‘In Elgar we get an example of a composer, in touch with both his audience and his period, expressing himself nationally in an international language’—thus Constant Lambert writing in 1933 (Music Ho!, published the following year) with characteristic insight and (for the time) uncanny, sympathetic accuracy. Not an obituary—Elgar was still among those present—but it would have made a perceptive one for either man. But what was Lambert’s ‘period’, and what the ‘himself’ he expressed with such stealthy eloquence?
If (publication of Music Ho! notwithstanding) 1934 was the black year of British music, then hindsight would say that 1905 (even disregarding the heroic achievements of the Hon F S Jackson on the cricket field) was correspondingly the year of its bright dawn. And if one could devise a more varied roster than the names on that roll-call of the glorious dead—Elgar, Delius, Holst and (some would add) Norman O’Neill—then it would do well to eclipse the triumvirate born that year: Alan Rawsthorne, Michael Tippett and Constant Lambert. But while Lambert and Tippett were student contemporaries at the Royal College of Music, and Lambert and Rawsthorne were loosely linked through mutual musical respect (and more loosely still through second wives—eventually widows), the three as a trio might as well have inhabited different centuries and continents.
Any composer’s personality is formed by a multitude of influences on his creative imagination: background, training, ancestry—a thousand and more ingredients. His art is a product of the interaction of this personality with the aesthetic, social and political circumstances into which he is pitched by chance and time, and from these emerges his own unique ‘X factor’ which cannot be replicated or synthesized. This is worth repeating, especially in complex cases like that of Lambert.
Even to call Lambert ‘British’ is little more than a half-truth. His father, George Washington Lambert, was actually born in St Petersburg but moved to Australia as a youth and spent most of his early life there. After a mixed career as a clerk and as hand on a sheep farm he began achieving modest success as a self-taught artist. Evening classes followed, resulting in a state scholarship to Europe. Two days before sailing he married, and the newly-weds arrived in England in 1900, only to depart again shortly afterwards for France where they stayed till shortage of funds drove them back to London in 1902. Constant was born in Fulham on 23 August 1905, the younger of two brothers (Maurice, the other, had been born in Paris).
Home life for the Lamberts was an unstructured and unorthodox cabaret of the bohemian, the hand-to-mouth, the irreverent and the impecunious. Father was proving to be something of an artistic and social success—characters of all sorts flitted in and out and anything in the nature of talent shown by the boys had no obstacle placed in its path. While Maurice began showing talent as a sculptor, both boys received piano lessons from an Australian pianist, Elsie Hall—‘The Antipodean Phenomenon’, as she was known. They neither came from anything resembling the British arts establishment, nor did this mean anything to them or hold any attraction. Musically, Constant’s burgeoning imagination was already roaming far beyond the provincialism of the domestic schools then holding the high ground, whether the folk-driven national school, the Celtic twilight school, the devout cathedral school, or what one might call Neo-Post-Teutonic Academe. Despite financial hardship, the family was able to send him to Christ’s Hospital School where, already a delicate child, he fell victim to numerous afflictions from which he almost died; appendicitis, a double mastoid, roseola infantum and osteomyelitis, which, in tandem with a seemingly interminable series of operations, left him permanently deaf in one ear, lame for life and in semi-permanent pain (or agony, as we would call it if we were talking about ourselves).
Prolonged and recurring periods of isolation in the infirmary afforded him the opportunity, which he largely relished, to indulge his appetite for reading, to develop an introspective habit of thought and to attain considerable self-reliance; he began to compose, to draw and to write poetry. By the time he entered the Royal College a few weeks after his seventeenth birthday, he had an extravagantly deep and wide knowledge of the arts in general and music in particular. His aesthetics, ideals, tastes and preferences were mostly in place and his personality proof against some of the unwelcome influences and instruction he received there. His teachers included Herbert Fryer for piano, Malcolm Sargent (conducting), Vaughan Williams, his brother-in-law R O Morris and George Dyson for composition. For Vaughan Williams Lambert formed considerable friendship and admiration—without much enthusiasm for his musical language, though he had the wisdom to recognize his style as a bona fide means of expression for a creative imagination of genuine force and originality. For Dyson he had no such respect, interpreting his academic dexterity and his similar but diluted musical language as substitutes for creative originality, not vehicles for its outlet. It was Vaughan Williams who brought Lambert’s work to the notice of Edward Dent—guru of new music, co-founder of the ISCM and artistic Europhile who (as he had with Bliss) inculcated in Lambert an appreciation of the values of classical reserve and proportion, and encouraged his interest in Continental developments, nourishing his enthusiasms for Ravel, Stravinsky, Honegger, Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud. At the RCM Lambert gathered round himself a company of fellow enthusiasts with whom to indulge his interests—literature, cinema, theatre, painting and alcohol. Many of them became lifelong friends. He also produced a number of highly confident, striking and original compositions.
Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat was completed in June 1924, two months before his nineteenth birthday. For only the most unsatisfactory of reasons it remained unperformed until Timothy Reynish directed its premiere with, appropriately enough, an ensemble of students at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in 1979. Even more astoundingly there had been (January 1995) no subsequent public performance.
The scoring is for eight players—flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, two percussionists—and probably (though not definitely) narrator. The manuscript does not actually specify one, and Lionel Friend has suggested that the text could equally be taken as stylized stage directions. Certainly, though it calls itself a ballet, there are no directions other than ‘Curtain’ (bar 24) and ‘Slow curtain’ at the end, so this is possible. However, the closeness with which the speech patterns of the original text follow the rhythmic patterns in the music convince one that the words were intended to be heard, and this adds a further dimension to the work’s entertainment value. As a narration, though, the feeling was that what appears in the score is barely enough, so for this recording a new script, closely following the original but considerably expanded, has been specially provided. Whether it would still be necessary for a fully choreographed production is more debatable; probably not essential but certainly desirable. The autograph also states that it is ‘based on a Russian children’s tale’. In fact neither the present writer nor any Russian literary buff he has quizzed has ever come upon such a tale, but this means little. Lambert’s father did come from St Petersburg after all, and could easily have passed on such a bedtime story. One might spend a lifetime in the fugs of Gower Street or Bloomsbury wrestling with the intricacies of Cyrillic texts and never happen upon such a minor example of one aspect of the backwaters of the daily life of a very large nation. Anyway, we have a text which makes it unnecessary to give the ‘plot’ of the action, whether authentic or bogus, except to say that it has a fundamental bearing (ho ho) on the form of the piece. This turns out to be a sort of idiosyncratic rondo shape, with a differently scored and slightly varied version of the ‘subject’ for the arrival of each animal, and a corresponding dance for the episodes.
Mr Bear was composed in the wake of Walton’s Façade, with which Lambert was intimately associated of course, and at almost identical stages of the composers’ lives—Lambert was still eighteen, Walton had been just twenty. Stylistically, Façade has less to do with Walton’s First Symphony or String Quartet than Mr Bear has with mature Lambert (if such a thing exists). One expert has gone so far as almost to write the piece off as being wholly uncharacteristic of the real Lambert, and while it is true that he never again used exactly the same language, many aspects of it are extremely characteristic: the wit, the approach to scoring and use of instruments, certain melodic shapes and cadences still to be found even as late as Horoscope, the distinctly subversive and delightfully anarchic irresponsibility of the music’s élan, the economy of means and profligacy of ideas. The inspiration, though, is not Walton but Stravinsky, specifically The Soldier’s Tale, also allegedly based on a Russian folk-tale; the use of mixed dance and narration, the carefully picked ‘band’, the absence of any ‘meaningful moral’ to the tale would all proclaim it even if the music did not, which it certainly does. Far from being a prentice work dominated by the influence of another composer, it is a piece of high-class lampoonery and pastiche from which he finds it hard to exclude entirely his own well-formed personality and agenda. Throughout his life it was characteristic of the composer never to be able to resist the temptation affectionately to lampoon the things he loved best—in this case not just the great Igor and his own Russian forebears, but the cross-channel iconoclasts Poulenc, Milhaud and Satie, for whom he never lost his affection.
