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Constant Lambert: Piano Concerto (1924); Merchant Seaman Suite (1942); Prize-Fight (1927); Pomono torrent


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Lambert, (Leonard) Constant
(b London, 23 Aug 1905; d London, 21 Aug 1951). English composer, conductor and writer on music. A sickly child, he suffered from ill-health throughout his life. His family, while never particularly stable (his father, the painter George Washington Thomas Lambert, left for Australia in 1920 and never saw him again), nevertheless instilled in him an appreciation for the visual arts and literature that brought a distinctive character to his career as a music critic and writer. After winning a scholarship to the RCM, he studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, R.O. Morris and George Dyson, the piano with Herbert Fryer and conducting with Malcolm Sargent.

As a young man, Lambert developed interests in French and Russian music, and the works of Stravinsky and Liszt. The influences of pointillism, neo-classicism and Romanticism are apparent in the orchestral rhapsody Green Fire (?1923), inspired by Russian themes; Prize-Fight (1923–4), a ‘Realistic Ballet in One-Act’ strongly redolent of Satie and Les Six; and Mr Bear Squash-You-All-Flat (1923–4), a one-act ballet based on a Russian children’s tale. Two London pavilion shows, Dover Street to Dixie (1923) and The Blackbirds (1926), introduced him to the world of jazz, an influence that surfaced in compositions such as Elegiac Blues (1927).

Lambert, who enjoyed bohemian artistic circles and salon culture, was a regular visitor at Philip Heseltine’s cottage at Eynsford. He was also friendly with the Waltons and Sitwells, his neighbours in Chelsea, acquaintances that led to his role as co-reciter with Edith Sitwell in Walton’s Façade at the Chenil Galleries in April 1926. The painters Charles Ricketts and C.H. Shannon and the collector Edmund Davis introduced Lambert to Diaghilev who commissioned Romeo and Juliet for the Ballets Russes. Although Lambert threatened to withdraw his score after Diaghilev made various changes to the choreography and rejected Christopher Wood’s set designs in favour of those by surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miró, he was forcibly prevented from doing so. After a cool reception at its first performance in Monte Carlo (4 May 1926), the ballet was performed in Paris, sparking a riot largely orchestrated by the antagonistic surrealists Louis Aragon and André Breton. The first London production, however, was more successful. The neo-Baroque style of the work, recalling the music of Domenico Scarlatti, suggests the influence of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a model used subsequently in Pomona (1926), written for Bronislava Nizhinska’s company in Buenos Aires.


During the second half of the 1920s, Lambert worked sporadically. Though he was short of money, these years proved to be his most fertile in terms of composition. Infatuated by the film actress Anna May Wong, he immersed himself in things Chinese, composing Eight Poems of Li-Po (1926–9), fragile miniatures of impressive economy and poignancy. Music for Orchestra (1927), an introduction and allegro design, received several performances, despite its more severe contrapuntal invention. The Rio Grande (1927), a work displaying his fascination with the exotic, was an immediate success. Using elements of cantata, dance rhapsody, concerto and fantasy, he brought both seduction and melancholy to Sacheverell Sitwell’s atmospheric poem. To his regret, however, the popularity of the work established a set of stylistic expectations that impeded the reception of later works such as the Piano Sonata (1928–9) and the Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1930–31). A memorial to Heseltine, the Concerto is imbued with a free interpretation of Classical forms, blurred on the one hand by elements of jazz improvisation and metrical complexity, and on the other by an austere harmonic language on the edge of tonality.

