'A masterpiece buried for far too long' (The Guardian)
'A compelling performance, and production values are all one might expect from this source' (The Independent)
'One is very reluctant at the conclusion to disturb the silence by standing up and switching off the CD player' (CDReview)
'Nothing short of a triumph. With the bittersweet Aubade héroïque as makeweight, no disc makes a better case for Lambert's importance' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)
Aubade héroïque [8'05]
Rondo burlesca (King Pest) [10'08]
The ‘richness’ all his friends noted about Constant Lambert ran the full gamut of experience, in his music as in his life. Everything was what it was to the full, everything acted out with the utmost passion and conviction. Was it the theatre in him? Was there an element of schizophrenia echoing that of Philip Heseltine (also known as Peter Warlock). ‘Down’ was really down—the abyss (Summer’s Last Will and Testament); ‘up’ was preternaturally up, as in the unique, ageless and dateless Rio Grande.
Lambert completed The Rio Grande in 1927 when he was twenty-two. He never produced anything like it again, nor does it bear much resemblance to anything else in English music, or for that matter in any music. In its way it is surely a masterpiece, yet Lambert came to regard it as not so much a milestone as a millstone—twenty-two is too early to score your greatest popular success, which is what The Rio Grande turned out to be for Lambert. What do you do with the rest of your life? (Answer: you set ballet in England on its feet, write books like Music Ho! and music like Summer’s Last Will and Horoscope and limericks like the one about the Bishop of Western Japan, inspire composers like Walton and Arnold, choreographers like Ashton, dancers like Helpmann and Fonteyn … you also drink yourself into a slough of despond and die of alcoholism and undiagnosed diabetes at forty-six.)
The Rio Grande, seemingly so spontaneous, draws on a number of sources, some quite obscure. To mention the least obscure first: it is ironic that Lambert in Music Ho! should dismiss Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, a would-be Lisztian concerto in jazz style, as ‘neither good jazz nor good Liszt, and in no sense of the word a good concerto’. We might well describe The Rio Grande itself as a ‘would-be Lisztian concerto’ (or rhapsody, or fantasy) in jazz style. Liszt was a lifelong Lambert favourite (he dominates the ‘King Pest’ movement of Summer’s Last Will) and so was jazz: the question arises whether The Rio Grande is good Liszt, good jazz, or a good concerto. It is certainly good something.
The seeds were sown in 1923, when Lambert underwent a revelatory experience. C B Cochran had brought over from the USA a group of black singers and instrumentalists for one of the revues he was presenting at the London Pavilion. Will Vodery’s Plantation Orchestra played, led by a superb first trumpet, Johnny Dunn (known as ‘the creator of wa-wa’): and Lambert was transfixed. He later wrote: ‘After the humdrum playing of the English orchestra in the first half, it was electrifying to hear Will Vodery’s band in the Delius-like fanfare which preluded the second. It definitely opened up a new world of sound.’ That ‘new world of sound’ is what Lambert attempts to recreate in The Rio Grande. But note two significant names in the foregoing: Will Vodery, and Delius. Vodery (1885–1951) was a black arranger instrumental in furthering Gershwin’s early career. He orchestrated his one-act opera Blue Monday and later collaborated with him on musical arrangements for his shows. His appearing in this context reminds us that what may sound like Gershwin in The Rio Grande more probably reflects the American jazz-cum-Broadway vernacular of the day as practised by men like Vodery, and which Gershwin then appropriated and immortalized.
The Delius question is more involved. When, some years ago, I asked the late Angus Morrison, pianist and close friend of Lambert (The Rio Grande is dedicated to him and he played in its first performance), to try to reconstruct the ‘Plantation’ fanfare, I was amazed to discover that not only does it pervade The Rio Grande itself—the chorus’s fortissimo opening statement is a direct transmutation, or transcription—but it is no less pervasive in Delius’s music (the famous Walk to the Paradise Garden, to quote just one instance, has it in almost every bar). Lambert, as we saw, immediately noted the resemblance, and divined the cause. ‘Juicy’ jazz harmony originated in the spiritual, the spiritual in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Delius knew both—hymns in boyhood in Victorian Bradford, and spirituals, later, through living among black people in Florida. In fact Delius was haunted throughout his life by the sound of black voices singing in close harmony; and if, therefore, the sound of the unaccompanied chorus in The Rio Grande singing ‘The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town’ is magically Delian, it also sets up a complex series of overtones in terms of Lambert’s musical make-up. (Lambert ideally wanted a black choir for the piece; the Chorus of Opera North may not be that but they can certainly supply the ‘theatrical’ style of singing that he asks for in the full score.) Delius, scarcely noted for widespread sympathies in music old or new, was a great admirer of The Rio Grande. Of course he was. He heard his own youth in it.
