The bohemian character of Constant Lambert’s family (his father was the artist George Washington Thomas Lambert) stimulated in him an interest in the arts that was unusually wide: he was as equally at home with literature, the theatre, the visual arts and the cinema as with music. Having been educated at Christ’s Hospital in London, he won a scholarship in 1922 to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Vaughan Williams and R.O. Morris, whom he respected, and George Dyson, whom he did not; and also studied conducting with Malcolm Sargent and piano with Herbert Fryer. Lambert frequented the artistic circles of the time and soon came into contact with other composers such as Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) and William Walton. A great admirer of Russian music, during the 1920s he composed several works informed by Russian culture and ideas and after being introduced to Diaghilev was commissioned by him to write a ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, for his Ballets Russes. However Lambert and Diaghilev could not agree on either the set designs or the choreography, and the ballet had a mixed reception, although it was successful in London. The late 1920s saw the composition of several notable works, including the Eight Poems of Li-Po, inspired by the film actress Anna May Wong, and the popular The Rio Grande, which set to music verse by Sacheverell Sitwell. These were followed by Lambert’s Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto, both of which inhabited a tougher musical world, one to which the public was less easily attracted.
From the beginning of the 1930s Lambert’s primary musical occupation was that of conductor, although he continued to compose works of considerable originality and style. In 1930 he was appointed conductor of the Carmargo Society, a ballet company created to perform the works created by Diaghilev, and of the Vic-Wells ballet in 1931; together with its director, Ninette de Valois, he did much to establish this company, which was the forerunner of both the Sadler’s Wells and Royal Ballet companies. Lambert developed in parallel an active career as a guest conductor, appearing with the Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden opera companies as well as with the British regional orchestras and Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra. He also vigorously pursued a career as a musical journalist, writing articles for a wide range of newspapers and magazines, as well as publishing the book Music Ho!, which analysed musical and artistic trends during the first half of the twentieth century with wit as well as understanding.
One of his most ambitious works, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, appeared in 1936, and was followed in 1937 by the popular ballet score Horoscope, choreographed by Frederick Ashton and featuring the young Margot Fonteyn. During World War II Lambert toured the United Kingdom with the Vic-Wells ballet company, often playing the piano for its performances. He arranged music by Liszt for the powerful ballet score Dante Sonata, which again was choreographed by Frederick Ashton and presented Fonteyn in a leading role, and conducted his influential edition of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1946. Lambert resigned from the Vic-Wells company in 1947, but became musical adviser to the Sadler’s Wells Company in 1948; he continued also to conduct opera at Covent Garden, including a notable account of Puccini’s Turandot, as well as directing many original programmes in radio concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His last major work was another ballet score, Tiresias, which was performed with mixed success at Covent Garden in 1951. By now in poor health, with undiagnosed diabetes aggravated by persistent heavy drinking, and saddened by hostile reviews, he died after the ballet’s initial run of eight performances and shortly before it was to be presented at the Edinburgh Festival.
Surviving film of Lambert conducting shows him to have had a very clear beat, executed with a strong physical presence. He conducted with vigour but without eccentricity and his recorded performances are powerfully direct. As quoted by John Holmes, the authoritative American music critic David Hall wrote in 1948 about his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5: ‘Constant Lambert and the London Philharmonic Orchestra are the only ones who play the music all the way through in the manner in which the composer intended it to be played. There is no fussy lily-painting here – just clean, brilliant and straightforward music-making.’ The rivals referred to included Stokowski, Mengelberg, Koussevitzky, and Beecham. Lambert recorded quite a wide repertoire from the early 1930s onwards, in which ballet played a significant part. He conducted The Rio Grande twice for the gramophone, firstly with Sir Hamilton Harty as the piano soloist with the Hallé Orchestra, and secondly with Kyla Greenbaum and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Other ballet music composed or arranged by himself and recorded by him included excerpts from Horoscope, Apparitions, the Dante Sonata, and Les Patineurs, as well as a most stylish account of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty with the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra.
Lambert also recorded music by his contemporaries, notably the first recordings of Warlock’s The Curlew and Alan Rawsthorne’s Symphonic Studies, as well as fine accounts of music by Delius, such as On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring, recorded with Beecham’s own London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1938. The recording producer Walter Legge had a high opinion of Lambert as a conductor and together they recorded a considerable amount of Russian music, including during the war Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Hamlet, as well as Borodin’s Symphony No. 2. Other repertoire recorded for Legge included Moiseiwitsch’s fine recording of Delius’s Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Shortly before his death Lambert recorded music for which he had a strong, if then unfashionable, enthusiasm: waltzes by Émile Waldteufel. Together with equally light-hearted music by Walton, Chabrier, and Suppé, these recordings stand as a fitting tribute to one of England’s finest all-round musicians of the twentieth century.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).