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.
from notes by Giles Easterbrook © 1995