Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Constant Lambert the Ballet Composer

Every now and then it is worth revisiting a recording from the past by virtue of its historical significance. Late in the twentieth century the conductor David Lloyd-Jones cultivated an interest in the British composer Constant Lambert that resulted in an impressive series of releases on the Hyperion label with Lloyd-Jones conducting the 
English Northern Philharmonia. Lambert was born in London on August 23, 1905 and died just two days short of his 46th birthday on August 21, 1951. He is probably best known for “The Rio Grande,” a setting of a rather eccentric poem of the same name by Sacheverell Sitwell, which Lloyd-Jones recorded for a Hyperion CD that was released in November of 1993. The score tends to be both jazzy and British at the same time. I remember it as the first Lambert piece that I ever heard (on a radio broadcast), although I recognized his name from a Philadelphia Orchestra concert that included the suite for his score for the ballet “Horoscope,” which I had been unable to attend.

I have not yet heard Lloyd-Jones’ performance of this suite (which is included on a Three English Ballets album that includes compositions by Arthur Bliss and William Walton); but Hyperion also released another album of two ballet scores, both composed by Lambert. These are situated at opposite ends of the composer’s career. The earlier of these was composed for the one-act ballet “Pomona” choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky) and first performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on September 9, 1927. The other was the much more ambitious three-act ballet (with prelude) Tiresias, choreographed by Frederick Ashton and performed by the Royal Ballet on July 9, 1951 (back when it was known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet).

For those who do not know the myth, Tiresias was the victim of an argument between Zeus and Hera as to which of the two sexes takes more pleasure in intercourse. Tiresias was born male. However, he encountered two snakes copulating and struck the female, which resulted in his being transformed into a woman. Later he encounters the same two snakes, strikes the male, and returns to his original self. He is then summoned to testify before both Zeus and Hera to settle their argument. Tiresias declares that women take more pleasure in sex, for which he is blinded by Hera. Zeus then compensates for his wife’s wrath by giving him the “second sight” of prophecy. (We encounter him in this state during Sophocles’ play “Oedipus Rex,” where his second sight marks the beginning of Oedipus’ tragic downfall.)

Ashton sensibly dealt with the transformation by assigning two dancers to the role of Tiresias, Michael Somes for the male and Margot Fonteyn (then relatively early in her career as a ballet dancer) for the female. Ashton also included the two snakes, danced by Pauline Clayden and Brian Shaw. This would have been pretty heavy stuff for a 1951 British audience; but the ballet was a great success, eventually being included on the New York tour of September of 1955. (I think my parents took me to one of the performances on that tour. It was probably a full-evening ballet; but I cannot remember which one!) Sadly, Lambert died about six weeks after the first performance.

Each of these ballet scores has much to engage the curious listener. The score for “Pomona” is interesting by virtue of the fact that Lambert was able to frame Nijinska’s setting of the Pomona myth within the musical structure of a Baroque suite. Lambert clearly had a broad understanding of music history (which may well have been sparked by the eclecticism that Diaghilev encouraged); and “Pomona” seems to have given him a chance to flex his scholarly muscles. The Tiresias score, on the other hand, is structured as a series of episodes that track Ashton’s scenario with meticulous precision. Sadly, there does not seem to be any record of this ballet having been performed after Sadler’s Wells became the Royal Ballet. The closest we can get to this ballet are the two photographs included in David Vaughan’s Frederick Ashton And His Ballets.

When encountering a composer for the first time, it is often beneficial to have some kind of “thread” to facilitate following the music from beginning to end. On this particular album the thread is a narrative one, much of which may already be familiar, particularly to those who know their Greek mythology. Thus, while the eccentric text of “The Rio Grande” may lead one through Lambert’s best-known work, the more straightforward myth narratives about Pomona and Tiresias may make for a more accessible “first contact” with this British composer who does not deserve to be forgotten.

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