Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande 
by Stephen Lloyd.
Boydell, 584 pp., £45, March 2014, 978 1 84383 898 2
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Constant Lambert​ is a composer one would like to have met. This has nothing in particular to do with the quality of his music, though he was a much better composer than you might deduce from the scarcity of performances of his work. Nor is it solely because of his reputation – which has long outlived most of the music – as a bon vivant, propping up, or being propped up by, the bar of the George in Great Portland Street (the Gluepot, as it was known), keeping its regulars up till dawn with his brilliant conversation. There was a lot more to him than one-liners and limericks; and if one thing emerges from the thickets of Stephen Lloyd’s excessively long biography, it is that Lambert had one of the finest musical minds of his generation and a critical faculty second to almost none.

During his lifetime, you would have come across him as a conductor, either at the Vic-Wells ballet, of which he was the musical director and musical conscience for almost twenty years; or on the radio, for which he was a regular conductor and occasional speaker. Or you might have read his music criticism in the New Statesman or the Sunday Referee. Like many of my generation, I first encountered him in his wonderfully perverse and entertaining 1930s book on modern music, Music Ho!, with its provocative subtitle: ‘A Study of Music in Decline’. This was on my first Cambridge reading list, presumably because it wrote off a lot of the new music of the interwar years that Cambridge was still having difficulty coming to terms with in the early 1960s. But it was dangerous stuff for an 18-year-old brought up on the Anglican choral repertoire and the crumbling sheet music from his grandmother’s piano stool. Lambert’s musical tastes coincided neither with the establishment line at the Royal College, where he studied from 1922 to 1926, nor with the fairly small progressive pro-Continental wing in British music. He respected Schoenberg and especially Berg, loathed Stravinsky, preferred Satie to Debussy, thought Sibelius the greatest symphonist since Beethoven, had no interest in folksong (though he studied with Vaughan Williams and liked and respected him), adored jazz for its virtuosity and instrumental sound but had little patience with most of the so-called symphonic jazz of the 1920s.

The key to this apparent ragbag of a pantheon is that Lambert had come to music from somewhere rather different from the average English-trained musician of his youth. His father, George, was a successful painter but an unsuccessful father, who decamped to Australia when Lambert was 15 and had barely recovered from a long illness that left him permanently lame and partially deaf. His mother, Amy Absell, was a writer manquée whose chief literary product was a loveless biography of the husband who had deserted her. Spending so much time in school sanatoriums and lacking strong guidance from home seems to have encouraged a streak of loneliness that came out later in extravagant sociability on the one hand and a fierce intellectual independence on the other. Several of his friends noted that underneath the vivid social personality, Lambert – like many noted wits – was melancholic, something that he himself observed of his close friend Lord Berners, who (according to Lambert’s obituary of him) had a subtle technique for preserving solitude in railway compartments: he donned dark glasses and slyly beckoned the would-be intruder in.

A brilliant natural musician, a gifted pianist and effortless sight-reader, Lambert nevertheless spent at least as much time with non-musicians as with musicians. He had become obsessed with ballet at Christ’s Hospital School, had been taken to watch the Ballets Russes in London, and would annoy his schoolfellows by reading ballet reviews ‘while they were poring over the latest score from Lords or the Oval’. Later, when William Walton went to see Diaghilev about the possibility of a commission, Lambert went along too and played through his own ballet Adam and Eve, which Diaghilev liked but insisted on retitling Romeo and Juliet, on the grounds that one could hardly ‘expect Madame Karsavina to appear as Eve. A married lady! But she won’t hear of it!!’ In due course Lambert was to become artistic director of the Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells, and later still the Royal Ballet), and its regular conductor. Lloyd quotes various testimonials to his brilliance as a dance conductor, but none is more persuasive than Lincoln Kirstein’s report on his conducting of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake at the New York Met in 1949: ‘Marvellous music, exquisitely played by Lambert, a divine conductor, the greatest ballet man in the business.’ Lambert had ‘a genius for tempi,’ Kirstein thought, absolutely on the note in every variation; no boring bits; and he supports the dancers on the huge stage by giving them assurance from his authority.’

