Constant Lambert



In the early fifties as a young rebel aged 17 I found myself on defaulters in the school cadet force and refusing the punishment. This led to a bare headed court martial and my being cashiered. The head of English, Doctor Giles, a pacifist sympathiser immediately offered me the position of school librarian which was a cushy number in comparison and it was in those pleasant surrounds that I found on the shelves a book which further fuelled my recently discovered passion for classical music. It was entitled “Music Ho” and written in 1934 by Constant Lambert. It became and remains a testament from my youth, my Leviticus and Deuteronomy from which I can still quote sections by heart. Music Ho, sub-titled by Lambert as “A Study Of Music In Decline”, is a somewhat pessimistic overview of the contemporary musical scene distinguishing between pre-WW1 pioneers, still perceived as modern, Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg and post war pasticheurs, later Stravinsky and Les Six. There followed nationalism and the modern scene; the exotic; jazz and the low life; the over popularization of music; the psychological cul de sac of the Schoenberg school; and ending with Sibelius to lead the way into the future with the exception that Lambert realized by the second edition that there had been an inexplicable silence coming from that quarter. His writing style remained witty and sardonic, pillorying some who it turned out were his favourites at heart, particularly the Russian school and the neo-classical composers. He might have criticised Poulenc and Les Six but in style he himself could have been described as the seventh member of Les Six. He much admired Vaughan Williams, his teacher, yet giving him a hard time in summing up the English country bumpkin school as both unbearably precious and unbearably hearty. This was all written by a 29 year old with an obvious deep knowledge and insight into the music of others and whose appreciation of art and literature revealed him to be the great all rounder of the arts.


Constant Lambert has been largely known for just one work, The Rio Grande, an evergreen exciting work for choruses and audiences alike, its bluesy and jazzy intonations and rhythms owing more to Duke Ellington than to Vaughan Williams. Yet in the twenties he was seen as leading the way to recognize the jazz influence in classical music. He was said to be Britain’s answer to George Gershwin although the comparison is way off the mark. Gershwin was a songsmith who had the ability to upgrade popular song and theatre and clothe it into classical forms whilst Lambert had the foresight to imbue jazz methods into his classical creations. He was not the first. Milhaud had been there using jazz for his Ballet La Création Du Monde whilst Bohuslav Martinu was pitching in with charlestons in his ballet, La Revue de la Cuisine. From 1923 to 1930 Constant Lambert was pouring out one work after another and then the tap turned off. He did continue to write but it was only a drip here and there. His career led him to become musical director in the ballet and much of Lambert’s time was taken up with that medium including touring out in the styx and consuming volumes of alcohol that the time available for composition became a diminishing factor.


Constant Lambert was born in Fulham, not that far from the Chelsea Arts Club where, I am reliably informed, he was a prominent member. His father, George Washington Lambert, was born in St Petersburg but emigrated at a young age to Australia. He married in 1902 and with his wife came to Europe, first to Paris and then London. He was a none too successful artist and sculptor living a fashionable Bohemian life. Constant, their second son, was born in 1905 to a backdrop of debts and visiting bailiffs. Well known artistes frequently gathered at the house but Constant on the whole was a lonely, frequently sickly child. Still he gained entrance in 1918 to Christ’s Hospital school where he contracted a virulent combination of rubella with septic arthritis that very nearly killed him. After a number of operations, he finally emerged with one leg slightly shorter than the other, leaving him with a permanent limp, and a shattered right eardrum, leaving him permanently deaf in one ear, and a horror of doctors. At 17, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition under Vaughan-Williams to whom he warmed and George Dyson, composer of the Pilgrim’s Progress, whom he detested. This was 1922, the year that Walton wrote Façade. Lambert was to become the most celebrated recite of the Edith Sitwell poems alongside her. In 1923 he also set Two Songs to poems by Sacheverell Sitwell written for soprano, flute and harp.


Walton and Lambert were linked. They came together through the Sitwells. They were not exactly Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Constant went firing off like a shooting star; Willie took everything so slowly that even his first symphony got first performed with only three of its movements before he had finished it. Constant was all things to all men and all ladies. Willie concentrated his career on one thing only, composing. When he did conduct it would be his own works only at which he was top rate. It was the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare and as in the tale, it was the tortoise which came out on top..


