If you stroll into the Art Gallery of New South Wales and turn into the second gallery on the right, you will see on the wall what appears to be a painting of a gaggle of gypsies accompanying a horse on which sits a small boy. The boy grew up to become the ‘Australian’ composer and conductor Constant Lambert.
I perhaps rather rudely put the word Australian in inverted commas: his father, George Lambert, was born in St Petersburg and had American forbears, though he was certainly naturalized and is always referred to as ‘the Australian painter’. Constant, though born in England in 1905, never came to Australia, but always thought of himself as Australian, and worked with many Australian artists, including Robert Helpmann and Arthur Benjamin.
His musical education took place in London; while he was thirteen, and still at Christ’s Hospital, he wrote his first orchestral works, and later at the Royal College he learned composition from Ralph Vaughan Williams and conducting from Malcolm Sargent. Astonishingly, at twenty the great impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned him to write a score for a ballet by Bronislava Nijinska about a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet (the principal dancers who are rehearsing the play make love rather than rehearsing their parts). It was not altogether a happy collaboration – Lambert disagreed with every idea Diaghilev had about the piece, and the impresario lost his temper and took to avoiding him. Then Diaghilev cut an important scene and both Nijinska and Lambert were incandescent with rage. Lambert tried to remove his orchestral score from the orchestra pit, but was forestalled – at rehearsals he had a man on each side of him to make sure he didn’t tear up the music. He told his mother he became so distraught that Diaghilev had him watched by two detectives!
The ballet was not a success, but the audience at the first night called for Lambert until he took a bow, ‘blushing like a schoolboy,’ the Daily Express reported. It was a pretty upsetting experience - but it gave Lambert experience both for writing for the ballet and conducting performances. For the next few years he concentrated on composition, turning out among other pieces his most popular work, The Rio Grande, for piano, alto soloists, chorus and orchestra, to a libretto by Sacheverall Sitwell. It was written for a ballet, A Day in a Southern Port, about low life in a tropical sea-port, with prostitutes in skimpy costumes and an orgy of sailors, and shows Lambert’s interest in African-American music and jazz (he was a great admirer of Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt and Stéfane Grappeli) . His masterpiece however may be Summer's Last Will and Testament, a choral setting of Thomas Nashe's poem about 16th-century London in the plague years. It is scarcely ever performed.
As a conductor he was very active, highly effective in the romantic Russian composers, many of whose works he introduced to British audiences. The most important and influential part of his life began in the 1930s, when he began conducting for the Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet). With Ninette de Valois, the company’s director, and Frederick Ashton, its chief choreographer, he was one of a trio who really built the company’s reputation, not only musically but with his keen interest in stage design. His enthusiasm, it was said, ‘flowed like a torrent, drenched like a fountain.’ Helpmann thought he was the greatest of all conductors for the ballet: he could, he said, make the Sadler’s Wells orchestra sound doubt its size.
But one must not give the impression that his was a sad and unfulfilled life. It had one great romance: A Day in a Southern Port provided a first starring role for Margot Fonteyn. She fell desperately in love with him, and despite his being married and twice her age, their liaison lasted for many years. Certainly he gave up composition in favour of his work for the Vic-Wells – which among other things meant frenetic work during the war years, when the company toured incessantly – but he also had a real talent for friendship, with among others Ashton, the Sitwells, Michael Tippett (who he called Arseover Tippett) the artist Michael Ayrton and the writer Anthony Powell – in whose A Dance to the M music of Time he appears as the character Hugh Moreland.
He himself was no mean writer, and his book Music Ho!, sub-titled ‘A study of music in decline’ is acute, opinionated, idiosyncratic and often very funny. Of one composer’s work he writes, ‘The gear-change between the first and second subjects would have made a dead French taxi-driver turn in his grave’, and he claimed that while many composers work at the piano, Brahms must have worked at the double-bass. He composed scabrous limericks, and loved practical jokes: he once published a fake catalogue of a Royal Academy exhibition which included paintings by the highly conventional painter Frank Brangwyn, with the titles ‘Blowing Up the Rubber Roman and ‘The Annual Dinner of the Rectal Dining Society.’ He could also turn out a witty verse at the drop of a hat – for instance a ‘Ballad of LMS Hotels’, inspired by the discomfort of wartime train journeys. Faced with having to rehearse a rival composer’s work, he invented a rhyme to suit the main rhythm: ‘Oh dearie me / I do want to pee / And I don't much care if the audience see.’
Lambert was said to be the most fervent drunk of his generation (he would not have scorned the title). He died, in 1951, of undiagnosed diabetes complicated by alcohol poisoning. He may have been only a demi-semi Australian, but who would not want to claim him s a fellow citizen?