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Summer's Last Will and Testament
summer 1932 to winter 1935; first performed on 29 January 1936
author of text

'Lambert: Summer's Last Will and Testament, The Rio Grande & Aubade héroïque' (CDH55388)
Lambert: Summer's Last Will and Testament, The Rio Grande & Aubade héroïque
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55388  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Intrata
Track 3 on CDH55388 [6'52] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Madrigal con ritornelli  Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore
Movement 3: Coranto  Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year's pleasant king
Movement 4: Brawles  Trip and go, heave and ho!
Movement 5: Madrigal con ritornelli  Autumn hath all the Summer's fruitful treasure
Movement 6: Rondo burlesca (King Pest)
Track 8 on CDH55388 [10'08] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 7: Saraband  Adieu, farewell earth's bliss!

Summer's Last Will and Testament
‘London doth mourn, Lambert is quite forlorn,
Trades cry, Woe worth, that ever they were born …’

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,
And we are for the dark.

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
Queens have died young and fair.

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.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1992

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA66565 track 9
Recording date
3 September 1991
Recording venue
Leeds Town Hall, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Christopher Palmer
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Lambert: Summer's Last Will and Testament, The Rio Grande & Aubade héroïque (CDH55388)
    Disc 1 Track 9
    Release date: September 2011
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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