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August 29, 2003

Mystery guest

The author of today's almanac entry will be familiar to some of you, but for those who don't recognize the name of the now-obscure Constant Lambert, he was one of the most fascinating figures in 20th-century English cultural life. I suppose he's best known for his invaluable book Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline, though balletomanes with long memories will also know him as the first music director of what later became the Royal Ballet, in which capacity he served as a ballet conductor of genius, collaborated closely with Sir Frederick Ashton, and had a stormy affair with the very young Margot Fonteyn. He also wrote quite a bit of amazingly pungent music criticism, none of which has been collected (Music Ho! will give you a feel for the way he wrote about music), and made quite a few marvelously vital recordings, only a handful of which have been reissued on CD. Lambert even pops up as a major character in Anthony Powell's multi-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time (he's Hugh Moreland).

In the long run, Lambert will be best remembered as a composer, and in recent years there has been a mini-revival of interest in his music, much of which has now been recorded. I once contrived to get Time magazine (which used to be interested in the arts) to list the premiere recording of Tiresias, Lambert's last ballet score, as one of its ten best CDs of the year. It's still in print from Hyperion, fortunately, as is an equally fine album that contains The Rio Grande and Summer's Last Will and Testament, two superlative works for chorus and orchestra that used to be moderately well-known once upon a time, at least in England. All these pieces are at once jazzy and unnervingly melancholic--quite a combination, that.

Every few years I try to stir up interest in Lambert, most recently in a 1999 Sunday New York Times profile called "A British Bad Boy Finds His Way Back Into the Light" (no link, alas--the title refers to the fact that Lambert was a prodigy who died of acute alcoholism in 1951, two days before his 46th birthday). It went for naught, but I'm not done trying. Read today's almanac entry and see if it doesn't make you at least a little bit curious.

Posted August 29, 2003 12:02 PM

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