Saturday, 2 March 2013

Constant Delights

Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was the only British composer Serge Diaghilev commissioned to write a work for his Ballets Russes. That's quite a distinction, especially as the invitation came when he was a mere 20 years of age. 

A prodigy then, perhaps comparable to William Walton? Well, Lambert himself had performed in Walton's name-making Façade (an early Épater la bourgeoisie kind of piece that set the avant-garde poetry of Edith Sitwell and made use of popular idioms) and shot to fame with a work in a somewhat similar vein - Rio Grande. This 1927 masterpiece sets a poem by Edith's brother Sacheverell for alto solo and chorus accompanied by piano and an orchestra consisting of strings, brass and tons of percussion (but no woodwinds). Façade had been a succès de scandale; Rio Grande, however, was a succès, full stop. The public loved it. It's not hard to guess why. It was something new to our shores - a jazz-inspired concert piece by a British classical composer. Moreover, it's a work of considerable feeling, covering a range of moods from the energetic to the nostalgic. What's not for audiences to like?

Fans of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (from 1931) will surely recognise the debts Walton owed to Lambert's Rio Grande in achieving his own subsequent "succès, full stop". Belshazzar's Feast's has often been acclaimed as the work that shook British choral music out of its complacency, but Constant Lambert was there first. 

The comparison with Walton keep on coming. Belshazzar's Feast and the First Symphony of a few years later marked the high point of Walton's success. The second half of his life was a long anti-climax (acclaim-wise). Something similar happened with Lambert, who never repeated his triumph with Rio Grande, making him (unlike Walton) something of a one-hit wonder who peaked too soon. (Lambert had other strings to his bow - as a highly influential critic and as a leading British conductor - so can get put away your handkerchiefs!). 

What more is there to Constant Lambert than Rio Grande

Well, there's another large-scale choral work, the choral masque Summer's Last Will and Testament of 1936, setting poems by  the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe. Baritone soloist, chorus and large orchestra (this time including woodwinds) join forces for a work that lasts some fifty minutes. Nashe's 1592 play, from which the poems are taken, deals with the then-annual plague that struck at the end of each summer. Lambert's score (successfully) attempts to encompass its satirical, nostalgic and tragic elements. There are seven sections, of which the Intrata and the remarkable Dies Irae-haunted Rondo Burlesca are purely orchestral:

1. Intrata
2. Madrigal Con Ritornelli
3. Coranto
4. Brawles
5. Madrigal Con Ritornelli
6. Rondo Burlesca (King Pest)
7. Saraband

The work adopts several forms from the Elizabethan era - the madrigal, of course, but also dances like the sicilienne of the Intrata, the courante and the sarabande (to Frenchify their names into something familiar).  This, at times, puts him in close musical proximity to fellow boozer Peter Warlock (of Capriol Suite fame). There are a few touches of jazz, but they aren't a major element in this score.

Unfortunately for Lambert, his most significant statement fell flat at its première as it just happened to follow in the wake of the death of King George V, when the public wasn't in the mood for a largely upbeat piece about the plague. The set-back knocked the composer for six, especially as he was (understandably) very proud of Summer's Last Will and Testament. He composed very little after that and his tendency towards alcoholism grew, eventually killing him after his final ballet Tiresias received critical drubbing sent him spinning into despair. (You can get you hankies out again now!). The revival in Summer's Last Will and Testament's fortunes in recent years hasn't come a moment too soon. It's an absorbing piece and I expect it will surprise you.

On a smaller scale (speaking length-wise!), you will also find the nostalgic vein found in parts of Summer's Last Will and Testament in the beautiful orchestral score Aubade Héroique of 1941 - a piece depicting   a particular dawn in The Hague, where the composer had been conducting, when German parachutists began their invasion of the Netherlands and Lambert and the Sadler's Wells ballet troupe made their escape.

If you feel (as I do) that the Aubade Héroique has some of the qualities of film music about it, then it might not surprise you to learn that Lambert was a fine (if not very prolific) composer for the cinema. From around the same time came the irresistibly tuneful music for the patriotic Merchant Seamen...

and from 1948 came his sweeping music for Anna Karenina (starring Vivien Leigh).

If Rio Grande is Constant Lambert's best-known piece, then Horoscope (1937) is his best-known ballet. It almost makes him a two-hit wonder. Legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn danced in the first performance. Lambert surely enjoyed her moves, given that he was also having an affair with her at the time! It has nine movements:

1. Palindromic Prelude
2. Dance for the Followers of Leo
3. Saraband for the Followers of Virgo
4. Man's Variation
5. Woman's Variation
6. Bacchanale
7. Valse for the Gemini
8. Pas de Deux
9. Invocation to the Moon and Finale

Though a piece for dancing to, Horoscope was written in a way that will appeal to lovers of symphonic music. It's Palindromic Prelude is precisely what it says it is - it may be read backwards as well as forwards. Both the Dance for the Followers of Leo and the Bacchanale feature a catchy phrase with syncopated rhythms which will probably stick with you for hours afterwards. The latter movement isn't the only one where thoughts of Holst and The Planets spring to mind, perhaps not unsurprisingly in a work with astrological matters at its heart. I was especially thinking of Uranus for the Bacchanale. (As Frankie Howard might of put it, "Ooh, missus!"). Ravel comes to mind in some of the slower sections. Still, it's the music of William Walton (the later Walton of the film scores) which Lambert feels closest too here.  Incidentally, for fellow waltz-lovers, don't forget to check out the delightfully nonchalant Valse for the Gemini

It may not have the sharp individuality of Rio Grande but Horoscope deserves to be as widely performed as possible as it's a loveable score. 

Hope you'll enjoy listening to Lambert's music.

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