The piece is dwelt on at some length because of its significance as the earliest Lambert work currently available and because, apart from a small band of Mancunians and a smaller gaggle of assorted scholars, it is entirely unknown. For this last reason it must also be mentioned that a very few minor cuts have been made to the performance in order to accommodate the work on this recording. They are made in what might be called ‘theatrical repeat’ sections and are of only a very few bars indeed.
With the other pieces on the recording we enter more familiar territory, though in the case of the Eight Poems of Li-Po only slightly more so, alas. These were begun only two years later, but much can happen in two years, especially if you are Constant Lambert. It did. He was still a student when a happy combination of circumstances led his path to cross that of Diaghilev; a meeting was engineered, music was played, and Lambert was invited to compose a work for the Russian Ballet—a feat achieved during the great impresario’s lifetime by only one other British composer, Lambert’s friend Lord Berners (The Triumph of Neptune). Given his slender track record it was an amazing eventuality, and though neither the facts of its performance, fraught as they were, nor yet the piece itself, Romeo and Juliet, were quite as startling as the fact of its birth, the composer was undeniably launched. From that moment he began his rapid and steady conquest of the British musical scene which he was to dominate for the next quarter of a century, not so much like a colossus as a decathlete. He had found his natural element, the theatre, where he continued to work—as composer, arranger, animateur, pianist, commissioning editor, executive, godfather and general inspiration—until his death, in most of which areas of activity his stamina, energy and genius led him to levels of achievement far surpassing specialists in the field. Not for him the life of the monomaniac composer doggedly following a muse in the development of his style and personality: he was a musician in toto, one of whose roles was to compose. Style and personality had to take their chance: if they emerged, so much the better. (They did.)
The Eight Poems of Li-Po unquestionably date from his full, if still youthful, maturity and a period of unsurpassed creative vigour and variety. They occupied him for an unusually long time, and even disregarding the fact that he was toying with the notion of setting Chinese poetry for a couple of years previously (at the time of Mr Bear, indeed) he was working on them more or less actively from early 1926 till late 1929. They thus form a sandwich whose filling is a bewildering contradiction of flavours—the exquisite miniature Elegiac Blues (in two versions), that most recondite of his orchestral works Music for Orchestra, the Piano Sonata, some incidental music for the theatre, and the score that kept his memory green even when his reputation generally was at its lowest ebb, The Rio Grande.
Chinese poetry has always exercised a fascination over British composers. Li-Po, who flourished in the eighth century, is reckoned in the West to have been its finest exponent. Shigeyoshi Obata’s English versions were published in 1922 (E P Dutton Inc, New York) and immediately attracted the attention of Arthur Bliss, a composer for whom Lambert had great admiration which later ripened into a lifelong friendship. Bliss made a setting of five of them in June 1923, during a stay in America. The result was one of his most appealing and attractive scores, The Women of Yueh (recorded on). Though not performed in Britain till 1975, the piece was certainly known to Lambert who went to some lengths to get hold of a score. It was also at about this time that, avid cinema-goer as he was, Lambert succumbed to an infatuation for the film actress Anna May Wong. With characteristic thoroughness he applied himself to all things Chinese: the art, literature, philosophy and (with dire effects on his metabolism) the food and wine. He also began in odd moments to write songs to celebrate his devotion. Four came out in 1927, three more the following year. Matters came to a head in March 1929: Miss Wong came to London in the flesh to star in Circle of Chalk at the New Theatre. By October Lambert had scored the seven songs, but was making the discovery familiar to many of us that, when it comes to making heart’s companions of celebrities, fame is no substitute for rubies. (Edgar Wallace’s wonderful phrase ‘riches beyond the dreams of actresses’ springs to mind.) By the time he came to orchestrate his final setting, ‘Lines written in autumn’ (number four in the final version), Lambert had received the nolle prosequi and acute disillusionment set in. His response was to change the order of the items to give them an autobiographical sequence (now ending with ‘The long-departed lover’). The dedication of the original seven-song cycle, ‘To Wong Liu Song’ (the lady’s real name) was altered: ‘To Miss Anna May Wong’. Fantasies are perhaps best unattained, though it seldom seems so at the time.
