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Constant Lambert

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Biography

Constant Lambert was born the son of painter George Washington Thomas Lambert in London. Isolated in infirmaries for long spells as a child due to poor health, Lambert used this time to read voraciously and intensively study music. In 1922, Lambert won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams (whom Lambert admired but did not emulate) and George Dyson (whom Lambert loathed). Early on, Lambert made friends with composers William Walton and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), and made some arrangements from Walton's Façade. The influence of Walton's approach can be seen in very early Lambert works such as the children's fable Mr. Bear Squash-you-all-flat (1924). However, it was the music of Liszt and Duke Ellington that made the deepest impact on Lambert. Jazz inflections can be found in many of the pieces Lambert wrote before 1931, including the Piano Concerto (1924), Concerto for PIano and Nine Players (1931), Piano Sonata (1928), and the short Elegiac Blues (1927) Lambert wrote in memory of the ill-fated vaudeville diva Florence Mills. Russian motifs and the example of Stravinsky also had a great impact on Lambert, and his ballet Romeo & Juliet (1927) was the first work by a British composer to be staged by the Ballets Russes. Lambert's infatuation with Chinese-American silent movie queen Anna May Wong led to the composition of his delicate Eight Poems of Li-Po (1927). In 1928, Lambert composed The Rio Grande, scored for chorus, piano, brass, strings, and percussion. This work proved a huge success, but helped establish the image of Lambert as a composer of entertaining yet insubstantial music. After his more serious subsequent efforts failed to gain a foothold with the public, Lambert turned to music criticism and wrote Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline (1934), a pessimistic and vitriolic tome that foretold a bleak future for twentieth century concert music. This book is still seen as a most vital and valuable tool for study in the art music of the 1920s and 1930s. By the late 1930s, Lambert was building a reputation as a conductor, and from then on his output as a composer slackened. He was strongly associated with ballet and co-founded the Vic Wells Company with Ninette de Valois. Lambert conducted at the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, at the Promenade Concerts and at ISCM concerts in England. By the 1940s, he was one of the most prominent conductors in England and well known internationally through recordings and his popular ballet Horoscope (1937). However, this work even more firmly established Lambert as a neo-Classical triviality in the minds of his peers and among critics who knew nothing of Lambert's 1920s compositions. Lambert finally returned to serious composition in 1951 with the scandalous three-act ballet Tiresias, which was so "hot" that its premiere was censored. Lambert's publisher, Oxford University Press, rejected it. This came as a final, sour blow to the pessimistic composer, who promptly died two days short of his 46th birthday, the result of an undiagnosed diabetic condition aggravated by years of hard drinking. Lambert came from the same generation of British musicians that produced Walton, Tippett, Warlock, and Spike Hughes; however, his music is stylistically nothing like these composers. In Lambert's jazz works he can be seen as a predecessor of the serious, large-form pieces written by jazz composers such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea starting in the 1970s. His other music is likewise inspired, original, and well worth rediscovering.

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