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Graeme Skinner
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POSTED 9 JANUARY 2015

Constant Lambert

Born 23 August 1905, London, England
Died 21 August 1951, London

Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments

(Completed: December 1931)

In 3 movements:
1 Overture (Allegro - Cadenza - Andante espressivo - Doppio movimento - Coda)
2 Intermède (Andante recitando - Allegro scherzando)
3 Finale (Lugubre)

CONCERT PROGRAM NOTE

Ian Munro (piano), Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Dene Olding (conductor), 12 June 2008, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney  

Lambert used to assert that - the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky always excepted - no one had ever been given a less appropriate name than himself. - Anthony Powell

Constant Lambert

Belying his name, Constant Lambert always favoured the mercurial and dark rather than the dependable and light. Like his mentor, Phillip Heseltine (“Peter Warlock”), Lambert championed the unfashionable and unfamiliar, from the even-numbered symphonies of Beethoven, to Satie and Chabrier, and “Negro” jazz. Like Heseltine, too, he had a reputation for heavy drinking that, combined with diabetes, took him to an early grave at 45, though not before being immortalised as the “dissipated cherub” Moreland in Anthony Powell's novel cycle Dance to the Music of Time.

Lambert pursued an astonishiongly busy career as a conductor and journalist often to the neglect of composing, and his small surviving output falls short of his manifest potential. Lambert recalled being “thrown head first into society at the age of twenty” when Diaghilev commissioned a score from him for the Ballets Russes. The young Lambert was clever and beautiful, yet a pronounced limp, so his headmaster thought, predisposed him to adopt, as a survival tactic, the role of the opinionated outsider. Finding his milieu in bohemian Chelsea, with Walton and the Sitwells as neighbours, he produced his first success, The Rio Grande in 1927, hailed in the press as “jazz changed into music of genius”. He remained an anti-establishment figure, nevertheless chipping away from the inside, as music-director of Sadler's Wells Ballet and a regular BBC conductor, at his musical bogeys, English provincialism, German hegemony, and the “isms” of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Lambert may have inherited his outsider's outlook from his father. George Lambert (1873-1930) was born in St Petersburg of American parents, only to become one of Australia's most important painters. Constant never visited Australia, but forged several Australian connections nevertheless. When he conducted the premiere of this Concerto, his piano soloist was the Australian-born Arthur Benjamin (also noted for his love of “Negro” music). In the 1930s, Lambert took-in-hand the musical education of a young Australian dancer, newly arrived in London, Robert Helpmann. In 1951 he again chose a young Australian, Gordon Watson, to play the concerto-like piano part in his final ballet Tiresias.

Late in 1945, the newspaper mogul Frank Packer invited Lambert to tour Australia and conduct the new commercial orchestra the press mogul was forming in competition to the ABC. Lambert declined, and the baton of Packer's orchestral venture passed to Maurice Abravanel. In its one and only season in 1946, it at least gave Packer the opportunity to live up to the example of his two noted Australian composer forbears, Frederick Packer (1839-1902) and Charles Packer (1810-1883).

“Jazz ... from having a purely functional value - a mere accompaniment to the tapping of toe and heel, the quick linking of bodies, and the slow unburdening of minds - has suddenly achieved the status of a ‘school’, a potent influence that can meet the highbrow composer on his own terms. Though popularly regarded as being a barbaric art, it is to its sophistication that jazz owes its real force. It is the first dance music to bridge the gap between highbrow and lowbrow successfully.” - From Lambert’s Music Ho! (1934)

For Lambert, 1930 was marked by three deaths. That of his father in faraway Australia probably meant least to him. George had put career before family and Lambert had not seen him for a decade. (Constant was, similarly, an absentee parent to his only son, rock impresario Kit, who nevertheless was also cast in the hard-living Lambert mold, and also died tragically young). Blacker by far were the two suicides, painter Christopher Wood (whose likeness of Lambert hangs in London's National Portrait Gallery, and after whom the ill-fated Kit was named), and Heseltine, in whose memory this Concerto is dedicated.

In his book Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline, Lambert claimed that, in jazz, European music had met its nemesis. As if in illustration of his point, in the Concerto he completely recast a Classical model in jazz terms, replacing the solo-orchestral contest of the conventional piano concerto with a more intimate jazz format of piano and backing group, 3 clarinets, trumpet and trombone, percussion, and double-bass, only the flute and cello extraneous to the model. Lambert especially admired Duke Ellington (a “genuine composer”), but believed that jazz's future was with “highbrow” composers (such as himself), who'd bring to it new rhythmic and harmonic sophistication.

Jazz, meanwhile, would reverse the decline in European music, freeing it from its constraining “isms”. The Concerto puts this claim to the test. The piano-dominated Overture derives its “galvanic energy“ from what Lambert identified as jazz’s “crazy tune numbers”. Its uneven ostinato-driven piano rhythms prefigure 1980s New York minimalism, without its relentless repetitions. Occasionally the ensemble adds melody in counterpoint, but, recalling titles Lambert cites in Music Ho!, “Rhythm is the Thing”, the pianist's got “Crazy Feet, I've got those Crazy Feet”.

The almost cinematic inter-cutting of ideas is adapted to more Classical ends in the central Intermède, a combination slow-movement and scherzo. A Blues tune passes from trumpet to flute to trombone, its reprises inter-cut with blurred out-takes from the piano-concerto tradition itself, Lizst and Scriabin, but reworked in jazzy sevens and elevens.

When Lambert commented that one of Heseltine's last songs, The Fox, already “had the smell of death about it”, he may as well have been describing his own Finale, which is the very opposite of its upbeat Classical-concerto namesake. Lambert marks the opening of this dark, earthy Blues, “heavily, lugubriously”, and though he occasionally lightens the texture a little, the mood spirals wearily downward. He ends, recalling the T.S. Eliot line he'd later quote in Music Ho!, “not with a bang, but a whimper”.

 

© Graeme Skinner 2008/2015

© Graeme Skinner 2015