Apart from Bliss’s inclusion of bassoon and percussion, the scoring of both cycles is the same—flute, oboe, clarinet, string quartet and double bass. The selection of verses is also suggestive and the respective composers’ response to them fascinating—fundamentally very different, superficially very similar; the teasing coquetry and affectionate cynicism of the Bliss, the fragrance, bitter-sweetness and understated, almost ritualized melancholy of the Lambert. His songs are brief (sometimes exceedingly so), fragile and vulnerable and promote the illusion of objectivity. The disparate, separate images are organized to produce the maximum continuity of thought and feeling while preserving variety. The impression of simplicity masks Lambert’s expressive muse and technique at their most rich and subtle—the economy of gesture, the correlation of poetic and musical image, of content to handling, the intuitively exact selection and balance of emotion with material and duration. Knowing the personal background makes the cycle’s cool aloofness enhance rather than dilute the poignancy. The pleasures of drinking are enjoyed, not celebrated, the sadness of lost love evoked, not wallowed in. A comparison with Mahler’s Chinese cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, may strike one as a shade bizarre, but to juxtapose them briefly in the mind sheds illumination on both works and both composers: Mahler’s personalized vision and elemental force, Lambert’s underplayed stoical wistfulness at base no less personal—equally, if differently, moving. Certainly this piece had few greater admirers than that very distinguished Mahlerian, Deryck Cooke. Astonishingly, apart from two early Sitwell settings, they are the only songs Lambert ever wrote.
The Piano Sonata was completed in 1929 when Lambert was barely twenty-four and lies, spiritually and stylistically as well as chronologically, between The Rio Grande and the Concerto. A transitional work certainly, but at least as interesting (and important) for what it is as for what it reflects or anticipates. Lambert wrote it partly in London, but mostly in the south of France, specifically Toulon, the more squalid part of which seaport he was visiting as a ‘corrective’ to the gentility of Bath and Bad Homburg where he was fulfilling conducting engagements: ‘to catch up on a bit of depravity’. Like The Rio Grande it draws heavily on jazz, but what started as something of an assumed style is by now much more an absorbed habit of thought. True there is the same breezy, undogmatic contrapuntal expertise, but the almost irresponsible joyousness of the earlier work has yielded to something more stern and tense. Experiments in rhythmical patterning go further with greater subtlety and purpose, the brittleness of some of the syncopation gives way to something more rock-like and jagged, the lyricism is more pungent than wistful and, at times, more acrid than pungent. The pastoral has become urban, built over with bars and bordellos: for all its lightness of touch, a serious piece at heart, if far from being a dour one. A remarkable synthesis of popular and ‘formal’ elements, what gives the work its strength and durability is not the importing of vernacular idiom into highbrow respectability (pleasing though it is) but the high and sustained level of its continuous development and growth. What it borrows most creatively and potently from jazz is the ability to shift in a flash from one mood to its opposite without any stylistic inconsistency. At a more technical level it enables Lambert to harness the expressive force of tonal centres while not subjecting him to the tyrannies of the conventional key system.
In shape and the development of its constituent parts it really is a ‘sonata’, but like a true jazz classic it offers almost limitless possibilities of legitimate reading and performance style, from great strictness to total freedom of phrase and rubato, from austerity to self-indulgence, from the heroic to the poetic, the bravura to the inward. A definitive reading is untenable even as a concept; the exposure of one quality leads to the submersion of another. The first movement has a distinctly improvisatory flavour with a good deal of flamboyance. Triadic tonalities (largely in sevenths) and sharply syncopated figures predominate. The second subject, Presto, lends itself to genuine blues harmonizations and forms the climax to the development section (Marcato e molto rubato fortissimo). Lambert himself had a particular affection for the second movement, a blues in rondo form. The opening is slow and harmonically impressionistic with a prominent triplet figure leading to the blues melody against a guitar-like accompaniment—ironic and grotesque. The two episodes are scurrying and sotto voce, like hearing a distant dance band through a haze of Gauloises bleues—or some less legal substance perhaps.
