The remarkable English composer, (Leonard) Constant Lambert, was born the son of the Russian-born Australian painter George Washington Thomas Lambert in London. Isolated in infirmaries for long spells as a child due to poor health, Lambert used this time to read voraciously and intensively study music. He was first educated at Christ's Hospital. He was a prodigy, writing orchestral works from the age of 13. In 1922, Lambert won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied from 1915 to 1922 with R.O. Morris, composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams (whom Lambert admired but did not emulate) and George Dyson (whom Lambert loathed). Early on, Lambert made friends with composers William Walton and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), and made some arrangements from W. Walton's Façade.
The influence of W. Walton's approach can be seen in very early Constant Lambert works such as the children's fable Mr. Bear Squash-you-all-flat (1924). However, it was the music of Franz Liszt and Duke Ellington that made the deepest impact on Lambert. Jazz inflections can be found in many of the pieces Lambert wrote before 1931, including the Piano Concerto (1924), Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1931), Piano Sonata (1928), and the short Elegiac Blues (1927) Lambert wrote in memory of the ill-fated vaudeville diva Florence Mills. Russian motifs and the example of Igor Stravinsky also had a great impact on Lambert, and his ballet Romeo & Juliet (Monte Carlo, May 4, 1926), commissioned by Diaghilev, was the first work by a British composer to be staged by the Ballets Russes. He also wrote Pomona (1927) for Nizhinska. These early associations with the dance proved decisive, for he spent most of his life as a conductor and composer of ballets. Lambert's infatuation with Chinese-American silent movie queen Anna May Wong led to the composition of his delicate Eight Poems of Li-Po (1927). In 1927, Lambert composed The Rio Grande, scored for chorus, piano, brass, strings, and percussion (to a text by Sacheverell Sitwell). This work proved a huge success, but helped establish the image of Lambert as a composer of entertaining yet insubstantial music. In 1932-1935 he composed his major choral orchestral 'masque' Summer's Last Will and Testament (after the play of the same name by Thomas Nashe). After the disappointing reception of this work, which proved unfashionable in the mood following the death of the King (George V) he considered he had failed as a composer, and completed only two major works in the remaining sixteen years of his life.
After his more serious subsequent efforts failed to gain a foothold with the public, Constant Lambert turned to music criticism. He contributed articles on music to the Nation and Anthem (from 1930) and to the Sunday Referee (from 1931). He also penned the provocative book wrote Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline (London, 1934), a pessimistic and vitriolic tome that foretold a bleak future for 20th century concert music. This book is still seen as a most vital and valuable tool for study in the art music of the 1920's and 1930's.
In the meantime, Constant Lambert became conductor of the Carmargo Society for the presentation of ballet productions (1930). By the late 1930's, Lambert was building a reputation as a conductor, and from then on his output as a composer slackened. He was strongly associated with ballet and co-founded the Vic Wells Company with Ninette de Valois (1931), and remained in that capacity after it became the Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Royal Ballet, until resigning in 1947. He then was made one of its artistic directors (1948), and subsequently conducted it on its first visit to the USA (1949). He also appeared at London's Covent Garden (1937; 1939; 1946-1947), was associate conductor of the London Promenade Concerts (1945-1946), conducted at ISCM concerts in England, and frequently conducted broadcast performances over the BBC. By the 1940's, he was one of the most prominent conductors in England and well known internationally through recordings and his popular ballet Horoscope (1937). However, this work even more firmly established Lambert as a neo-Classical triviality in the minds of his peers and among critics who knew nothing of Lambert's 1920's compositions. Lambert finally returned to serious composition in 1951 with the scandalous three-act ballet Tiresias, which was so "hot" that its premiere was censored. Lambert's publisher, Oxford University Press, rejected it. This came as a final, sour blow to the pessimistic composer, who promptly died two days short of his 46th birthday, the result of an undiagnosed diabetic condition aggravated by years of hard drinking.
Constant Lambert was one of the most gifted musicians of his generation. He came from the same generation of British musicians that produced W. Walton, Tippett, Warlock, and Spike Hughes; however, his music is stylistically nothing like these composers. In Lambert's jazz works he can be seen as a predecessor of the serious, large-form pieces written by jazz composers such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea starting in the 1970's. His other music is likewise inspired, original, and well worth rediscovering.