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Constant Lambert Lost (and Found)

Constant Lambert / Wikimedia Commons

Before about 1980, almost all culturally literate musicians trained on British models—not necessarily in Britain itself—discovered, generally by happenstance, Constant Lambert’s 1934 philippic Music Ho! Somehow, while never troubling the bestseller charts, Music Ho! stayed in print and in the collective unconscious for four decades. Does it continue to attract fans? Its very name might well mean nothing to anyone under 50. Time was when it won not just fans but the most evangelistic votaries. 

In his raffish, autodidactic nonage Lambert had mysteriously acquired a prose style that blended Macaulayan confidence with Nietzschean spite—“the loudspeaker is the streetwalker of music” counts as one of his tamer epigrams. Only Virgil Thomson, providing a similar brand of high-cultural bitchiness to Manhattanites, withstood literary comparison with him. Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, Schoenberg, Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Richard Strauss: all these composers Lambert treated as emperors so deficient in clothes that they were ostentatiously dying of pneumonia. Sibelius and Duke Ellington alone, among the contemporaneous elect, met Lambert’s approval.

All readers who at an impressionable age relished Music Ho!’s frenetic intellectual sadism will have asked: who was this Lambert anyhow? What else did he write? If they have enjoyed Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, they will have stumbled on Lambert again since Powell freely admitted to using Lambert’s traits for the novel-sequence’s louche character of Hugh Moreland. The première recording of “Façade,” in which the treatment of Edith Sitwell’s words by William Walton marks history’s first surviving example of rap, includes Lambert as one of the narrators, Sitwell herself being the other. Through his own “The Rio Grande,” an early, jazz-inflected partnership with Edith’s younger brother Sacheverell Sitwell, he achieved as a composer intense popular acclaim that never completely faded. All this before his 30th birthday.

Such stunning promise; such self-destructive lack of fulfillment. After “The Rio Grande,” most of his music bombed in commercial terms. His dark side made it hard to remember his light side. When scarcely out of his teens he turned no less a martinet than Diaghilev from indulgent friend to unpitying foe. A chain-smoking alcoholic, he hurtled through two chaotic marriages as well as numerous affairs—Margot Fonteyn being his most renowned trophy—while inspiring in his academic and journalistic antagonists the Hedda Hopper verdict: “You had to stand in line to hate him.” In 1951, wracked by diabetes and less than a week before turning 46, he boozed himself to death. His Christian name, as he confessed, had proven to be the least apposite of any famous musician’s since Modest Mussorgsky’s.

It was not all “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Lambert’s friends, while they could hardly be expected to outnumber his enemies, were loyal and influential. (They ranged from Percy Wyndham Lewis on the Franquista Right to Tom Driberg on the Stalinist Left.) Surviving phonograph records confirm that Lambert the conductor—especially with ballets under Sadler’s Wells’ auspices—could extract admirable performances from the weariest orchestral players. At the piano, he could likewise charm; sound archives corroborate that too. Choreographer Ninette de Valois prayed frantically and successfully during World War II that neither bullets nor buzz-bombs would cut Lambert down. Both Lambert’s wives, whenever they did not execrate him, adored him. “Every word he said lifted you up”, observed Wife No. 1, who boasted the Wodehousian name of Florence Kaye. (Wife No. 2, Isabel Delmer, went on to marry another hard-drinking composer, Alan Rawsthorne. Triumph of hope over experience, hello?)

And now the tireless musicologist Stephen Lloyd, who has already given us the best biography of Walton—Muse of Fire—has supplied, well, certainly the biggest biography of Lambert. Lloyd is incapable of sloppy research, but 622 densely printed pages on Lambert constitutes overkill. Even Lambert’s most pugnacious champions cannot legitimately rank him alongside Elgar, Delius, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Edmund Rubbra, and Walton himself. thisarticleappears

His role in modern English music’s history is quite different, his closest foreign analogue being his unclassifiable French hero Emmanuel Chabrier. Like Chabrier, Lambert burned out too soon. Like Chabrier, Lambert excelled in the gaudy aphorism. Like Chabrier, Lambert compensated for architectural weaknesses by a delirious exuberance as evident on manuscript paper as in person. Criticizing Chabrier’s tone-poem “España” would be like criticizing a jumping-bean: its kinetic brio is its whole purpose. So with Lambert’s music at its most joyful.

Altogether a tale worth telling, even if Lloyd has not superseded the 1973 study of Lambert by broadcaster Richard Shead, or the 1986 account of Lambert’s whole family by poet Andrew Motion. Whilst Shead displayed undue reticence, concealing the entire Lambert-Fonteyn relationship, Lloyd errs in the opposite direction. For this book’s discography and list of relevant broadcasts, we owe Lloyd a handsome debt. But much of Lloyd’s other new material, such as the dutifully lewd limericks that comprise most of Appendix 12 could have been jettisoned with advantage. Moreover, the layout of Lloyd’s entire narrative appears to alternate between nine-point and eight-point type. (And can those footnotes really be in seven-point?) A more regrettable design turn-off is scarcely conceived.