The Rio Grande is, in fact, one of those fascinating hybrids, the whole far more than the sum of its parts. Johnny Dunn’s trumpet ‘wa-wa’s just before the contralto’s ‘And fright the nightingales’. The solo piano part, filled with what Tennessee Williams called ‘the infatuated fluency of black fingers’, recalls Lambert’s praise of contemporary jazz techniques: ‘The piano writing, in particular, is of the utmost brilliance, and marks the greatest advance in piano technique since Albéniz.’ It’s the kind of part, in fact, that Gershwin himself would have played well—now flashy and brittle, now soulful and singing—and it makes good sense that Jack Gibbons, the soloist on this recording, is a Gershwin specialist. The orchestral combination is odd: you would expect the absence of woodwinds adversely to affect the brightness of the overall sonority, but it does not. In fact Lambert executes his orchestration with the same dexterity and charm he admired in jazz; the emancipated treatment of the percussion—almost as much a virtuoso entity as the piano—is to be found earlier in Stravinsky’s Les Noces and contemporaneously in Darius Milhaud, whose jazz ballet La Création du Monde Lambert warmly commends in Music Ho!.
As for the chorus, remarks Lambert makes in a 1928 article on jazz speak for themselves: ‘The chief interest of jazz rhythms lies in their application to the setting of words, and although jazz settings have by no means the flexibility or subtlety of the early seventeenth-century airs, for example, there is no denying their lightness and ingenuity … English words demand for their successful musical treatment an infinitely more varied and syncopated rhythm than is to be found in the nineteenth-century romantics, and the best jazz songs of today are, in fact, nearer in their methods to the late fifteenth-century composers than any music since.’
Lambert would be the first to concede, today, that some of the harmonic and rhythmic clichés he decried in others had slipped into his own work. Yet, for all that, The Rio Grande retains a pristine quality. Now hard, now soft, it sparkles and glitters one moment, then seduces us the next with the kind of bluesy urban melancholy to be found in deeper, richer measure in a quite different context in Summer’s Last Will and Testament. It is above all the work of a poet, and Lambert’s poetic sensibility has ensured the survival of his best music. The free-fantasy form is simplicity itself: first section (allegro) – cadenza for piano and percussion – slow central section, in the style of a nostalgic tango – recapitulation – tranquil coda.
The title Aubade héroïque recalls Debussy, whose Berceuse héroïque for piano, written during the 1914–18 war, was dedicated to the King of the Belgians and his soldiers. Lambert’s piece was also war-inspired. Its date is 1942 and it is inscribed ‘to Ralph Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday’. It is a recollection-in-tranquillity of a dramatic incident of two years earlier, when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (of which Lambert was Musical Director) was marooned for a few days in Holland when the Germans invaded in May 1940. It must have been a terrifying experience; Lambert and his colleagues barely escaped with their lives. Lambert explained, in a note on the score, ‘This short piece was inspired by a daybreak during the invasion of Holland, the calm of the surrounding park contrasting with the distant mutterings of war’.
‘London doth mourn, Lambert is quite forlorn,
Actually Nashe wrote ‘Lambeth’, not ‘Lambert’, but ‘Lambert’—Constant Lambert—would have been quite capable of misquoting it accidentally-on-purpose. In the case of Summer’s Last Will and Testament—perhaps his masterpiece, certainly ‘one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire’ (Malcolm Arnold)—Lambert had plenty to be forlorn about, not least the indifferent circumstances of its first performance, which effectively consigned it to oblivion for many years. The date of the premiere was 29 January 1936. Six days beforehand King George V had died (did the concert still begin, as the printed programme suggests, with ‘God save the King’?) and the public mood was unreceptive to concert-going in general, let alone to appreciating a work of such unrelieved melancholy and gloom as Summer’s Last Will and Testament. (It may also have been badly sung; the chorus’s part is very difficult.) From an objective point of view, of course, the timing was perfect, since the work’s subject is death and the precariousness of life in Elizabethan London, with its ever-present danger of plague.
