Musician & orchestra leader

It is rather sad to think that a man whose accomplishments were such that a Leamington street was named after him is almost forgotten within a few years. Berenska Drive was named after Jan Berenska a multi-talented musician whose orchestra had a huge following in the heyday of radio. During the nineteen- thirties and forties, home entertainment for most families was centred around the wireless set and light music was the staple fare for listeners tuned to the BBC Midland Region. Jan Berenska and his orchestra was one of the most popular of that era broadcasting live from the town’s Pump Rooms every Sunday afternoon. In spite of his rather exotic name, Jan Berenska was an Englishman born and bred. He was born in the spring of 1905 at Seaham Harbour, County Durham and christened Frederick Charles Bye. His father Charles Bye was a talented violinist who was recorded in the 1911 census at 17 Mountjoy Place in Newport, Monmouthshire and pursuing a career as a “Musical Director / conductor” at a local music hall. All of the Bye family were musical and Jan probably acquired his instrumental skills not by attending a college of music but by playing every day with his father and his younger brother Charles. He played the piano at the age of four and at the age of seven he gave a full evening’s concert at Birmingham Town Hall playing violin, cello and piano! He made his first broadcast when he was still in short trousers and it is said that the BBC engineers had to stand him on a soap box to reach the microphone.

Berenska-for-webHe first came to the attention of Leamington music lovers in 1923 when, in their ‘Announcements’ columns, The Leamington Courier advertised a concert at the Town Hall by the English Trio featuring Frederick Bye (cello), his brother Charles Bye (violin) and Wilfred Ridgway (piano). His talent was never better demonstrated than later the same year when he and his brother Charles played the Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra under Adrian Boult and they did it with just seven days notice. Both he and his brother continued playing with their own ensembles and they were also members of the string section of the City of Birmingham Orchestra which broadcast regularly on what the Radio Times quaintly described as Daventry 5GB Experimental radio station. Apart from playing, Frederick also arranged many pieces and wrote light music for the Birmingham Rep. including pieces titled Riviera,Green Goddess and Taps in Tempo.

It was at this period that he decided that although he would continue using the name Frederick Bye when he appeared as a soloist, he would henceforth perform under the name of Jan Berenska when he conducted a group of musicians. Radio Pictorial magazine quoted in the Leamington Courier says that Berenska was his mother’s family name. His mother was a Hungarian soprano in the Carl Rosa company of which Frederick’s father Charles was sometime conductor.

berensks-programme001 copyMost of the larger venues in Leamington were owned and administered by the Leamington Corporation under the Spa Manager who was also responsible for hiring performers to entertain there. Berenska evidently made a good impression on the Corporation worthies and in a short time he graduated from the Winter Hall which was in fact nothing more than the swimming pool at the Pump Rooms which each winter was boarded over for use as a concert and entertainment venue. He was booked to play in more prestigious venues, for tea dances in the Pump Rooms, concerts in the Town Hall and in the Jephson Gardens Pavilion. He could convene a variety of ensembles to suit any occasion from a sextet to a novelty septet and an octet and when the occasion demanded he could turn out a civilian military band and a rhythm band. He had the foresight to realise that broadcasting was the key to running a successful light entertainment group and he established what become known as his Broadcasting Orchestra. Within a few years, Jan Berenska and his Broadcasting Orchestra had a weekly slot on the radio broadcasting live every Sunday from the Tea Room in the Royal Pump Rooms. Through the 1930’s the orchestra gained a reputation as one of the most popular light orchestras on the air. All the broadcasts were live and that frequently posed problems. Sometimes high winds brought down the landlines and one transmission was inexplicably interrupted by fog. Such eventualities were described by the studio continuity announcer as ‘technical hitches’ and gramophone records had to be substituted. The Leamington Corporation decided in their wisdom that when the orchestra was broadcast they would not pay a fee to Jan since he was in any event in receipt of a fee from the BBC. Considering the huge publicity value that these weekly broadcasts had for the Corporation, this seems a particularly niggardly decision. The orchestra had the distinction of playing appropriate live music before and after a broadcast to the Empire by the ill-fated King Edward VIII in March 1936.

The Orchestra at Burgis & Colbourne's restaurant 1938, photo Derek Billings and David Budd

The Orchestra at Burgis & Colbourne’s restaurant 1938, photo Derek Billings and David Budd

There was a rather unfortunate falling out between Leamington Corporation and Jan Berenska in 1947 when certain remarks were made at a meeting of the Town Council impugning the professional reputation of Mr Berenska. The result of this was that Berenska issued a writ for libel and slander against the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough. The case hinged on the alleged non-appearance of the Berenska orchestra for a dance on Good Friday 1947 when in fact the dance had been moved at short notice to the previous day to permit respectful observance of Good Friday. The Berenska Orchestra already had a booking for the Thursday date and had quite properly made arrangements for a substitute orchestra to play. There were those on the Entertainment Committee who made unfortunate comments about the reliability and “non-appearance” of the Berenska orchestra which were minuted and recorded in the council Summons Book and subsequently picked up by the press. The action never got to a King’s Bench hearing. The council offered a full apology and agreed that there was never any foundation for what had been said and paid an agreed sum of £350 damages and £100 in costs plus full apologies in several of the local newspapers.

Little of Jan Berenska’s performing career with his band through the nineteen-fifties and sixties can be traced. He was a regular contributor to the daily radio programme Music While You Work and his orchestra broadcast live from Leamington on eighty-two occasions for this programme.

1950-Greys-adHe also continued to direct smaller groups of players for dances at venues like the Chesford Grange Hotel and as a provider of light music for diners in the restaurant at Grey’s department store in Birmingham. By the late nineteen sixties, the music industry went through a period of tremendous change. Music While You Work came to an end in 1967 effectively seen off by the advent of so-called pirate radio stations and later by commercial stations turing out pop music. People’s musical tastes changed dramatically within a few years and in the process, bands up and down the land such as Jan Berenska’s found themselves redundant.

Headstone-1Jan Berenska died in the Warneford Hospital in Leamington on 20 December 1968 as a result of complications following surgery. The address given on his death certificate was 1 Windmill Hill, Cubbington. He is buried in the village churchyard in Cubbington along with Mary his second wife. His headstone bears the name Frederick Charles Bye and below in brackets the words Jan Berenska.

Jan Berenska is still remembered with great affection by older Leamington folk and it is fitting that we remember and pay homage to someone who used his talents to bring a great deal of pleasure to countless people through the medium of radio.

British Newspaper Archive various dates
Evergeen magazine Autumn 1997
Music While you Work Brian Reynolds [Book Guild Publishing 2006]
Robert Farnon Society website
All images are from the author’s collection

Alan Griffin,  January 2016