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. 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. 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.
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1992