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  (Leonard) Constant Lambert (1905–1951), by Christopher Wood, 1926 (Leonard) Constant Lambert (1905–1951), by Christopher Wood, 1926
Lambert, (Leonard) Constant (1905–1951), composer and conductor, was born on 23 August 1905 at St Clement's Nursing Home, 302 Fulham Palace Road, Fulham, London, the younger son of George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873–1930), a painter with an American, British, and Australian background, and his wife, Amelia Beatrice Absell (1872–1964). His elder brother was the sculptor . As a child Constant Lambert was delicate, and throughout his life he was plagued by ill health, the only outward hint of this being a slight limp. Educated at Christ's Hospital from 1915 until 1922, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music (1922–5), where he studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams and R. O. Morris.

While still a student Lambert was introduced by Edmund Dulac to Serge Diaghilev and thus began a lifelong interest in French and Russian music as well as ballet. As a result Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet for his company, and he became the first British composer to be thus honoured. The work, entitled Romeo and Juliet comprised thirteen short movements, was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, and was first produced in Monte Carlo in May 1926. Its production was not without incident: Lambert had serious disagreements with Diaghilev, particularly over his interfering with the choreography, and at one stage even threatened to withdraw his music. Grateful for his support, Nijinska commissioned a work, and his second ballet Pomona was given in Buenos Aires in September 1927. He was seen as being extraordinarily gifted. Dame Ninette de Valois would later speak of him as ‘our only hope of an English Diaghilev’ (Kavanagh, 110).

By this time Lambert had already begun to move in artistic and bohemian circles, mixing with the Sitwells and the composers Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), Cecil Gray, and Bernard van Dieren. He had been a reciter in one of the early performances of William Walton's settings of Edith Sitwell's poems, Façade, in 1926. Lambert then began extending his work as a composer, writing eight songs on poems by Li-Po (1926) originally with piano accompaniment (later expanded to use a chamber orchestra). This was followed by what is arguably his most important purely orchestral work, Music for Orchestra (1927), scored for large forces and influenced by the current jazz craze. Elegiac Blues (1927, for small orchestra and piano), written in memory of the black singer Florence Mills, further shows Lambert's increasing interest in the jazz idiom. This influence found its full fruition in his fine setting of Sacheverell Sitwell's poem The Rio Grande, for piano, chorus, and an orchestra that includes colourful percussion effects. Broadcast in 1928, it was given its first performance by the Hallé orchestra in Manchester in December 1929, with Lambert conducting and Hamilton Harty (the orchestra's conductor) at the piano. This has remained his most popular work.

On 5 August 1931 Lambert married Florence Chuter, the daughter of Frederick Chuter, deceased. On the marriage certificate ‘Flo’, as she was also known, signed her name as ‘F. Kaye’ and gave her age as eighteen, but she was probably younger. She was said to be extraordinarily beautiful: according to Lambert's biographer her mother had lived near the London docks; her real father was probably a visiting sailor from Java or Malaya. The couple had a son, Christopher, known as , who became the manager of a famous rock group, The Who. His parents' marriage had to cope with financial problems from the beginning. Constant Lambert's heavy drinking made a stable family life unlikely.

The composition of two large-scale works for piano occupied Lambert during the late 1920s and early 1930s: a sonata (1928–9) and a concerto (1930–31) which, though cast in the classical mould, show once again the jazz influences that permeate his earlier works. The concerto for soloist and nine players was dedicated to the memory of his friend Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), who had died tragically young in 1930, an event that affected Lambert profoundly. In that same year Lambert returned to the world of ballet with an appointment as conductor of the Camargo Society, recently founded with the intention of continuing the work of Diaghilev, who had recently died. He thus resumed what was to be a long and distinguished career in the world of ballet. The Vic-Wells (later the Sadler's Wells) grew from the Camargo Society, and Lambert became its first musical director, a post which he held until 1947, although he continued as an artistic adviser and an occasional guest conductor. In 1949 he participated in the company's first tour of America. His knowledge and experience as a sympathetic conductor of ballet made him one of the leading figures in this field.

