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Constant Lambert and Les Patineurs

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Leonard Constant Lambert (August 23, 1905–August 21, 1951) was a British composer, conductor, arranger, and author.  The son of Russian-born Australian painter George Washington Thomas Lambert, Constant Lambert was born on August 23, 1905, at Fulham, London, England.  Lambert’s childhood experiences, which included a near-fatal bout of septicaemia, gave him a lifelong detestation and fear of the medical profession.  Isolated in infirmaries for long spells as a child due to poor health, Lambert used this time to read voraciously and intensively study music.  Educated first at Christ’s Hospital, he was a prodigy, and while still a boy demonstrated formidable musical gifts by writing orchestral works from the age of 13. In 1922, Lambert won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where his teachers were Ralph Vaughan Williams, R. O. Morris, and Sir George Dyson (composition), Malcolm Sargent (conducting) and Herbert Fryer (piano).   Early on, Lambert made friends with composers William Walton and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), and made some arrangements from Walton’s Façade.

The influence of Walton’s approach can be seen in very early Constant Lambert works such as the children’s fable Mr. Bear Squash-you-all-flat (1924).   At 20 Lambert received a commission to write a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Romeo and Juliet, 1925).   Pomona, composed for Nizhinska, followed in 1927.  Lambert’s first marriage was to Florence Kaye; their son was Kit Lambert, one of the managers of The Who.  For a few years Lambert enjoyed a meteoric celebrity, including participating in a recording of William Walton’s Façade with Edith Sitwell. Lambert’s best-known composition is The Rio Grande (1927) for piano and alto soloists, chorus, and orchestra of brass, strings and percussion. It achieved instant success, and Lambert made two recordings of the piece as conductor (1930 and 1949). In the meantime, Lambert became conductor of the Carmargo Society for the presentation of ballet productions (1930).

For the first performance of his Piano Concerto (1931), rather than select a British-born pianist, Lambert chose the Sydney-born, Brisbane-trained Arthur Benjamin to play the solo part.  After his more serious subsequent efforts failed to gain a foothold with the public, Lambert turned to music criticism. He contributed articles on music to the Nation and Anthem (from 1930) and to the Sunday Referee (from 1931). Lambert differed from most of his fellow English composers of the time in his acute and prophetic perception of the importance of jazz. He responded positively to the music of Duke Ellington. His embrace of music outside the ‘serious’ repertoire is illustrated by his book Music Ho! (1934), subtitled “a study of music in decline.”  During the 1930s, Lambert’s career as a conductor took off with his appointment with the Vic-Wells ballet (later the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and The Royal Ballet) in 1931, remaining in that capacity until resigning in 1947, but his career as a composer stagnated. His major choral work Summer’s Last Will and Testament after the play of the same name by Thomas Nashe, one of his most emotionally dark works, proved unfashionable in the mood following the death of King George V.

Lambert himself considered he had failed as a composer, and completed only two major works in the remaining sixteen years of his life. Instead he concentrated on conducting, and sometimes appeared at Covent Garden (1937; 1939; 1946-1947).  He was the greatest ballet conductor and advisor his country ever had, arranging music by Giacomo Meyerbeer for the ballet Les Patineurs  in 1937.  But the Second World War took its toll of his vitality and creativity. He was ruled unfit for active service in the armed forces; decades of hard drinking had impaired his health, which declined further with the development of diabetes that remained undiagnosed and untreated until very late in his life. As a conductor Lambert had an instinctive appreciation of Liszt, Chabrier, Émile Waldteufel, and romantic Russian composers, most of whom were seldom heard in Britain before he championed them; he made fine recordings of some of their works. However, it was only from the late 1940s that the development of the BBC Third Programme and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave him the directorial opportunities with first-rank players which he craved.

By the late 1940’s, Lambert was one of the most prominent conductors in England and well known internationally through recordings and his popular ballet Horoscope (1937). He also was associate conductor of the London Promenade Concerts (1945-1946), conducted at ISCM concerts in England, and frequently conducted broadcast performances over the BBC. In 1947 Lambert married the artist Isabel Delmer.  He was made one of The Royal Ballet’s artistic directors in 1948, and subsequently conducted it on its first visit to the USA (1949).  He entrusted another Australian musician, Gordon Watson, with the task of playing the virtuoso piano part at the première of his last ballet, Tiresias (1950).  Lambert died on August 21, 1951, in London, England, two days short of his forty-sixth birthday, of pneumonia and undiagnosed diabetes complicated by acute alcoholism, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, London. His son Kit was buried in the same grave in 1981. Constant Lambert was one of the most gifted musicians of his generation. His music is inspired, original, and well worth rediscovering.

The following work by Constant Lambert is contained in my collection:

Les Patineurs Ballet Music after Meyerbeer: Section 1

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources



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