Magazine article The American Conservative

Constant Lambert Lost (and Found)

Magazine article The American Conservative

Constant Lambert Lost (and Found)

Article excerpt

Constant Lambert: Beyond The Rio Grande, Stephen Lloyd, Boydell Press, 622 pages

Before about 1980, almost all culturally literate musicians trained on British models--not necessarily in Britain itself--discovered, generally by happenstance, Constant Lambert's 1934 philippic Music Ho! Somehow, while never troubling the bestseller charts, Music Ho! stayed in print and in the collective unconscious for four decades. Does it continue to attract fans? Its very name might well mean nothing to anyone under 50. Time was when it won not just fans but the most evangelistic votaries.

In his raffish, autodidactic nonage Lambert had mysteriously acquired a prose style that blended Macaulayan confidence with Nietzschean spite--"the loudspeaker is the streetwalker of music" counts as one of his tamer epigrams. Only Virgil Thomson, providing a similar brand of high-cultural bitchiness to Manhattanites, withstood literary comparison with him. Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, Schoenberg, Bartok, Arthur Honegger, Richard Strauss: all these composers Lambert treated as emperors so deficient in clothes that they were ostentatiously dying of pneumonia. Sibelius and Duke Ellington alone, among the contemporaneous elect, met Lambert's approval.

All readers who at an impressionable age relished Music Ho!'s frenetic intellectual sadism will have asked: who was this Lambert anyhow? What else did he write? If they have enjoyed Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, they will have stumbled on Lambert again since Powell freely admitted to using Lambert's traits for the novel-sequence's louche character of Hugh Moreland. The premiere recording of "Facade," in which the treatment of Edith Sitwell's words by William Walton marks history's first surviving example of rap, includes Lambert as one of the narrators, Sitwell herself being the other. Through his own "The Rio Grande," an early, jazz-inflected partnership with Edith's younger brother Sacheverell Sitwell, he achieved as a composer intense popular acclaim that never completely faded. All this before his 30th birthday.

Such stunning promise; such self-destructive lack of fulfillment. After "The Rio Grande," most of his music bombed in commercial terms. His dark side made it hard to remember his light side. When scarcely out of his teens he turned no less a martinet than Diaghilev from indulgent friend to unpitying foe. A chain-smoking alcoholic, he hurtled through two chaotic marriages as well as numerous affairs--Margot Fonteyn being his most renowned trophy--while inspiring in his academic and journalistic antagonists the Hedda Hopper verdict: "You had to stand in line to hate him." In 1951, wracked by diabetes and less than a week before turning 46, he boozed himself to death. His Christian name, as he confessed, had proven to be the least apposite of any famous musician's since Modest Mussorgsky's.

It was not all "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Lambert's friends, while they could hardly be expected to outnumber his enemies, were loyal and influential. (They ranged from Percy Wyndham Lewis on the Franquista Right to Tom Driberg on the Stalinist Left.) Surviving phonograph records confirm that Lambert the conductor--especially with ballets under Sadler's Wells' auspices--could extract admirable performances from the weariest orchestral players. At the piano, he could likewise charm; sound archives corroborate that too. Choreographer Ninette de Valois prayed frantically and successfully during World War II that neither bullets nor buzz-bombs would cut Lambert down. Both Lambert's wives, whenever they did not execrate him, adored him. "Every word he said lifted you up", observed Wife No. 1, who boasted the Wodehousian name of Florence Kaye. (Wife No. 2, Isabel Delmer, went on to marry another hard-drinking composer, Alan Rawsthorne. Triumph of hope over experience, hello?)

And now the tireless musicologist Stephen Lloyd, who has already given us the best biography of Walton--Muse of Fire--has supplied, well, certainly the biggest biography of Lambert. …

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