An award of the Collard fellowship of the Musicians' Company in 1934 made it possible for Lambert to compose his largest and most ambitious work, the choral masque Summer's Last Will and Testament, a setting of poems by Thomas Nashe. It was first performed in January 1936 at the Queen's Hall, London, with Lambert conducting. Cast, like earlier works, in classical forms, it shows a consummate skill in the handling of both voices and orchestra. His next work, the ballet Horoscope (1937), was first performed at Sadler's Wells in 1938 with choreography by Frederick Ashton. It is especially notable for a unique palindrome at the opening, which Lambert believed to have been dictated to him by his recently deceased friend Bernard van Dieren. In the late 1930s Lambert's marriage collapsed. Frederick Ashton described him as being ‘incapable of being faithful to anybody for very long’ (Motion, 211), and in 1937 Lambert began a passionate affair with a young ballet dancer called . Lambert and his wife separated and were subsequently divorced; Kit stayed with his mother. The relationship with Fonteyn was over by 1947.

Lambert's later works included a setting for male voices and strings, The Dirge from Cymbeline (1940). The same year Lambert was touring with the Sadler's Wells Ballet in the Netherlands and narrowly escaped capture during the German invasion. His short orchestral work Aubade héroïque (which contains contrasting pastoral and warlike features) expresses Lambert's emotions as a result of this experience. It was dedicated to Vaughan Williams on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Lambert's last work, the ballet Tiresias, was performed at Covent Garden in July 1951 shortly before his death and was choreographed by Ashton with décor by Lambert's second wife. This was Isabel Agnes Delmer, née Nicholas (b. 1912), the former wife of the war correspondent Sefton Delmer. They married on 7 October 1947.

Constant Lambert died in the London Clinic, 20 Devonshire Place, London, on 21 August 1951, the causes of his death being a combination of broncho-pneumonia and undiagnosed diabetes; after cremation his ashes were laid in Brompton cemetery on 26 August. His punishing schedule and lifestyle, especially his heavy drinking habits, undoubtedly hastened his early death. His early ‘lean and alert’ appearance had given way to a figure ‘distinctly boozy and sybaritic’ (Motion, 214). Tom Driberg described him as ‘Bulky, untidy, in exuberance and girth a young Chesterton’ (ibid.). At the time of his death he had become ‘a heavy, stooped, prematurely aged figure’ (ibid., 235).

During his time as director of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Lambert made arrangements for the company of music by composers as diverse as Purcell, Boyce, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Auber, and Chabrier. He also edited works by Boyce, Handel, and Thomas Roseingrave. As a conductor he appeared with the Hallé and Scottish orchestras and at the Promenade Concerts, where he was associate conductor (1945–6); he broadcast unusual, lesser-known works on the BBC Third Programme, and conducted Purcell's The Fairy Queen and Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Turandot at Covent Garden. He wrote a book on the music of the twenties, Music Ho! (1934), subtitled ‘A study of music in decline’. Written with a brilliant fluency, it shows his wide-ranging interest in the arts and literature, though some of his dogmatic statements were not to everyone's taste. He also wrote musical criticism for the New Statesman, Figaro, and the Sunday Referee. His friend Humphrey Searle described him as a brilliant composer, conductor, and conversationalist with a ‘warm and generous personality … a man of enormous knowledge who made a unique contribution to English music during the last twenty-five years of his short life’ (DNB). He was immortalized in fiction as the composer Hugh Morland in Anthony Powell's twelve-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time.

Barry Smith

Sources  

A. Motion, The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit (1986) · R. Shead, Constant Lambert (1973) · H. Foss, ‘Constant Lambert’, MT, 92 (1951), 449 · J. Kavanagh, Secret muses: the life of Frederick Ashton (1996) · DNB · H. Spurling, Handbook to Anthony Powell's Music of Time (1977) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, ‘Lambert Ho!’, H3676/1 · BL NSA, Music weekly, NP7054 BW C1 · BL NSA, oral history interviews · BL NSA, performance recordings · BL NSA, Talking about music, 165, 1LP0200592 S1 BD1 BBC TRANSC


Likenesses  

C. Wood, oils, 1926, NPG [see illus.] · M. Ayrton, oils, Tate collection · G. Lambert, oils, Christ's Hospital, London · M. Lambert, sculptured head, priv. coll. · C. Wood, oils, Covent Garden, London