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Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat

First line:
Once upon a time, in the middle of a dark wood
June 1924; first performed at the Royal Norther College of Music in 1979, directed by Timothy Reynish
author of text
based on a Russian children's tale

Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat was completed in June 1924, two months before Lambert's nineteenth birthday. For only the most unsatisfactory of reasons it remained unperformed until Timothy Reynish directed its premiere with, appropriately enough, an ensemble of students at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in 1979. Even more astoundingly there had been (January 1995) no subsequent public performance.

The scoring is for eight players—flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, two percussionists—and probably (though not definitely) narrator. The manuscript does not actually specify one, and Lionel Friend has suggested that the text could equally be taken as stylized stage directions. Certainly, though it calls itself a ballet, there are no directions other than ‘Curtain’ (bar 24) and ‘Slow curtain’ at the end, so this is possible. However, the closeness with which the speech patterns of the original text follow the rhythmic patterns in the music convince one that the words were intended to be heard, and this adds a further dimension to the work’s entertainment value. As a narration, though, the feeling was that what appears in the score is barely enough, so for this recording a new script, closely following the original but considerably expanded, has been specially provided. Whether it would still be necessary for a fully choreographed production is more debatable; probably not essential but certainly desirable. The autograph also states that it is ‘based on a Russian children’s tale’. In fact neither the present writer nor any Russian literary buff he has quizzed has ever come upon such a tale, but this means little. Lambert’s father did come from St Petersburg after all, and could easily have passed on such a bedtime story. One might spend a lifetime in the fugs of Gower Street or Bloomsbury wrestling with the intricacies of Cyrillic texts and never happen upon such a minor example of one aspect of the backwaters of the daily life of a very large nation. Anyway, we have a text which makes it unnecessary to give the ‘plot’ of the action, whether authentic or bogus, except to say that it has a fundamental bearing (ho ho) on the form of the piece. This turns out to be a sort of idiosyncratic rondo shape, with a differently scored and slightly varied version of the ‘subject’ for the arrival of each animal, and a corresponding dance for the episodes.

Mr Bear was composed in the wake of Walton’s Façade, with which Lambert was intimately associated of course, and at almost identical stages of the composers’ lives—Lambert was still eighteen, Walton had been just twenty. Stylistically, Façade has less to do with Walton’s First Symphony or String Quartet than Mr Bear has with mature Lambert (if such a thing exists). One expert has gone so far as almost to write the piece off as being wholly uncharacteristic of the real Lambert, and while it is true that he never again used exactly the same language, many aspects of it are extremely characteristic: the wit, the approach to scoring and use of instruments, certain melodic shapes and cadences still to be found even as late as Horoscope, the distinctly subversive and delightfully anarchic irresponsibility of the music’s élan, the economy of means and profligacy of ideas. The inspiration, though, is not Walton but Stravinsky, specifically The Soldier’s Tale, also allegedly based on a Russian folk-tale; the use of mixed dance and narration, the carefully picked ‘band’, the absence of any ‘meaningful moral’ to the tale would all proclaim it even if the music did not, which it certainly does. Far from being a prentice work dominated by the influence of another composer, it is a piece of high-class lampoonery and pastiche from which he finds it hard to exclude entirely his own well-formed personality and agenda. Throughout his life it was characteristic of the composer never to be able to resist the temptation affectionately to lampoon the things he loved best—in this case not just the great Igor and his own Russian forebears, but the cross-channel iconoclasts Poulenc, Milhaud and Satie, for whom he never lost his affection.

The piece is dwelt on at some length because of its significance as the earliest Lambert work currently available and because, apart from a small band of Mancunians and a smaller gaggle of assorted scholars, it is entirely unknown. For this last reason it must also be mentioned that a very few minor cuts have been made to the performance in order to accommodate the work on this recording. They are made in what might be called ‘theatrical repeat’ sections and are of only a very few bars indeed.

from notes by Giles Easterbrook © 1995


Lambert: Piano Concerto & other works


Track 15 on CDH55397 [15'46]

Track-specific metadata for CDH55397 track 15

Recording date
7 May 1994
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Lambert: Piano Concerto & other works (CDA66754)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: April 1995
    Deletion date: July 2009
    Superseded by CDH55397
  2. Lambert: Piano Concerto & other works (CDH55397)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: August 2012
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