Hyperion Records

Prize Fight
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’.

from notes by Stephen Lloyd © 2005

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67545 track 20
Recording date
20 December 2004
Recording venue
Clothworkers' Hall, University of Leeds, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Phil Rowlands
Hyperion usage
  1. Lambert: Romeo and Juliet & other works (CDA67545)
    Disc 1 Track 20
    Release date: August 2005
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