Archives for posts with tag: Constant Lambert

lambertI only discovered the picture above a few days ago, in the Getty Images archive. Taken on Wednesday the 29th of July 1931, it shows composer Constant Lambert (aged 25) and his first wife, Florence Chuter (aged 18) just a few days before their wedding on August 5th at Kensington Registry Office. Flo, as she was known, was an actress working under the name Florence Kay. She had an oriental appearance and this must have been what attracted Lambert to her. His Eight Poems of Li Po, written five years earlier, had been dedicated to the (entirely unattainable) Chinese actress Anna-May-Wong.

It took me a while to work out the location of the photo, even though I should have recognized it immediately, as I worked for almost a decade just a few hundred yards away. It was taken in Greek Street, close to where the Pillars of Hercules pub straddles Manette Street, and looking towards Soho Square. The sign on the right hand side is a bit blurred, but it’s easy to make out that it belongs to a Chinese restaurant – and a bit of research reveals that in the 1930s the Shanghai Chinese restaurant was located just here, at 8 Greek Street. It was a popular haunt for literary types (just as the Pillars of Hercules is today).

Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant in Gerrard Street (still today filled with Chinese restaurants) is usually cited as the most likely real-life equivalent to Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the establishment that gives its name to Anthony Powell’s novel, part of the Dance to the Music of Time sequence. In that novel, the fictional composer Moreland is generally understood to be based on Lambert, who was friendly with Powell. But given that Casanova actually lived in Greek Street (in 1764, at No 47), and the evidence of this photo that Lambert favoured the Shanghai, perhaps there’s a case to be made for it as well?

The Eight Songs of Li Po are beautifully scored for a small chamber ensemble, influenced perhaps by the similarly scored songs by Arthur Bliss, The Women of Yueh (1923-24), also settings of Li Po. Most are less than two minutes long, and for me, two of the briefest are the best of all. “A Summer Day” begins with a limpid, mostly white note instrumental introduction in triple time that actually sounds at its best in the piano version. It reflects the poem’s depiction of easy-going drinking and relaxing in the cool mountains. “On the City Street”, once again using mostly white note harmonies, takes up just one page of manuscript, but not a note is wasted. Initially, the meter varies in response to the text, but then the vocal line starts to rise and flow for the words “There are ten thousand houses, among the drooping willow trees”. The accompaniment then gradually peters out with a series of quiet, falling figures, a very poignant effect.

TippettSometimes so-called “academic” composers are derided for writing music that might be technically brilliant but has little “natural” feeling or inspiration. R O Morris (1886-1948) should be a good example. Today he’s remembered primarily as a teacher of counterpoint (at the Royal College of Music) and a writer of text books. His pupils included Gerald Finzi, Constant Lambert, Edmund Rubbra and Michael Tippett. There’s just one tiny work of his that many people will know today, the anthem “Love Came Down at Christmas”.

But Morris enjoyed a ten year period of creativity as a composer, roughly between 1922 and 1932. Finzi, at least, thought highly of his music, and in an obituary piece (quoted in Diana McVeagh’s biography) he chose four pieces representing Morris at his most approachable – Corrina’s Maying for chorus and orchestra, the Concerto Piccolo, the Suite for Chamber Orchestra and the six Canzoni Ricertati for strong orchestra or string quartet – with the Toccata and Fugue for Orchestra at the other extreme and the Symphony in D (first performed on January 1, 1934 at the Queen’s Hall) somewhere in the middle. We learn from the other Finzi biography (from Stephen Banfield) that the last of the Canzoni Ricertati was rated his “one genuine masterpiece” and described as a “grave and lovely” work. But in the early 1930s Morris stopped composing and would never talk about his own work from that point onwards.

There’s little chance of hearing any of these pieces today – most of the manuscripts lie unpublished and hidden away in various libraries. But incredibly, a recording of the last Canzoni Ricertati by the Lindsay String Quartet does exist. I’ve been listening to it over the past few weeks and find it beautiful. It’s made up of three, 3 minute sections of intense fugal and canonic writing, but using themes that have the flavor of mournful folk melodies, closely related to each other. Each of the sections begins with a main theme that is immediately used against itself, and then a secondary theme is introduced around half way through and combined with the first. Towards the end there are sequential passages where aching false relations (influenced by the “golden age” of English counterpoint from the 16th century, on which Morris was an authority) predominate. Such passages recall the music of Peter Warlock, and as with most of Warlock’s work, these are miniatures. But their emotional impact and sheer density makes them seem much longer. They aren’t online anywhere I can find, so I can’t provide a link, but the CD is available and I encourage you to seek it out.

9781843838982I was completely surprised this morning by an article in the Wall Street Journal reviewing a new book: Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande, by Stephen Lloyd. Although I was aware Lloyd had been researching Lambert, I didn’t realize that the book was due out. I ordered a copy immediately.

This isn’t the only book on Lambert. Richard Shead wrote the first biography in 1973 – it was good, but rather brief, and probably constrained as to what he could say, as many of those featured in it were still alive. Poet Andrew Motion published a much larger tome – The Lamberts – in 1986, but in that book Constant had to share the limelight with his painter father George and his son Kit (best known as manager of The Who). I haven’t seen Lloyd’s book yet, but the page count (622!), the table of contents and the author’s musical credentials suggest that this will be the most thorough account yet.

