Let’s to billiards

Stephen Walsh

  • Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande by Stephen Lloyd
    Boydell, 584 pp, £45.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 84383 898 2

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.

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