Lambert’s obsession with dance also emerged as an interest in its practitioners. In particular, there was a long affair with Margot Fonteyn. And it came out most significantly in his own music, which was dominated by ballet or by concert music that sounds as if it’s crying out to be danced, and sometimes has been. Ballet, Lloyd observes, ‘was central to his musical thinking’. He composed no opera, and though he occasionally conducted it (notably Puccini’s Turandot at Covent Garden in 1947), and recorded Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, he seems to have been less secure in his judgment of singers’ needs on stage. The impression is of a tendency to drive opera along as if it were dance, with a certain lack of concern for the flexibilities of vocal expression or the simple need to breathe. All the same, one of his most exquisite works is a set of Eight Poems of Li-Po, dedicated hopefully (but in vain) to the silent film actress Anna May Wong, with whom he was distantly in love; and his most famous work, perhaps his only really famous work, The Rio Grande, is choral.

Lloyd’s biography chronicles all this somewhat relentlessly, with frequent digressions into background information of questionable relevance, great chunks from letters, programme notes and even other people’s musical analyses, on a scale that threatens to bury its comparatively fragile subject matter. Lambert was a Roman candle: he flared up brilliantly, then was gone. Multi-talented, he spread himself too thin; after his death in 1951 from undiagnosed diabetes aggravated by alcohol, his music lacked the grip it would have needed to survive him. I think this is unjust; but Lambert was by no means the only victim of the national tendency to undervalue Britain’s musical heritage. Among the members of his own circle, composers such as Peter Warlock, Alan Rawsthorne, Berners, even to some extent Walton have faded well beyond their worth. Lloyd plainly considers Lambert a significant composer, but he doesn’t argue the case in any very material or persuasive way, and he hardly even attempts to locate Lambert’s work within the music of his time. The picture is of an eclectic artist with a sharp associative mind and a flair for disparate enthusiasms who is too readily distracted. The Shakespearean motto he used for the title of his book – ‘The music, ho! Let it alone; let’s to billiards’ – might seem to apply all too well to Lambert himself.

The truth, which you could read Lloyd’s biography without fully grasping, is more complicated. Lambert’s non-creative work – his music criticism and conducting, not to mention his drinking, socialising and philandering – helped to fix his image as a wayward, clever, attractive but ultimately perverse, even superficial, artist. He’s remembered, especially by those (like me) who ‘remember’ him through the reminiscences of others, as a figure a bit like a bibulous university supervisor, up all hours, ever ready with a fag and a corkscrew, always smiling, profoundly witty, and well on the way to self-ruin.

This is accurate as far as it goes. But any serious view of Lambert’s music ought to take us further. As a composer, he suffered not from lack of brilliance or substance, but from going against the historical moment. Like Britten (whom he detested, both musically and personally: the feeling was reciprocated) he stood out against the cowpat school of English folk-influenced music. This is well known from Music Ho!; but it is equally evident in his own music. A big influence on his work in the 1920s and early 1930s was jazz, and despite his dislike of symphonic jazz, it’s hard to see that a work like his excellent Concerto for Piano and Nine Players could be described in any other way. The jazz basis of The Rio Grande (a setting of a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, unconnected with the famous river) is almost its best-known feature. But jazz idioms crop up all over the place, sometimes as no more than crisp, syncopated rhythms, sometimes as harmonic suggestions. Now and then the music gets bogged down in figurings of this kind; at least as often it is energised by them. The piano sonata (1928-29: Lambert was 23) is to my mind a much better piece than even its future publisher, Alan Frank, thought (‘no single idea seems to last for more than a couple of bars’); and the jaw drops at Edmund Rubbra’s ‘rhythmic monotony and … melodic paucity’, criticisms Rubbra might just as well, or ill, have made of Schoenberg, Webern and their assorted followers (including Lambert’s friends Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens), whose work – whatever its merits – is the staple of every history of 20th-century music.

