The Bird Actors [3'18]
Prize Fight [9'12]
Constant Lambert—pioneering ballet composer, maverick author and lover of cats—was composing in those heady days between the two wars when English artistic optimism was at a peak. The first English composer to have a work taken up by Diaghilev, his Romeo and Juliet was premiered by the Russian master in Monte Carlo. The story presents elements from the familiar Shakespearean story within the context of rehearsals for a ballet of the same, this convolution itself being typical of Lambert’s desire to avoid the obvious.
The Piano Concerto recorded here dates from 1924 (the 1931 concerto is recorded on Hyperion CDA66754) but had to wait until 1988 before being given its first performance. Then, as now, the soloist was Jonathan Plowright.
Three shorter works complete the programme: Prize Fight responds to the ludicrous musical confections by French contemporaries Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud (Lambert has the boxing ring collapse following a ‘pitch invasion’); The Bird Actors is a resurrected section from the original score for Romeo and Juliet; and Elegiac Blues is a jazz-inflected homage to Lambert’s idol Florence Mills who had so scandalized London ‘polite society’ with her touring shows in the 1920s.
The works on this disc display the precocious talent and technical brilliance of Constant Lambert at the time when he was merely a student at the Royal College of Music. Four of them were written before he was twenty-one; the fifth (Elegiac Blues) was produced when he was a venerable twenty-two.
Composer, conductor, critic, broadcaster and, in Walton’s opinion, the best reciter of Façade there ever was, Lambert is chiefly remembered for his jazz-inspired choral work The Rio Grande (recorded on) and for Music Ho!, his brilliant study of music in the 1920s. But his greatest achievement was that, together with Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton, he laid the foundations for English ballet to which he devoted the greater part of his life. As Sir Robert Helpmann has said: ‘I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know how much he contributed to the success of the English ballet as it stands today, not only being the most remarkable ballet conductor probably that there ever has been but in the way he contributed in every department of it.’ Lambert also achieved literary immortality by being the inspiration for the composer Hugh Moreland in his close friend Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time.
The composer Gordon Jacob, who knew Lambert at the Royal College, has described him as ‘the most brilliant musician I have known in my lifetime’. Ashton is on record as saying that ‘he was a tremendous influence on me musically … I remember that Maynard Keynes once said to me that he was potentially the most brilliant man he’d ever met’, while Sir Thomas Armstrong, a fellow student at the RCM (and later Principal of the Royal Academy of Music), remembered Lambert as ‘a marvellous musician and an enchanting companion whose conversation was like a display of fireworks’.
In later years his outward show of conviviality, sociability and wit served to disguise the real Lambert that was known only to his close friends who, largely as a consequence of his heavy work schedule with the Vic-Wells Ballet, were kept, like his life, ‘in compartments’. Elisabeth Lutyens spoke of him as being ‘the most reserved human being I’ve ever met’ with ‘an inward sort of loneliness’, while Gordon Jacob felt that his most outstanding characteristic was ‘the hiding of his feelings behind a mask of wit, paradox and humour’. This concealment may well have been the result of two unfortunate factors in his youth that largely affected both his upbringing and character.
Constant Lambert was born in London on 23 August 1905, four years after his elder brother, the sculptor Maurice. He had comparatively little contact with his father, George Washington Lambert (1873–1930), an artist of American and British parenthood, who had been born in Russia but brought up first in Germany and England and then in Australia. He returned to England in 1900 on a travelling art scholarship but during and after the First World War was often away from home, most significantly in the Middle East as a war artist. In 1921 he went back to Australia, leaving his wife in London and never seeing his two sons again.
In September 1915 Constant entered Christ’s Hospital in Horsham – as it turned out an ironic name for a school – but he had hardly completed his first year there before he was admitted to the school’s infirmary with streptococcal septicaemia. As well as a fever, he had an abscess in the right ear that had to be operated on. It was then found that the infection had spread to his right knee and left ankle, necessitating further operations with the insertion of tubes for drainage purposes. ‘We think that the case will probably be a long one’, the school doctor wrote to Constant’s father, ‘and it may take three or four months before he will have the use of his legs.’ Ultimately he was taken to Margate where he recuperated for a period of six and a half months. In the doctor’s words, ‘after nearly dying [he] made a very good recovery’. He returned home in April 1917, but it was another full year before he was fit to return to school, having missed five terms. If this were not enough, six months later he had to be operated on for appendicitis. It is little wonder that, after six operations, he avoided doctors for the rest of his life so that his diabetes – the main cause of his death just before his forty-sixth birthday, coupled with his punishing lifestyle of heavy drinking, very late working nights and irregular meals – went undetected.
The physical outcome was that he wore a built-up boot and walked with a permanent limp, usually with the aid of a stick. His last two years at Christ’s Hospital were free from any medical mishaps, but his long period of absence had not made it easy for him to pursue friendships with his contemporaries in the normal way, especially when he was unable to participate in sports like cricket and football. Apart from his obvious intellectual superiority, a slightly rebellious streak and an air of detachment marked him out, but he was a voracious reader and he made full use of the school’s music facilities.