Intimations of mortality, in fact, besiege Summer’s Last Will and Testament on all sides. Its author, the Elizabethan polemicist, poet and dramatist Thomas Nashe (whose Unfortunate Traveller is the earliest picaresque novel in English) was only in his early thirties when he died in 1601. Its composer, Lambert, fared a little better—he reached the ripe old age of forty-six when he died in 1951—but he was only twenty-seven when he began the piece in the summer of 1932, and thirty when he finished it in the winter of 1935. ‘Youth’s singing season’? Age, however crabbed, could scarcely sing more poignantly of waste and loss. What specifically motivated Lambert was the death in 1930, by his own hand, of one of his closest friends, the composer and scholar Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock. It was Heseltine who introduced Lambert to the world of Elizabethan music and letters which vitally determines the character of Summer’s Last Will. But Heseltine was also a deeply disturbed character whose influence on younger men was as much destructive as creative. Lambert’s biographer Richard Shead accuses him of turning virtually an entire generation of English composers into alcoholics. Certainly Lambert was one of those in thrall to him and was devastated by his death. The Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments is dedicated to Heseltine’s memory, and in the ‘Rondo burlesca (King Pest)’ of Summer’s Last Will there is a direct musical reference to an incident recounted in Cecil Gray’s biography of Heseltine:
One evening in particular I remember vividly … when Peter gave an impromptu performance of a little-known sea shanty in the collection of Sir Richard Terry, entitled ‘Walk him along, Johnny’, which he said he wished to be performed at his funeral. Caparisoned in his African witch doctor’s robe and a huge soft black hat, he intoned the choral lines in a hoarse whisper, hopping and capering grotesquely like a vulture, in a kind of danse macabre, imbuing the artless little ditty with a nameless sense of dread and horror, and seeming almost to gloat over the thought of his own imminent decease. On a certain dark and gloomy December day only a few years later, in the old cemetery in Godalming, I was to recall involuntarily this strange performance, and in my mind’s eye seemed to see him leaping around his own coffin, croaking sardonically ‘Walk him along, Johnny, carry him along; carry him off to the burying ground’.
The phrase ‘carry him off to the burying ground’ is quoted at the climax of ‘King Pest’, hammered out by the full orchestra in brutal fortissimo unison. Note Gray’s reference to a danse macabre, a dance of death, for that is precisely what this movement is. As such it looks back not only to Liszt—adored by Lambert at a time when he (Liszt) was scarcely taken seriously as a composer—but also to the witches’ sabbath in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The term ‘rondo’ is slightly ambiguous: it undoubtedly does mean here, as it usually does, a movement with regularly recurring themes; but it also bears connotations of the round-dance, the type of heavy-footed country dance immortalized by Berlioz in his ‘Ronde du Sabbat’. Lambert does not feature the ‘Dies irae’ in toto as does Berlioz, but there are fleeting allusions to its melodic outline. (There is more to be said on the horrors and terrors of the ‘Rondo burlesca’: see below.)
Michael Ayrton—distinguished painter, close friend of Lambert’s and editor of Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller, recalls ‘Constant felt such sympathy for Tom Nashe that this long-dead Elizabethan practically joined the company of Constant, Cecil Gray, Dylan Thomas and myself when we went drinking round the town’. The ‘pleasant comedy’ Summer’s Last Will and Testament was almost certainly written for and performed in Archbishop Whitgift’s household at Croydon in 1592. ‘In it,’ observes J B Steane, ‘the poet in [Nashe] called out, as it never did elsewhere’. The title punningly refers to Will Summers (d1560), jester at the court of Henry VIII. Lambert calls his setting a ‘masque’ which is what Nashe’s ‘pleasant comedy’ was—a sequence of vocal and instrumental music, dancing and spectacle. Lambert’s is not a stage work, there’s no ‘spectacle’, but in setting Nashe’s lyrics he does draw heavily on Elizabethan vocal, instrumental and dance idioms, all refashioned in contemporary style; the musician who had shown him how to do this was, of course, Warlock.