After a slow introduction, the Finale is fast—often extremely fast—with a texture juxtaposing single notes, two-part writing of almost eighteenth-century poise and clarity, and saturated chords. A Fugato development balances that of the first movement and the dazzling work ends with a final backward glance to the opening. Cecil Gray’s celebrated description of the Sonata as having ‘the dark, black, Célinesque quality inspired by long, cat-like prowlings through the suburbs of Paris’ captures its spirit splendidly and, for all its pianistic brilliance, there is no hiding from its undertow of introspection and disquiet. The premiere, by Gordon Bryan, took place at Aeolian Hall, London, in October 1929 when it shared a concert with (inter alia) the as-yet still incomplete Li-Po songs. It has continued to baffle and intrigue pianists in equal measure ever since.
With the Concerto for piano and nine players we enter areas of even greater disquiet and introspection. Many claim it is Lambert’s masterpiece, though much the same claim is made in favour of The Rio Grande, the Li-Po songs, the Dirge from Cymbeline and Summer’s Last Will and Testament; Horoscope, too, has its devoted following—all of which reminds us that with Lambert there is no such thing as a typical or conventional work. Every composition has its special flavour, its unique identity and agenda. Ideas are peculiar to each work and in both content and treatment every piece in newly minted. (Having said this, it is only fair to mention that this is actually his second piano concerto—the first, for piano, two trumpets, timpani and string orchestra, was left in short score in 1924, unperformed at the time, but orchestrated and prepared for performance by the late Edward Shipley and the present writer in 1987—it is recorded on.) As in the case with all his ensemble pieces, the instrumentation was chosen with the utmost care, without the least thought for what would give it the greatest chance of performance but purely with an ear to giving him the precise range of timbre and texture to suit those exact tasks to be carried out in the context of the individual work—just as in The Rio Grande, where he requested a male alto rather than a mezzo, and one performing the solos from within the choir.
The Concerto uses flute (doubling piccolo), three clarinets (doubling on various members of the family including bass and E flat), trumpet, trombone, cello, string bass and percussion; the effect is starkly incisive, verging on abrasive, but offering a startling range of flavours to which Lambert devotes endless pains and accuracy of imaginative skill. Harshness is always balanced by lightness and life so that it never degenerates into the sort of aggressive gritty mush to be found in, say, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. Even at its moments of deepest gloom the fresh air never ceases to blow through it: it lies uncompromisingly exposed as if under the energizing but unremitting glare of the sunlight of Marseilles where it was largely composed. Eventually completed very shortly before its premiere (18 December 1931, Arthur Benjamin—another Australian—as soloist, Lambert conducting), almost a year to the day after the death of Philip Heseltine (to whose memory it was dedicated), the work had exercised him since some time in the autumn of 1930.
This was a very mixed time for Lambert. Recognition as a composer was coming his way, with several high-profile performances of different pieces. The Rio Grande continued its triumphant progress and received its first commercial recording (with a male alto as preferred, Hamilton Harty at the piano and Lambert conducting). Professionally he began the association with Ninette de Valois which resulted in the formation of the Vic-Wells Ballet and in turn prevented him from ever again having quite the same amount of time for composition.
Personally, though it culminated in his marriage to the highly desirable Miss Florence Chuter, it was a time of tragedy. May 1930 saw the death of his father, August that of his great friend the painter Christopher Wood, and 17 December the death of Heseltine—frequently host to Lambert, Walton, Moeran, Gray and many another variously incandescent musical luminary (also companion on many an escapade, fellow detective in the mysteries of past musical byways, role model both beneficial and baleful, energizer and destroyer to many other than Lambert, but to Lambert more than most). The death hit him hard, and he decided that the Concerto would be in his old friend’s memory. In late February 1931 at the Warlock Memorial Concert at Wigmore Hall, Lambert conducted The Curlew—one of the bleakest pieces ever written—and later recorded the work for the National Gramophone Society in a reading that has never been approached for atmosphere or insight. The present writer is convinced that there is in fact an oblique reference to the work in the second movement of the Concerto, but has yet to meet anyone who agrees: it is mentioned with some diffidence.