Lambert entered the Royal College of Music in September 1922, studying with Vaughan Williams and later with R O Morris. Michael Tippett, another RCM student born in 1905, remembered that Lambert was ‘generally regarded as the whizz-kid’ at the College. In June 1923 an orchestral work, Green Fire, had a play-through at a RCM Patron’s Fund Rehearsal and apparently startled Vaughan Williams with its daring harmonic writing for trombones with consecutive sevenths and ninths. While that score has not survived, another early work has, if only in a two-piano short score: the Piano Concerto of 1924. The clearly indicated directions for the orchestration were not realized until Edward Shipley and Giles Easterbrook undertook this task for a performance given on 2 March 1988 by Jonathan Plowright and the Redcliffe Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christopher Adey. Lambert was always unconventional in his choice of subjects and in his orchestration; just as his last ballet, Tiresias (), has no upper strings, The Rio Grande lacks woodwind, and his 1931 Piano Concerto ( ) calls for only nine players in addition to the soloist, so this 1924 concerto is scored only for two trumpets, timpani and strings. (Lambert was himself an able timpanist as well as a fine pianist.) Cast in four continuous movements with the slow movement coming third, it is a work of considerable accomplishment and even originality for a nineteen-cum-twenty-year-old. It is arguably the finest of his student works, with some passages of great beauty.
While still at Christ’s Hospital, Constant had been taken to see Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, perhaps the greatest artistic sensation that London experienced in the early twentieth century, and he was captivated by the dazzling combination of music, pictorial art and ballet. Indeed, ballet was to become the backbone of his musical life. He was particularly taken by the rebelliousness of the shorter ballets by French composers such as Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric and Satie, with their generally frivolous scenarios, and – despite his later disdain for the composer – Stravinsky. These inspired two early works, both dating from 1924: the ballet Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat () and Prize Fight which, with fellow-student Angus Morrison, Constant played to Vaughan Williams in its four-hand version at one of his composition lessons. (Boxing was one of the few sports that Lambert had been able to take part in at school.)
The subtitle of Prize Fight, a ‘satirical’ or ‘realistic’ ballet in one act, and its flippant subject matter clearly betray the influence of Erik Satie. (The synopsis and certain score directions were even written in French when he came to make some small revisions in 1927.) Scored for flute, piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, cornet, tenor trombone and an array of percussion, harmonium and strings, it remained unperformed until a BBC broadcast on 12 May 1969. In Lambert’s own synopsis:
The curtain goes up to show a boxing ring in a state a great confusion. The master of ceremonies (who is also the referee) tries to obtain silence and despite the interruptions of a noisy crowd eventually succeeds. The two boxers, one black, the other a big American, are introduced to the audience and the bell sounds for the first round. In this round the black man gains precedence and the American is floored for a count of 9 but he is saved by the bell. During the pause that follows, the seconds try to revive their exhausted champions with massage, cups of Bovril, magnums of champagne, etc. while the referee has increasing difficulty in restraining the rowdy elements in the audience. The bell sounds and the boxers proceed to fight with such extreme caution that not a blow is exchanged during the whole round. The disgusted audience start to whistle, boo, and throw things at the boxers. A lively group enters the ring and executes a bucolic dance. The referee while trying to stop them is violently attacked by the two boxers; from his pocket he produces a large police rattle and shakes it. As a result there is a charge of mounted police who also enter the ring, which unable to support so great a weight, suddenly collapses.
Was it mere coincidence that Vaughan Williams, Lambert’s teacher, had composed a ballad opera, Hugh the Drover (), that centres on a boxing match? Although written before the war, it had its first performances at the RCM in July 1924. Whereas Hugh the Drover uses English folk-tunes, Prize Fight prominently quotes a variant of the American civil war song ‘When Johnny comes marching home’.
Constant spent many hours with the pianist Angus Morrison playing duets of ballet scores by Debussy, Stravinsky and others, and Morrison suggested to him the scenario for a ‘suite dansée’, Adam and Eve, in three scenes with four characters: Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the Angel. This was at a time when Diaghilev was hoping to achieve a financial success in London with a ballet based on an English subject, by an English composer. Walton had been keen to write a ballet for Diaghilev, and in November 1925 a meeting was arranged at the Savoy Hotel for him to play to the impresario, a meeting to which he also invited Lambert, perhaps for moral support. Walton was no pianist and he singularly failed to impress Diaghilev, but when Lambert played his Adam and Eve to him, he showed immediate interest. He crossed through the title in pencil and substituted the more English Romeo and Juliet. As the score consists of fairly short movements in neoclassical style, such a transformation was not as impossible as it may seem.