Another important contact for Constant was Arthur Bliss, then perceived as a firebrand, who had just completed his Colour Symphony.. The two always remained close. It was Bliss who introduced Lambert to the poems of Li Po leading to Lambert’s own song cycle written between 1927 and 1930. Lambert’s earliest work, though not published, was a ballet entitled “Prize Fight” lasting some nine minutes. It depicts a bare knuckle boxing contest. It has been suggested that it owes something to Milhaud without the sambas. It contains a touch of ragtime and a well known tune of Sousa played fugally. Other unpublished works which have only relatively recently come to light followed in1924. Another ballet, “Mr Bear Squash-you-all-flat”, is a Russian child’s tale learned from his father. The inspiration for this work with narrator may have come from Facade. The concerto for piano, two trumpets, timpani and strings followed. His better known piano concerto is that for piano and nine instruments but this earlier one had been left unknown in short score and edited and brought to life by Giles Easterby.


What brought Constant Lambert to notice, nationally and internationally, was his Romeo and Juliet, a ballet he wrote for Diaghilev when he was 20 whilst still at the Royal College. Here was the youngest composer to be commissioned by Diaghilev, younger than Poulenc who wrote Les Biches at much the same time when he was all of 25 years old. It was performed at Monte Carlo before its Paris production where it received its mandatory riot.


The works were pouring out. In 1926 he commenced his cycle, Songs of Li Po (also known as Li Bai – you can take your choice), an 8th century Chinese poet from the mid-Tang dynasty whose verses celebrated the pleasures of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude, and the joys of drinking wine. This last would have appealed to the Fitzrovian Constant Lambert` who frequented most of the pubs from Langham Place to Soho. As an habitué of Soho pubs and an infatuation for the Chinese-American silent movie queen Anna May Wong to whom he dedicated the Songs of Li Po, Gerrard Street as it is today would have appealed to him. The songs are lightly scored and there is something slightly pre-Britten about the vocal line. Li Po was also the source for the poems used by Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde.



1927 saw the first performance of The Rio Grande. It is one of those works with a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of everything, somewhat a hybrid like the Beethoven Choral Fantasy. Best perhaps played on the move in a hybrid car. Solo piano, solo singer, solo violin, orchestra and chorus. It evokes a swampy Ellington atmosphere with an accent a tad like that of Delius in his Florida Suite.


The concerto for piano and nine instruments was the first work of Lambert’s I heard in the concert hall. It is a chamber music concerto but instead of conventional percussion it has a twenties dance band drum kit. It starts off flapper like, a kind of shimmy like my sister Kate, but this is a deception. It moves into dark colours. Its second movement seems to anticipate the sounds of Ravel who would have been writing his two concertos at much the same time. The last movement is more Stravinsky, reminiscent more of the second part of the Rite of Spring than his neo-classical works. This work more than any other starts out as unmistakably syncopated but its colouring now seems to reflect a growing sense of dark happenings following perhaps the emerging depression of coalition politics in England. Or was this the beginning of a black side within the mind of Constant Lambert? Of course, black moods do not necessarily result in tragic music. Music which is composed is more manufactured than subjective and one only has to look to Mozart to see what seemingly happy diversions he produced during his black moments for the proof of this. In relation to Constant Lambert this caused me to do some devilling and in my researches on his son Kit I came across an article that Constant had been sexually ambivalent and drawn to self-destruction. At the time of writing this concerto he had been in a relationship with Christopher Wood who in 1930 was killed falling under a train. The effect on Constant can only be imagined. Does this account for those dark moments in this concerto? There was also the suicide of his close friend, Philip Heseltine, the critic, who composed under the pen name of Peter Warlock, best known for his Capriol Suite, and to whose memory Lambert dedicated this concerto.