The last 20 years of Lambert’s life, largely owing to his appointment as conductor of the Carmargo Society in 1930 and musical director of the Vic-Wells company in 1931, saw the composition of far fewer original works. His fascination for 16th- and 17th-century literature and music, however, did find expression in Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1932–5). Written in the form of a masque to words from Thomas Nashe’s Pleasant Comedy (1593), the work was dedicated to Florence Chuter, whom he married in 1931. His most substantial undertaking, Summer’s Last Will and Testament is an urban pastoral in which early forms (madrigal con ritornelli, coranto, branle and sarabande) are the vehicles for expressing the polarized emotions of Bacchian exuberance and autumnal sadness

As Lambert grew older, melancholy contemplation figured more conspicuously in his works, particularly those composed during the war, such as Dirge from Cymbeline (1940), dedicated to his friend Patrick Hadley, and Aubade héroïque (1942). The ballet Tiresias (1950–51), with its sinewy neo-classical style, lies between the worlds of Stravinsky and Roussel. Its licentious plot, involving sex-changes, copulating snakes and erotic suggestion, had to be toned down for its gala performance (9 July 1951) in the presence of Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother). OUP later refused to publish the work and, despite a number of performances of a shortened version by Lutyens, it quickly fell into obscurity. In 1995, after 40 years of neglect, the shorter version was broadcast by the BBC.

From 1930 onwards Lambert began to devote more time to music criticism, writing for the Nation, the Athenaeum, the Sunday Referee, Figaro, the Saturday Review, the Daily Chronicle and the Daily Telegraph. He also wrote for the Radio Times, The Listener and BBC’s Music Magazine (1944). The first postwar production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1946) used his edition, and gave rise to a collaborative publication with Edward Dent and Michael Ayrton (London, 1948). A critic of independent and unconventional views, Lambert had violent likes and dislikes and used his not inconsiderable powers of wit and satire towards both generous and destructive ends. His one extended work of criticism, Music, Ho! (London, 1934), reflects his concern in relating modern music to the other arts and ‘the social and mechanical background of modern life’. An eminently readable volume, largely devoid of technical description, he uses his wide knowledge of painting, sculpture, literature and the cinema to draw parallels between artistic, cinematic, literary and musical trends in the early 20th century. The book’s subtitle, A Study of Music in Decline, reflects his inherent pessimism about the future. This is not only expressed in his incisive and largely negative examinations of neo-classicism, nationalism and revolution, but also in his assessment of musical reception: composers were destined, he believed, to become more sophisticated, like Berg, or, like Weill, they would turn ‘their sophistication to popular account’. Although he admired both composers, Lambert reserved his greatest approbation for Sibelius, van Dieren and Busoni.

Though Lambert is remembered principally for his work as conductor of the Royal Ballet, he was also active as a conductor for ISCM, as an associate conductor of the Proms (1945–6), as a guest conductor of the Hallé and Scottish orchestras (after 1947), and, from time to time, as an opera conductor at Sadler’s Wells (1931) and Covent Garden (1937, 1939, 1947). He did much to promote the work of Weill, Satie, Walton and Berners.

WORKS
dramatic
Ballets: Prize-fight (1), 1923–4, London, 6 March 1924, rev. 1925, unpubd; Mr Bear Squash-You-All-Flat (1), 1923–4, Manchester, 22 June 1979, unpubd; Adam and Eve (suite dansée), 1924–5, London, 6 June 1932, rev. 1932, unpubd; Romeo and Juliet (2 tableaux), 1924–5, Monte Carlo, 4 May 1926 [based on Adam and Eve]; Pomona (1), 1926, Buenos Aires, 9 Sept 1927 [incl. material from Adam and Eve]; Horoscope (1), 1937, London, 27 Jan 1938; Tiresias (3 scenes), 1950–51, London, 9 July 1951, unpubd
Incid music: Jew Süss (A. Dukes, after L. Feuchtwanger), ?1929, London, 19 Sept 1929; Salome (O. Wilde), cl, tpt, vc, perc, 1931, London, 27 May 1931; Hamlet (W. Shakespeare), 1944, London, 11 Feb 1944, unpubd
Film scores: Merchant Seamen, 1940 [orch suite arr. 1943, pubd]; Anna Karenina (dir. J. Duvivier), 1947, unpubd
Arrs. (dates are of first perf.): Mars and Venus (incid music for Jew Süss) [after D. Scarlatti]; Hommage aux belles viennoises, 1929 [after Schubert]; Les rendezvous, 1933 [after Auber: L’enfant prodigue]; Apparitions, 1936, unpubd [after Liszt]; Les patineurs, 1937, suite pubd [after Meyerbeer: Le prophète, L’étoile du nord]; Harlequin in the Street, 1938, unpubd [after Couperin]; Dante Sonata, pf, orch, 1940, unpubd [after Liszt]; The Prospect before Us, London, 1940, unpubd [after Boyce]; Comus, 1942 [after Purcell]; Hamlet, London, 1942 [after Tchaikovsky]; Ballabile, 1950 [after Chabrier]