In March 1926 Constant travelled to Monte Carlo for the rehearsals of Romeo and Juliet for which Diaghilev had specially engaged Tamara Karsavina as Juliet, with Serge Lifar as Romeo, and had brought back Bronislava Nijinska (sister of Nijinsky) to choreograph the ballet. But when in late April, after reciting at the second public performance of the Walton–Sitwell Façade, Constant returned to Monte Carlo, arriving within two or three days of the ballet’s premiere, he was incensed to find that not only had Diaghilev made changes to Nijinska’s choreography in her absence but that he had also rejected the set designs by the up-and-coming British artist Christopher Wood in favour of two surréaliste painters, Max Ernst and Joan Miró. At a heated meeting twenty-year-old Lambert threatened to withdraw his music, but Diaghilev had his way. The ballet was first performed at Monte Carlo on 4 May 1926, Marc-César Scotto conducting. The almost bare stage dismayed audience and critics, but that was nothing compared to the strong demonstration against Ernst and Miró when it was staged a fortnight later in Paris. It had an incident-free reception in London on 21 June 1926. While, notoriety apart, the ballet was hardly a success, it established Lambert’s name as the first of only two English composers to have ballet scores performed by Diaghilev (the other being Lord Berners), and before long he was invited to be conductor of the Camargo Society and the Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells) Ballet.
Romeo and Juliet is a very free treatment of the Shakespeare story, being in effect a ballet within a ballet. It is divided into two tableaux. The first takes place in a ballet classroom with the corps de ballet. Rondino: the two principal dancers arrive, realize that they are late and quickly change clothes in readiness for the class. The Gavotte and Trio is a women’s dance, the Scherzetto a men’s dance. Siciliana: the professor teaches the principals a pas de deux during which, forgetting their proper steps, they make no secret of their love. Sonatina: the lovers are separated by their scandalized friends who carry them off to the theatre where a rehearsal is due to start.
The second tableau is a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Entr’acte: Prelude and preparation of the stage. Sinfonia: the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet at the ball. Alla Marcia: the nurse and the servant. Toccata: the duel between Romeo and Tybalt. Musette: balcony scene. Burlesca: Paris enters, accompanied by musicians, and searches for Juliet, his fiancée. Adagietto: the death of Juliet. Finale: the curtain falls and the enthusiastic audience imitates and applauds the principal actors. The curtain rises, but Romeo and Juliet are not there to take their call. The spectators rush on to the stage and vainly search for the lovers, who elope by aeroplane with Romeo in a leather coat and an airman’s headgear.
The overture The Bird Actors began simply as an overture for piano duet, written in 1925 and dedicated ‘To G M Gordon Brown’; this was his fellow-student Gavin Gordon, best known for his ballet The Rake’s Progress that Lambert was to introduce with the Vic-Wells Company. The Overture was then incorporated as the finale to Adam and Eve but withdrawn when Diaghilev changed the title to Romeo and Juliet. So in 1927 it was rescored as The Bird Actors overture, taking its title from an unpublished poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, and first performed on 6 July 1931 in a Camargo Society programme as an interlude preceding Lambert’s second ballet, Pomona (), with the composer conducting.
Elegiac Blues (In memory of Florence Mills), to give the work its full title, records one of Lambert’s most significant musical experiences and influences. In June 1923, while still a seventeen-year-old student at the RCM, he saw a C B Cochran review called Dover Street to Dixie that had just opened at the London Pavilion. It was the ‘Dixie’ Negro content of the second half, with the singer–dancer Florence Mills and her troupe ‘The Blackbirds’, that particularly interested Lambert. As he later wrote: ‘After the rather hum-drum playing of the English orchestra in the first part it was an electrifying experience to hear Will Vodery’s band play the Delius-like fanfare that preceded the second. It definitely opened up a whole new world of sound. Although they maintained an extraordinary high standard of musicianship throughout, it is hardly necessary to say that they were abused by the English press for their crudity and vulgarity.’ The show ran until September, and Constant and Angus Morrison saw it together at least four times. Florence Mills (1896–1927) was an even greater sensation when she came again to England in September 1926 with a show simply called The Blackbirds; ‘A sort of orgy of jazz’ was how The Times sniffily described it. Again Constant and Angus saw the show many times, including its last London performance on 14 May 1927 before it toured the provinces. But after playing in Liverpool, an exhausted and ill Florence was advised by her doctors to cancel her engagements. After a rest cure in Germany, she returned to the States and died there in hospital on 1 November 1927. That same month Lambert completed the Elegiac Blues for piano, orchestrating it in the following year. A noticeable feature of the work is the rising triplet figure first heard near the beginning, imitative of the fanfare that opened The Blackbirds. Elegiac Blues was first heard in its orchestral guise on 23 July 1928 in a typically innovative broadcast, nearly ninety minutes long, entitled ‘Blue on the Boulevard: A Study of Black and White’ that can only have been assembled by Lambert. It also included Negro poetry, works by Satie, Milhaud and Auric, and the second performance of The Rio Grande.
It was perhaps the stuffy reaction of the music establishment that caused Lambert to champion jazz so strongly in his writing and broadcasts in the late 1920s and the 1930s, singling out in particular Duke Ellington not just as a performer but as ‘a quite outstanding popular composer’. The Blackbirds’ fanfare, so poignant in Elegiac Blues, remained with him as a motto theme throughout his life.
Stephen Lloyd © 2005