Another important game changer was the death in 1929 of Diaghilev and the collapse of the Ballets Russes. The ballet world without Diaghilev was like Hamlet without the Prince. Its successor company had not yet been formed. Pavlova’s company was to die with Pavlova herself in January 1931. One suggestion mooted was for Constant Lambert to take over the Ballets Russes but it was already bankrupt. In England there was no home grown ballet. Marie Rambert was just starting up a small ballet club with its first performance in 1931; Ninette de Valois was to found the Vic Wells Ballet with just six dancers. Against this background The Camargo Society was conceived by ballet critic and historian, Arnold Haskell. Its aim was to perpetuate the principles on which Diaghilev had run the Ballets Russes, and to encourage British talent. The committee included Constant Lambert as resident conductor, the semi-retired ballerina Lydia Lopokova as choreographic adviser and her husband John Maynard Keynes as treasurer. Its first and most successful production by Frederick Ashton was Pomona composed and conducted by Constant Lambert. Its repertoire included the orchestrated version of Walton’s Façade. It produced 16 one act new ballets in three years before merging with the Vic Wells Ballet. Constant remained on as director of music in the merged outfit. Thus it came about that by 1933 Constant Lambert had moved into the position he would hold more or less for the remainder of his life.


It was in this period that he wrote Music Ho and married Florence (Flo) Kaye, a photographer’s model of Lascar descent. In 1935 their son, Christopher (Kit), was born but it did not turn out to be a happy marriage. The world of ballet and touring exacted an absence from home and there were other distractions. He was a workhorse conductor, not an international star. It was the world of the Vic Wells Ballet, mounting productions of newly commissioned music by composers such as Bliss, Walton and Lambert himself, new dancers such as the Australian, Robert Helpman who arrived in 1933 and the fifteen year old Margot Fonteyn who joined in 1934. The lead dancers besides Ashton were Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova with design of scenery and costumes by the likes of Rex Whistler. Included in a brilliant literary and intellectual circle were Michael Ayrton, Sacheverell Sitwell and Anthony Powell. It has been said that Constant Lambert was the prototype for Hugh Moreland in “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Included in the Fitzrovian pub crawls were Jacob Epstein, the classical music writer and dance band leader, Spike Hughes (named as such after the spike of his double bass) and Dylan Thomas, newly arrived in London from Swansea to seek his fortune. These characters lit up the thirties, still the bright young things. Overseeing all from the rostrum was Constant Lambert, not a remote drop-in stick-waving front man but one of the boys both in the pit and the saloon bar, one who knew and understood both the ballet and the music better than anyone. He would himself describe being a conductor as ending up at the age of 80 with a fur coat and a fourth wife. As Stephen Boyd commented, Lambert barely made it half way, dying after a short life of prodigious achievement aged 45, worn out, hard up, chronically overworked, and still only on the second wife.


One begins to appreciate that his lifestyle left little time to compose throughout the thirties and beyond. The mid thirties saw the composition of what some consider to be his greatest work, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, based on a poem of that name by Thomas Nashe depicting death by plague in the 1590’s. It’s not very cheerful and it did not help having its first performance five days after the death of George V in 1936. Much warmer and traditional was the music for his ballet, Horoscope, written in 1938 for Margot Fonteyn. Constant had fallen in love with her watching her from the rostrum and a secret passion ensued in other places. It was to Fonteyn’s long regret that they did not marry. Horoscope is more in the ballet tradition of Tchaikovsky than Stravinsky. Its theme is astrological with crossed lovers (Lambert and Fonteyn?) who have the sun in one sign of the Zodiac and the moon in another with the man having his sun in Leo and the woman with her sun in Gemini with opposed signs—sorry I have lost the plot, but the music is beautiful.


The world of Sadlers Wells, as it had become, like so much else ended with the 1939 war when the company was on tour in Holland. Whilst German paratroopers were dropping from the skies the company had to make its way back to England. Sadlers Wells was able to continue throughout the war despite its theatre in Roseberry Avenue having to close. It was a hand to mouth time involving much touring to and from cold theatres which were as bleak as the boarding houses, air raids and rationing. Lambert wrote music for a documentary on the merchant fleet which sounds typical of one of those Pathé Gazette black and white films called “The March of Time”. In 1942, two years after the debacle in Holland and the hurried escape of the Sadlers Wells company, Lambert wrote an orchestral piece in remembrance entitled “Aubade Héroique”. It is one of his least known compositions. In my view this six minute piece is the most pastoral work he composed. It is clearly influenced both in title and style by Debussy with a nod towards Vaughan Williams here and there. Debussy had written his Berceuse Héroique in 1914 dedicated to the King of the Belgians at the time of the collapse to the Kaiser’s advancing forces. Now in similar mood, including adopting Debussy’s whole tone scale, was Lambert’s melancholy reminiscence of his own retreat in 1940. The work was dedicated to Vaughan Williams on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.