The work falls into two main sections. The first begins with an orchestral ‘Intrata’ consisting of two dances (‘Pastorale’ and ‘Siciliana’) heavy already with the spirit of ‘Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more’. The chorus laments the imminent end of good times, and invokes the prime of the year in two Bacchanalian dances (‘Corante’ and ‘Brawles’) which remind us of Lambert’s passionate advocacy of both ballet and booze. A huge climax builds, the voices ecstatically dispensing with words, as they do in Delius’s Song of the High Hills. This is the turning point, the great noontide, the blaze of high summer. Now
… the bright day is done,
Part II: the chorus dissonantly deplores the approach of autumn and the ‘want of term’ (i.e. law-term, necessarily held elsewhere than at London owing to the plague). There follows the orchestral scherzo (with two trios), ‘King Pest’, based on a grisly short story by Edgar Allen Poe in which two sailors carouse through the waterfront pubs of fourteenth-century London. Unwittingly they cross a barrier that cordons off the plague-ridden area of the city and there, in an undertaker’s establishment, encounter the murderous King Pest and his royal family drinking wine from human skulls (a kind of nightmare version of Lewis Carroll?). Ayrton recalls how, years after Summer’s Last Will had first been performed, blitz and blackout gave this movement a macabre topical significance. There are also curious affinities with the young Benjamin Britten’s song-cycle with orchestra Our Hunting Fathers. Not only is the latter’s first movement, ‘Rats away,’ an exorcism—a prayer for the world to be rid of the bringers of pestilence—but the third movement, ‘Hawking for the partridge’, is main-titled ‘Dance of Death’ and is a setting of Nashe’s near-contemporary Ravenscroft (c1592–1635). This was in 1936, the year after Summer’s Last Will.
Lambert certainly thought that in Poe, pubs and pestilence made excellent bedfellows: ‘Just like life’, he said. Just like life, too, the machinery in the end runs down, stutters and fails, and leads directly into the monumental final valediction, ‘Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss!’. The slow three-in-a-bar of the ‘Saraband’ has a kind of grave, open-ended inevitability, inexorability, which surpasses even that of a funeral march. Two harps enter for the first time, tolling the bells: icy snatched chords up high, sonorous octaves in the bass deep down below. The baritone solo also is heard for the first and only time, leading chorus and orchestra to their bitter nemesis. His opening phrase derives from the ‘blues’ movement of Lambert’s Piano Sonata; but even more striking is the strings’ quoting of ‘They dance no sarabande’ (from The Rio Grande: the line as it is set at the climax of the slow central section) just after the basses’ first muttered incantation ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’. At the end, violins limn a bleak horizon, a cold grey sky, and gradually dissolve into nothingness—i.e. die—around a sustained high A: the same note with which the work began. As in Carmina Burana, Fortune’s wheel has turned full circle.
We do not know how, where or exactly when Nashe died, but it is more than likely he was carried off by the very plague whose ravages he deplores in Summer’s Last Will and Testament and which was particularly rife in the London of the 1590s. Today, four hundred years later, we are faced with another type of plague. Lambert would have been the first to relish the magnificent contemporary double entendre of
Brightness falls from the air
Black humour at its blackest. For some it will be impossible to listen to Summer’s Last Will in the 1990s without hearing it as a requiem for the AIDS generation. It sometimes does happen that works of art appear at the ‘wrong’ time, and the passage of a few years suddenly imbues them with extraordinary contemporary rightness or relevance. Summer’s Last Will belongs to the heyday of the English choral renaissance, when marvellous choral works—not only by mega-stars like Vaughan Williams and Walton—came raining down thick and fast. Today we have no such embarras de richesses; and if Summer’s Last Will and Testament has somehow slipped through the net, now surely is the time to pick it up.
Christopher Palmer © 1992