Lambert’s problem was that his modernism wasn’t quite modern enough. Though respectful of Schoenberg, he never took any interest in serialism; and though his harmonic language is sophisticated, it never quite abandons tonality or the influence of the recent English tradition represented by Holst (less often Vaughan Williams) and Walton. Britten, and somewhat later Tippett (another Lambert bête noire: he called him Arseover Tippett), could get away with this kind of thing, thanks to an individuality that, in the end, Lambert lacked. Perhaps because of his distractability or sheer mental range, Lambert also had difficulty sustaining his most ambitious scores, the choral-orchestral Summer’s Last Will and Testament, and his last big ballet, Tiresias. SLWAT, as Lambert impatiently acronymed his fifty-minute cantata, suffers by comparison with Britten’s Spring Symphony, which set some of the same Thomas Nashe poetry a decade and a half later; and while the comparison may be unfair, it is revealing. Britten’s genius lay in the precise capture of verbal imagery and sonority in striking musical ideas. Sequence and balance mattered more to him than continuity. Lambert’s approach is more linear, more symphonic I suppose, and although his musical ideas – and especially his orchestration – are sometimes riveting, when he extends them he tends to lapse into routine. Tiresias is a bore, whereas the earlier, shorter ballets – especially the neoclassical Pomona and the more Waltonesque Horoscope – never fail to entertain, despite a certain period flavour.

For all its faults and occasional limitations, this is music that deserves performance. A handful of works belong in the repertoire, to which currently only The Rio Grande precariously clings: the fine Music for Orchestra, the Li-Po songs (in their ensemble version, whose scoring resembles that of Ravel’s Mallarmé songs and Stravinsky’s Japanese lyrics), the Concerto for Piano and Nine Players, and the beautiful piano Elegy. They are at least as good as a number of works that prop up the so-called canon. This is by no means to say that Lambert is a composer of the first rank. We hear enough second-rate (in the best sense) and third-rate (in the worst sense) music not to expect or even want to be listening to nothing but masterpieces.

On the whole, Lloyd doesn’t advocate in this way. He describes, sometimes in his own words, sometimes not. And the scale of his descriptions can seem arbitrary: for no obvious reason, he gives as much space to Lambert’s film score for Korda’s Anna Karenina and to the Ashton ballet Apparitions (for which Lambert merely chose the late Liszt piano pieces for Gordon Jacob to orchestrate), as he does to Horoscope. He quotes in extenso a long programme note by Rubbra on Summer’s Last Will, as if to excuse himself from the task. And he remorselessly lists composers and performers and repertoire in concerts and ballet seasons in which Lambert was sometimes only partially involved. His strength as a biographer is in relating anecdote and describing dramatis personae, some of whom, again, are allotted an inordinate amount of space, as Lloyd tells us about their early lives and loves, or, in the case of Fonteyn, expatiates on her marriage to Roberto Arias and her devotion to him after he was shot and paralysed, long after Lambert’s death. Lloyd neither edits nor is adequately edited.

The book is rescued by its cast, providing what amounts to a portrait of British music and related arts in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Lambert appears as the composer Hugh Moreland in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (Lloyd gives details in one of many useful if cluttered appendices), and one sometimes feels that most of his friends could have popped up in the pages of Powell’s novel as well. In fact, some did. Powell was an intimate friend, especially early on, and Lambert was also close to the Sitwells. While still a schoolboy he had turned up on the Sitwells’ doorstep in Carlyle Square with a letter of introduction (we’re not told from whom) and had been quickly absorbed into that eccentric household. There he met Walton, three years older and firmly established as a Sitwell protégé. The two quickly became close, and after hearing Edith struggle through an early performance of Walton’s Façade, Lambert is supposed to have remarked, ‘You ought to have had me reciting it’; after that they usually did.

Much later in life he would swap unprintable limericks with Tom Driberg, but seems never to have set any; this is another of Lloyd’s appendices, though sadly one of the shortest (one limerick about Ernest Newman and the Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman is worth the price of the book on its own). Perhaps because of the artists in his own family (his brother, Maurice, followed their father in this), he was at home with painters, like Kit Wood, who painted or drew Lambert half a dozen times before throwing himself under a train in 1930, and Isabel Nicholas, a former model of Giacometti’s and a painter of distinction, whom Lambert married in 1947. After being widowed, she married Alan Rawsthorne, one of Lambert’s closest musical (and drinking) friends.

Lloyd doesn’t tell the story, relayed to me by Alun Hoddinott, of Isabel Lambert swaddling herself in brown wrapping paper for the winter, so perhaps it’s untrue. Pity. I liked Lloyd’s suggestion that Lambert would have enjoyed a billboard announcing ‘The Wise Virgins (subject to alteration)’. It’s a shame that this sharpness often deserted him in compiling this comprehensive, informative, but frustrating narrative.

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