Constant Lambert: ‘The Rio Grande’
Today, 12 December, is the anniversary of the first performance of Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1929. John Burgess Wilson, then aged 12, claimed to have attended the performance with his father Joe.
‘I felt guilty about enjoying Carroll Gibbons and his Orchestra, and Jack Payne and Ambrose and Geraldo and Harry Roy, when I had neglected to tune in to a Beethoven sonata. The guilt was resolved on November 12, 1929 (the date is in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians), when Constant Lambert conducted at a Hallé concert the first performance of his Rio Grande. The rhythms of jazz were used wittily in this choral setting of a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, and Sir Hamilton Harty, in the virtuoso solo part, had casually turned himself into a brilliant syncopated pianist. Lambert, who admired Duke Ellington and proclaimed his harmonic roots in Frederick Delius (who in his turn had taken them from Debussy), was a fearless reconciler of what the academies and Tin Pan Alley alike presumed to be eternally opposed. I was present at that first performance, and so was my father. And, in 1972, on a plane from New York to Toronto, I found myself sitting next to Duke Ellington, who spoke almost with tears of the stature of Lambert, admitted that he had learned much from both Delius and Debussy, and expressed scorn for the old musical division, which had been almost as vicious as a colour bar. He had lived to see it dissolve and jazz become a legitimate item in the academic curricula.’ Little Wilson and Big God (1987).
Burgess gets the date slightly wrong – Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians has 12 December – but otherwise his recollection of what seems to have been a profoundly important moment in his musical development is complete. Here is part of the third movement of Burgess’s own ‘Concerto for Pianoforte and Orchestra’ (1979), which he dedicated to the memory of his father, ‘whose craft brought him little money and a measure of hard work and suffering. It is too difficult for me to play, and it would have been difficult for him, who was always impatient with written notes. It was written for a pianist; both he and I have merely been piano players.’ (The Lives of the Piano, 1981)
The influence of Lambert on this piece is clear, with its stylistic diversity including jazz and blues sections, different dance forms and great demands on the soloist.
Constant Lambert (1905-51) was an English composer and writer on music, who was educated at Christ’s Hospital and the Royal College of Music under Vaughan Williams. While studying, he became friendly with his contemporary William Walton and the circle around Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, and took part as co-reciter with Edith Sitwell in one of the early performances of Walton’s Façade (1926). This work is dedicated to Lambert. He began his compositional career writing for ballet (including Romeo and Juliet, 1926, and Pomona, 1926), and went on to compose works influenced by jazz music for the orchestra, including Elegiac Blues (1927) and the piece Burgess remembers so vividly, The Rio Grande (1928). This piece received its first public performances in Manchester and London on consecutive evenings, with Lambert conducting.
Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian said, of the performance Burgess saw, that The Rio Grande was ‘a work of genius … Mr Lambert transfigures jazz into poetry’. The man from the Daily Express said of the London performance that ‘Just before the music began [a young man] remarked “Don’t miss a second of this. It’s great. Much better than I have ever written.” That man was William Walton.’ The headline was ‘SUDDEN FAME FOR YOUNG COMPOSER. QUEEN’S HALL IN A FRENZY. JAZZ TURNED INTO MUSIC OF GENIUS’.