For all its restlessness and almost obsessed vigour, the Concerto certainly is a work of the deepest seriousness. It is also an extremely complex piece both in concept and articulation. The jazz-blues style pioneered in The Rio Grande and considerably absorbed in the Sonata, is here assimilated to such a degree that the composer can use it more or less unselfconsciously to perform certain structural tasks, while at the same time he is able to extend and develop its expressive possibilities far beyond the normal confines of contemporary jazz style without diluting its identity. The first movement, Overture, does not merely state the material of the work (though it does indeed do this); it is also a highly personalized sonata in its own right with exposition, development and recapitulation concepts. ‘Concepts’ rather than ‘sections’ because, under the smoke-screen of a genuinely improvisatory jazz riff, Lambert is able to blur the edges, displace and overlap the passages without invalidating the form. There is not an actual hard spot where ‘exposition’ ends and ‘development’ begins, though ear and brain are very much conscious that such things are going on. Indeed the opening 7/4 figure recurs at pivotal points, in both raw and developed forms, throughout the piece. It is a two-way business though, and if Lambert employs jazz conceits to ‘compromise’ traditional formal matters, he likewise subverts and ‘de-clichés’ the patterns themselves. By taking them into remote time signatures like 7/4, 11/8, 13/8 and the rest he creates passages of continuously unfolding narrative where one’s sense of the bar line is utterly undermined, where he reverses the polarity of main beat and syncopation to introduce a calculated ambiguity of pattern that is forever wrong-footing the listener, shifting the stress in the shape or shapes round the stress and cutting the ground from under the feet of the listener’s expectations in a way that is deeply disturbing, without any apparent reason (unless the score is studied). It is masterly, artless, subtle and spooky.
The second movement, Intermède, has much in common with the equivalent in the Sonata, combining the roles of slow movement and scherzo. Very prominently placed, perhaps to distract the attention from more personal matters, there run through it (as in the Finale) various developed versions of the Overture’s opening figure. More importantly, though, it is the abode of ghosts. There is a slow, dark, sad opening, which returns at the end of the movement where the spirit of the curlew, if not its actual cry, may (without the need for any self-deception) be identified. Between them though comes an hysterical, remorseless section of frantic energy in whose depths live the spectres of two of Warlock’s most personal and mystical works. Notice the passage for flute, piano and maraca (round about figure 42) where the piano reveals itself to be giving us a grotesque version of the accompaniment to ‘Corpus Christi’, or the following section—a manically high-spirited paraphrase of ‘The Frost-bound Wood’. To talk about the combination of themes, patterns, rhythmical complexities and so on is to miss the point entirely. This piece is about altogether different, darker matters. It is about exorcism and therapy.
Nor do things improve much with the Finale. It is not actually called ‘cortège’ but it might well have been. Like the opening of the Finale of the Sonata the marking is ‘Lugubre’ but, unlike the Sonata, this movement maintains its claustrophobic, steady tread throughout. It opens with a cry from the heart, a lost soul. At the equivalent place where the subject in the first movement is taken up doppio movimento in the Overture, it is here introduced doppio valore—a section of extraordinary tenderness and gentleness, the marking con stanchezza (with weariness); it is not resignation so much as ennui. We are then treated to a section of appalling self-parody and a macabre lampoon of music from The Rio Grande, specifically the passage where the text reads ‘The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town’ and ‘a space of silence through the town’, as if all the joy has gone out of the world and the composer is mocking happier days. If there is any humour in it, then it is of the grimmest kind. Technically the composer’s head is still in charge of the development of the material—as is that of Mahler at the end of Symphony No 6—but the soul is in torment. After a scarifying climax the music dribbles away in a brief coda to end teasingly, enigmatically and in darkness. A stiff drink is required before this section can even be contemplated. One imagines a man on the verge of disintegration, a man in shock, doubting even himself, saved narrowly from extinction and the jaws of a vengeful demon by the timely, unexpected and joyous upturn in affairs of the heart. The effect of Cupid’s fiery dart may be only of short duration, but it does a good job while it is there.
Giles Easterbrook © 1995