Lambert’s upbringing might have reduced Marcus Aurelius to crying-jags. In pre-1914 English eyes Lambert’s father, the painter George Lambert, compounded the offensiveness of his Russian birth by his protracted residence in Australia. What Clive James has accurately said of England since the 1960s was incomparably truer of England in Constant’s boyhood: that anti-Australian taunts, “for the English chattering classes … serve as a mild form of licensed anti-Semitism.”

At boarding-school, Constant almost died of streptococcal septicemia. He never in adulthood perceived sounds properly with his right ear or walked without a limp. Add to his colonial status and shattered health his ineptitude at team sports, and the Orwellian mixture was complete. Constant never did visit his father’s adopted land, but from the 1930s he surrounded himself with Aussie expatriates, including soprano Joan Hammond, composer Arthur Benjamin, dancer Sir Robert Helpmann, and pianist Gordon Watson. (Watson, once back in New South Wales, would regale ignorant and unappreciative adolescents with his anecdotes of salad days in Lambert’s and the Sitwells’ company. We all should have paid these anecdotes much more heed: too late now, since Watson died in 1999, his memoirs frustratingly unwritten.)

The only post-“Rio Grande” Lambert piece that briefly approached repertory status was the “Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments” with which he memorialized fellow drunkard Peter Warlock, dead at 36. (Warlock’s suicide aroused stubborn allegations that he had actually been murdered by a still creepier occultist.) But neither this concerto nor any other Lambert composition can prepare listeners for the vast power of his magnum opus: the cantata “Summer’s Last Will and Testament,” using verses by the picaresque pamphleteer Thomas Nashe. Lambert’s theatrical flair, delightful in comedy, he unleashed here on tragedy. Lloyd devotes 11 closely reasoned pages to the work, and no wonder.

Hearers at the cantata’s first performance in early 1936 were few and mostly shocked. Lambert could not have affronted his audience more if he had staged “The Duchess of Malfi” at the Drones Club. The last thing London’s Smart Set wanted to sit through, amid the euphoria of Edward VIII’s accession, was an hour-long memento mori that culminated in Nashe’s harrowing dirge:

Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Deliberate antiquarianism marks the various sections’ names: “Intrada”, “Sarabande,” “Coranto,” “Madrigal.” Publisher Hubert Foss correctly praised “Summer’s Last Will” for conveying Tudor life “in the reality of all its splendor and all its dirt.” Indubitably Lambert—what with his wild terpsichorean enthusiasms, his extremes of pride and self-laceration, the ceremoniousness of his verbal thrusts—would have coped far better in 16th-century than in 20th-century England. One can well imagine an incensed Lambert biting clean through a wineglass, as that Elizabethan sea-dog Richard Grenville repeatedly did.


Lambert and the Sadler’s Wells troupe, misled like everyone else by the Phoney War, found themselves in the Netherlands when Hitler triumphed there. However overweight, lame, and inebriated, Lambert himself greeted physical danger with enviably cool courage. (Meanwhile, the young and hip Benjamin Britten, forever vociferating against the Fascist Beast, had scarpered across the Atlantic at, in Evelyn Waugh’s phrase, “the first squeak of an air-raid warning.”) Lambert’s original eyewitness report to London, full of scary details about Dutch fifth-columnists and Wehrmacht parachutists who pretended to be clergymen, was considered too depressing for the airwaves.

After 1945 the good times never really returned for Lambert. Periodically the BBC allowed him on air. But Lambert had not the smallest chance of obtaining a permanent radio-related desk job, which might well have been his salvation since it would have forced on him basic bourgeois disciplines of office hours, sartorial codes, etiquette, and sobriety. He never wrote another book. The deprivation was ours. He had forgotten more about early music than most of his professorial contemporaries ever knew. With his exceptional erudition, he should have knuckled down to a musicological treatise that would have shaken the world, a treatise adding to Music Ho!’s vitriolic wit his subsequently acquired sense of pathos. Instead, when not simply plastered, he dissipated his energies by such means as burbling into a microphone about his cats. More and more Lambert found himself upstaged by Britten, for whom he struggled to maintain a polite tolerance. Had the postwar Lambert cast the same surgical eye upon the Britten cult that the prewar Lambert had cast on the Stravinsky cult, Britten’s own talent—genuine although absurdly hyped—would have benefited.

Like most other educated Englishmen of his epoch, Lambert had internalized the maxim long misattributed to Walter Scott: “One crowded hour of glorious life / Is worth an age without a name.” Lambert definitely made of his own life “one crowded hour,” and yes, “Summer’s Last Will and Testament” deserves the adjective “glorious.” Yet possibly a still more fitting epitaph for Lambert lies in one of his favorite operas: Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” of which, shortly after V-E day, he directed the first unabridged recording: seven double-sided 78 r.p.m. shellacs, with burgundy-colored His Master’s Voice labels. Most of that opera’s text—by minor poet Nahum Tate—is serviceable rather than profound, but two lines of it are almost in Dryden’s league, and they goaded Purcell to a choral setting of funereal grandeur. Surely Lambert never reread Tate’s couplet without newly realizing its appropriateness to himself? “Great minds against themselves conspire / And shun the cure they most desire.”

R.J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.

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