instrumental
Orch and ens: Green Fire, rhapsody, ?1923, unpubd; Conc., pf, 2 tpt, timp, str, 1924, unpubd; The Bird Actors, ov., 1925, reorchd 1927, unpubd [originally for pf 4 hands]; Champêtre, chbr orch, 1926, unpubd in original form [used as Intrada of Pomona; arr. as Pastorale, pf]; Elegiac Blues, 1927 [arr. pf]; Music for Orch, 1927; Conc. for Pf and 9 players, 1930–31; Aubade héroïque, 1942
Pf: Alla Marcia, ?1925 [incl. in Romeo and Juliet]; Ov., pf duet, 1925, unpubd [see orch: The Bird Actors]; Suite in 3 Movts, 1925, unpubd; Tema, ?1925, unpubd; Pastorale, 1926, unpubd; Elegiac Blues, 1927; Sonata, 1928–9; Elegy, 1938; 3 pièces nègres pour les touches blanches, 4 hands, 1949
Edns/arrs.: Caprice peruvien, orch [after Berners: Le carrosse du St Sacrement]; Boyce: 8 syms., str orch, wind ad lib; Boyce: The Power of Music, The Cambridge Ode, Pan and Syrinx, str orch, wind ad lib; Conc., pf, small orch [after Handel: Org Concs. nos.2 and 6]; Purcell: The Fairy Queen, collab. E. Dent, unpubd

vocal
2 Songs (S. Sitwell), S, fl, hp, 1923; 8 Poems of Li-Po (Li Bai [Li Tai-po]), 1v, pf/8 insts, 1926–9; The Rio Grande (S. Sitwell), chorus, pf, brass, str, perc, 1927; Summer’s Last Will and Testament (T. Nashe: Pleasant Comedy), Bar, chorus, orch, 1932–5; Dirge from Cymbeline (W. Shakespeare), T, bar, male chorus, str/pf, 1940
MSS in GB-Lbbc
Principal publishers: Chester, OUP, Maecenas

WRITINGS
Music, Ho!: a Study of Music in Decline (London, 1934, 3/1966)
‘The Music of The Fairy Queen’, Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen’ as Presented by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and the Covent Garden Opera, ed. E. Mandinian (London, 1948), 19–27

BIBLIOGRAPHY
H. Foss: ‘Constant Lambert’, MT, xcii (1951), 449–51
D. Webster: ‘Constant Lambert: an Appreciation’, Opera, ii (1951), 656 only
A. Morrison: Obituary, RCM Magazine (1951), Nov, 107–10
R. Irving: ‘Constant Lambert’, Decca Book of Ballet, ed. D. Drew (London, 1958), 184–90
R. McGrady: ‘The Music of Constant Lambert’, ML, li (1970), 242–58
C. Palmer: ‘Constant Lambert: a Postscript’, ML, lii (1971), 173–6
R. Shead: Constant Lambert (London, 1973) [incl. bibliography, detailed work-list, discography, etc]
W.T. Hoehn: The Ballet Music of Constant Lambert (diss., Ohio State U., 1981)
J. Dibble: ‘The English Bohemians: Warlock, Van Dieren, Moeran and Lambert’, Glasba med obema vojnama in Slavko Osterc/Musik zwischen beiden Weltkriegen und Slavko Osterc: Ljubljana 1995 (1995), 361–8

Jeremy Dibble

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