My own interest in Lambert dates from a tour I took part in of his Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments (1931) at the University of Keele in the early 1980s – Peter Dickinson was the pianist. I played percussion. The Concerto is a jazz-influenced chamber work that’s savage rather than smooth and with instrumentation influenced as much by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire than by jazz bands – although Lambert was also a huge enthusiast of the music of Duke Ellington. From there I wrote a thesis on Lambert and reconstructed the score of his final ballet Tiresias, which was missing at the time. That work eventually resulted in a performance (in 1996, I think) of Tiresias on Radio 3, organized by Piers Burton Page (the first performance since the early 1950s), and in turn that piqued the interest of David Lloyd Jones, who went on to record the work for Hyperion in 1999. I was lucky enough to be at the recording session in Leeds Town Hall. So I’m really looking forward to reading the new book.


Musical Authors
One of the “ten celebrated string quartets”, Mozart’s Quartet No 15 in D minor (K421) is notable for many reasons. For instance, Mozart’s wife Constanze is said to have told Vincent and Mary Novello that the rising melodic figures used throughout the unconventionally phrased second movement Andante were a reference to her cries from the other room while she was in labour with their first child, Raimund, on the seventeenth of June 1783. But the prompt for including this piece here was a passing comment I came across while re-reading Constant Lambert’s fascinating study of modern music from 1934, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline.  Here it is, from page 23 of the Pelican paperback’s 1948 reprint. “The Siciliana that forms the finale of the D minor quartet [is] a simple dance tune into which and its variations Mozart seems to have compressed the emotional experience of a lifetime”. As we have already seen (and will see in future posts), Lambert himself used the siciliana form for some of his most emotionally intense compositions.

lambertI still find it incredible that Summers Last Will and Testament is now readily available (through a 1992 Hyperion recording). This piece was like the lost grail to me for years. Written in the dark days of 1933 to 1935, it is a melancholic work, obsessed with death, loss and the passing of time. That wasn’t what the public expected from Constant Lambert, a composer best known for the jazz-tinged brightness of Façade and The Rio Grande. And the first performance, in January 1936, took place only nine days after the death of King Geroge V. It sank almost without trace. However, reports of its worth continued to circulate – from Malcolm Arnold, for instance, who called it “one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire”. Lambert himself, who died in 1951, thought of it as his best work. Summers Last Will and Testament is based on Elizabethan dance forms, setting words from Thomas Nashe’s masque of the same name, the subject of which is London during the plague years. Lambert’s friend, the composer Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine, may have inspired him to look back to the Tudor era for inspiration. Warlock had committed suicide in 1930, and Lambert dedicated his dark Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments to Warlock.

In order to hear it I dug out the vocal score from the library – a massively oversized limited edition with two piano reduction. I visited the Institute of Recorded Sound (then in Kensington, near the Albert Hall) and listened to the 1965 BBC broadcast conducted by Malcolm Sargent, the music coming from the far distance somewhere beyond the coughing and shuffling of the audience. And eventually I saw two live performances, the first at the Brighton Festival (10 May 1986, conducted by Norman Del Mar) and then again in August 1991 at Leeds Town Hall, conducted by David Lloyd Jones. From that concert also came the Hyperion recording. I was almost sorry when it became better known – there was something exciting about being one of a very few who knew just how rich this music is. At 50 minutes long this is Lambert’s most ambitious work.

Intrata The work starts with a seven minute long section for orchestra alone, consisting of two parts: “pastorale” and “siciliana”. The mood is melancholy, but the pace and tension builds up until the expansive siciliana theme is introduced on solo oboe. Lambert has used the dotted 6/8 siciliana form before in his ballet scores (most notably in Pomona). Once again the music builds up to full orchestral treatment before returning at the end to the solo oboe. This is idealized pastoralism already tinged with sadness, preparing the mood for the darkness to come.


The original Duke Ellington composition, recorded in 1930, is a slow blues with an eerie choir of high trombone, trumpet in the middle and low clarinet playing the melody line. Constant Lambert memorably described it as “exquisitely tired and four-in-the-morning.” Nina Simone’s version, dating from 1957 and appearing as the opening track on her first LP Little Girl Blue, is very different. It starts off at a blistering tempo with four bars of bass and drums, introducing an astonishing 64 bar piano solo which drives us towards the vocal with ever increasing rhythmical tension. The solo is structured into four distinct 16 bar phrases. The first features stabbing chords, then the second begins some serious displacement of the beat. A single note stuttering motif blurs across the bar lines so that we lose our place and are not sure where the phrase end actually is. But it ends bang on time after all and leads on to the third phrase, featuring Simone’s characteristic Bach-like counterpoint, heard in many of her other recordings of this time. This slowly dissipates into a return of the opening stabbing chords and stuttering motif for the final 16 bars. The tension builds and builds until it becomes almost unbearable, finally released with a full two bars of silence before the vocals begin, slow and beautifully phrased, above the still relentless, driving rhythms of the piano, bass and drums. “You ain’t never been blue, till you’ve had that mood indigo.” Three verses and another great 32-bar piano solo are crammed into this highly intense track, which somehow ends up at only four minutes long.