when Jan turned to me and said "I like that arrangement of yours (Butterflies In The Rain) which I heard on the radio last week", then proceeded to play it, giving a commentary on my instrumentation .... "This part you gave to the brass, this to the woodwind" ... and so on. What a musician!
However, to conclude. What completely astonished me, on reading John Smith's article, was to learn that in all my years, and having been a friend of Freddie Bye (he was the librarian of the MLO when I joined, and for years after) I never ever knew that his brother became Jan Berenska.
Editor : from Harold's comments about his friend 'Freddie Bye', is it right to assume that both of the Bye brothers called themselves Freddie, although 'Jan Berenska' gave up being a 'Bye' very early on?
Sheila MacKellow also has fond memories of Jan Berenska. She writes:
This is such a familiar name to me! I remember listening to his orchestra on the radio as far back as the 1930s when he used to play a regular lunch-time concert from the Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa. I was only a child at the time, so he must have been one of the first orchestra conductors whose name I got to know. Later on, in the 1940s, he often played in "Music While You Work" – according to Brian Reynolds' book JB played 82 editions of the programme.
He had a pianist who used to play solos with the orchestra – Jack Wilson, who later became better known as "Jack Wilson and his Versatile Five"; I believe Jan Berenska himself played violin with the Five. There was also a soloist who played the xylophone – his name was Vernon Adcock, and he also later on had an orchestra of his own which used to play on an afternoon programme called "Thé Dansant" (Tea Dance). I always liked the xylophone, so I used to listen to that too!
Jan Berenska had a very fine light orchestra, not just a dance band, but I don't know if he ever made any records, as so many orchestras in those days did not do so.
This article first appeared in 'Journal Into Melody', issue 188 dated June 2011
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