Further conducting opportunities arose following the death of Henry Wood in 1944 and Constant Lambert becoming an assistant conductor at the Promenade concerts. He was a great favourite and thrived with a more professional orchestra than he was accustomed to directing. He was a burly Churchillian figure who had a strange manner of turning his head to one side when conducting. Few would have known he was deaf in one ear. Still he was left with an ear for music!


With the war coming to an end, Kit was sent to boarding school where Constant would visit him but Kit had been missing out on a father figure.   Constant’s troubled broken down marriage with Flo was to end in divorce in 1947 but, instead of marrying Margot Fonteyn as she expected, that relationship too came to an end and she was particularly hurt. Their relationship was doubtless tempestuous, the dance company being no place for monogamy. Instead Constant married painter, Isabel Delmer. After his death Isabel was to marry Constant’s friend and fellow cat lover, composer Alan Rawsthorne. Margot Fonteyn made only two references to Constant Lambert in her biography. He had been written out of her life. Kit too carved out a musical career for himself, discovering, re-inventing and managing the pop group whom he renamed as “The Who”.


With the end of the war further conducting opportunities arose. In 1946 the BBC founded the Third Programme (now Radio 3) and Constant Lambert was a regular conductor. He was also called upon by Walter Legge to be one of those who would conduct the newly founded Philharmonia Orchestra.


As time moved on, the Sadlers Well Ballet was taken over by Covent Garden opera under its new director, David Webster. This led to Lambert being dropped as music director to his sadness but he went on conducting till the end. It was then that he returned to a long cherished idea to write a ballet called Tiresias set in Ancient Crete. It was one of three commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951. This was his first ballet since Horoscope in 1938. The scenario and music were by Lambert; it was the fourth Lambert/Ashton collaboration and it went down with the critics like a lump of lead. Without going into the convoluted story because most ballet plots are convoluted anyway, everything about it was other than a Covent Garden audience would expect. With the then Queen (later Queen Mother) attending, it was seen as a gala performance leading to the same expectations and disappointment that Britten would have in coronation year two years later with his opera, Gloriana. The music had none of the warm romanticism of Horoscope but owed more to the Concerto for piano and nine instruments with piano and plenty of drum kit interventions but omitting upper range strings. The plot involved the lead players changing sex and then exploring which of the sexes obtained more sexual enjoyment. This went down with shock and horror with its 1951 audience. The critics slated it and after four weeks and eight performances Constant Lambert was dead. It was a shock for all. It turned out that he had undetected diabetes which bore out his lack of confidence in doctors. It is also suggested that this condition gave rise to a perpetual thirst which was satisfied in his case by more and more beer. Osbert Sitwell in his obituary blamed the critics claiming “He would be alive today had it not been for the savage onslaught of the critics”.


So ended the life and career of a bright star which suddenly extinguished. What would have become of him had he gone on? Would he have got his fur coat and fourth wife? Would he have had more time for composition or had he simply gone the same way as his drinking companion, Dylan Thomas, would do two years later? How would he have fared with the BBC establishment which took over at the end of that decade under the proscribing black listing pen of William Glock? One doubts that that gentleman would have been invited to join Connie and his gang in one of the nearby pubs to the BBC. The problem with Constant Lambert was that he undertook too much, a jack of all trades, expert in all for all that but with no single direction with the exception of that of the musical leadership of Sadlers Wells. To say he was unorthodox would be an understatement as a man or a musician, as a painter or a critic, as an author or a conductor devoting as much time to these as also to being an excellent writer of limericks and of over a hundred poems in English and French and never forgetting his having made his home a shelter for numerous refugee cats. On top of all else he had been chief conductor of Camargo/Vic-Wells/Sadlers Wells ballets for twenty five years and equally uniquely president of the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cats Society of which he was justly proud.