Lambert and Rawsthorne by David Heyes

My interest in the music of Alan Rawsthorne stems from student research into the life and music of Constant Lambert for my Graduate thesis, during my final year at the Royal College of Music.

In 1982 I was able to interview a great number of Lambert's friends, including the pianist Angus Morrison, who gave of his time and information with a generosity which I will always value. Morrison had studied at the RCM at the same time as Lambert and was the dedicatee of The Rio Grande and also gave the first performance. Dr. Gordon Jacob sent me a wonderful handwritten letter about his memories of Lambert at the RCM and his later work as an orchestrator for the Sadler's Wells Ballet. He also worked with Rawsthorne and others on the orchestrations of Tiresias - Lambert's last work.

Dame Ninette de Valois was an excellent interviewee and spoke freely and frankly about her work with Lambert and the debt of gratitude she owed to him. As one of the co-founders of the Vic-Wells Ballet, alongside de Valois and Frederick Ashton, Lambert had guided the ballet from its inception with his enthusiasm and unique talents as composer and conductor, and 'with a knowledge of the visual arts and literature, quite exceptional in a musician'. (Anthony Powell)

Early in 1996 Dame Ninette was more reticent with her comments and her memory was a little less clear but even at the age of 96, 'Madam' is still a force to be reckoned with. At our first meeting she spoke about Lambert's drinking problems and the difficulties within the ballet company, but this time she was quite forthright, "I am not going to talk about that!"

Lambert's first wife, Florence (later to change her name to Camilla at the instigation of her second husband), lived in Chelsea in the early 1980s and I spent a thrilling and liquid afternoon with her talking about Lambert and their son Kit (Christopher, who had tragically died in 1981). She was a wonderful host with many memories and, although she was still quite emotional, I remember 'floating' home on a cloud of reminiscences and wine!

I never did meet Isabel Rawsthorne but we spoke several times on the telephone and I have a letter from her written in a florid and artistic script, inviting me to visit her at Sudbury Cottage. I arranged the visit but unfortunately cancelled at the last minute - Saffron Waldon seemed so far away to a non-driving and penniless music student in London. Our telephone conversations seemed to be as much about Rawsthorne as Lambert, and I can still recall her strong and powerful voice. I greatly regret not meeting Isabel Rawsthorne.

In 1995 I met Denis ApIvor, the octogenarian composer who had been a pupil and friend of Rawsthorne, and close friend to Lambert during the last few years of Lambert's life. ApIvor has written and spoken about the Lambert circle which certainly included Rawsthorne as one of the leading figures.

"... Following the death of these friends, van Dieren and Heseltine [Peter Warlock], Lambert was more frequently in the company of Rawsthorne than anyone else. He stayed at his Belsize Park flat, and later with the Rawsthornes when the BBC Symphony Orchestra moved to Bristol, with the disruption of London by the bombing during the war. One of Constant's more obscure literary creations was a complicated scenario, or libretto, to be declaimed to the music of the last movement of Rawsthorne's Piano Concerto (No.1) which, like so much British music, was composed in the fast 12/8 tarantella time. Lambert had been well schooled in this sort of activity by his frequent involvement in the reading of Edith Sitwell's Facade poems with the poet herself."

Lambert stayed with the Rawsthornes in Bristol whenever he was within striking distance of the city - until they were bombed out in an air raid. The air raid also destroyed the score and parts of Rawsthorne's Kubla Khan.

Written in 1940, as a BBC commission for inclusion in an International Exchange Concert to Basle, Kubla Khan was set to the poem by Samuel Coleridge and scored for alto and tenor soli, chorus, strings and percussion. Only a piano score survives (in the Rawsthorne archive), and the present writer is working on a new orchestration.

Lambert conducted Rawsthorne's First Piano Concerto a number of times, including the 'Last Night of the Proms' on 15 September 1945. Lambert wrote, in a letter to artist Michael Ayrton:
"The last night of the Proms was fantastic - rarely have the spectators been so dithyrambic... You have possibly read of the wild orgy in which 'the three conductors were pelted with flowers'... May I point out that autumn treasures thrown by enthusiasts at short distance can be more painful than the casual observer might be led to suppose. My own theory is that the whole thing was lead by a gang of highbrows who objected to our tempi. I beat a retreat before they got onto the earthenware.
Old Fish-face had a good call after his concerto. It was very well played by Phyllis Sellick and I was delighted to see that it had a bad notice from W. Glock..."

ApIvor recalls:
"The close friendship with Rawsthorne did not preclude the use of the flattering sobriquet, 'Fish-face', though to my knowledge the other composer was never so addressed to his fish face. The reason for the appelation is a little obscure, though it might have been related to the known fact that Alan had set to music some part of Isaak Walton, in a work called The Creel. The nickname might perhaps have referred to a certain pastiness which hung about Rawsthorne's features and a degree of inexpressiveness, which I took to be related more to his constant preoccupation with the next telephone call."

In 1950 Lambert was commissioned to write a new ballet for a gala performance at Covent Garden, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, on 9 July 1951. Aplvor remembers:
"During the last year of his life he was writing Tiresias and had to cancel most of his engagements to do so. For this work he got £250, which is not much for someone of his fame. I saw a lot of him during Tiresias, as I was working with him, doing some of the mechanical side of the scoring, as were Bob Irving and some others. He gave full directions and we just wrote it out for him... But the effort of the work was too much for him in his state of health; he became very irritable at the end, and was drinking too much again. Still he was in great form and the night before the first night I was with him and Alan Rawsthorne at his house until the small hours having a wonderful party, with Constant in uproarious mood. They left for Alan's place, ostensibly to write the interludes until dawn. In fact the interludes were written in the 'Nag' at lunchtime the next day."

Tiresias, with sets and costumes by Isabel, was not a success and several of his friends had helped with the scoring so that it would be ready in time.

"Robert Irving took the 'Warrior's Dance', the 'Cortege' and 'Dance of the Priestesses', the first 'Entr'act' and the 'Bacchanal'; Christian Darnton the 'Dance of the Snakes'; Humphrey Searle the 'Dance of the Shepherds and Shepherdesses'; Denis ApIvor the 'Dance of Tiresias' - woman at the beginning of Scene Two and the quarrel in Scene Three; Gordon Jacob the 'pas de deux'. The rest was shared between Lambert, Alan Rawsthorne and Elisabeth Lutyens."

Lambert died on 21 August 1951, barely a month and a half after the Gala performance of Tiresias, and Rawsthorne had to break the news to Maurice Lambert, Constant's brother. The funeral service was at St. Bartholomew's. Smithfield and ApIvor writes,
... That night a sort of wake was held at Jessie Rawsthorne's flat in Ormonde Terrace, at which only Jessie, Alan, Elizabeth Lutyens and myself were present. Alan and I approached Ormonde Terrace across Primrose Hill from a short meeting in a pub in Camden Town. As we crossed the grassy slopes of the hill the enormity of what we were about to 'celebrate' - the total and permanent absence of Constant Lambert, suddenly struck us both and we simultaneously gave vent to tears. It was the only time I ever observed the man whom Lambert had dubbed 'Old Fish-Face' openly moved, and probably the last time I had any close insight into the workings of the somewhat hermetic nature of the composer who had been my teacher and Constant's best friend. Isabel Lambert, after staying for some while in the Delancey Street house... married Rawsthorne: later, Isabel, Alan Rawsthorne and I contributed in our different ways to the organisation which had meant so much to Constant - the Royal Ballet."

Lambert and Rawsthorne were not only great friends and drinking companions but were important figures in British musical life, and Rawsthorne's influence and importance continued to grow steadily throughout the 1950s and 60s. Where Lambert tended to 'squander' his gifts in deference to his work for the Sadler's Wells Ballet, Rawsthorne worked steadily producing important works for the stage, concert hall and film - music that was performed worldwide which enhanced his reputation as one of Britain's finest composers.

Isabel was an important figure to both composers and shared the last years of each composer's life. She was often a calming influence and good companion, and the tripartite relationship between these three interesting figures is surely an essay in itself.

© David Heyes, 1996
DAVID HEYES is a professional double bassist and studied at the Royal College of Music and in Prague with the internationally-renowned soloist František Pošta. He performed at leading music clubs and festivals throughout Great Britain and is Artistic Director of The Vienna Collection and Gershwin & Co.
In 1986 he founded Recital Music to publish solo and ensemble music for double bass, and in 1994 founded The British & International Bass Forum to help promote the double bass through performance, publication and education.
More recently David has been appointed as an examiner for Trinity College, London and has worked as Consultant Editor for The Double Bassist magazine. He is also a member of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne.
David regularly performs as a soloist and in 1997 has a number of recitals and concertos in Britain, Italy and Majorca.
                Return To:    Alan Rawsthorne Front Page
Classical Music on the Web