Constant Lambert by Stephen Lloyd – review

Composer, conductor, great personality of the musical world: Hilary Spurling on the wit and drive of the 'English Diaghilev'

The only good thing about life as a conductor, according to Constant Lambert, "was that you went on, and ended up at the age of 80 with a fur coat and a fourth wife". He himself barely made it half way, dying after a short life of prodigious achievement aged 45, worn out, hard up, chronically overworked, and still only on the second wife.

He started young, being found alone on a breakwater as a very small boy conducting the waves. As a schoolboy, he was a protege of the Sitwells, and at the Royal College of Music he impressed his contemporary Michael Tippett (Arseover Tippett was Constant's pet name for him later) as the college whiz-kid. He was 20 when Diaghilev staged his first ballet score for the Ballets Russes in Paris to a sensational reception on the first night from rioting surrealists.

Lambert was as confident in those days as a young Greek god. "He had a slight limp, and looked like my idea of Pan," said Myfanwy Thomas, "with fair loose curls from which budding horns might appear, and perhaps he limped because one elegant hoof had not quite changed back to a foot." He kept that aloof and mysterious distinction to the end – when he came to look more like a bulky, battered and debauched Roman emperor.

In fact, his apparently innate assurance emerged from years of loneliness, isolation and debility in childhood. The son of a relatively conventional Australian painter with rudimentary notions of parenting, Constant got little or no musical input at home. He said that the pianola was his inspiration as a child. He was educated at Christ's Hospital school in London where he contracted a virulent combination of rubella with septic arthritis that very nearly killed him. After much pain and many operations, he finally emerged in his early teens with one leg slightly shorter than the other, a shattered right eardrum and a horror of doctors.

His adolescent appetite for books gave him the mind and discrimination of an unusually well-informed adult. He retained the autodidact's severe and exacting standards ever after – together with the irresistible gaiety, generosity and conviviality sometimes found in those who have been starved of company in their youth. Wherever he went, he spread courage and confidence. He was a brilliant wit, and a storyteller of peculiar subtlety and relish. "Every word he said lifted you up," observed his first wife. His second said he had the aura of a conjuror.

Ninette de Valois described him long afterwards as the English Diaghilev, and indeed when the Russian died in 1929, some already saw his replacement in Lambert at 24. After a stint as rehearsal pianist for Marie Rambert, he moved on to become one of the founding triumvirate of the Sadler's Wells Ballet with De Valois and Frederick Ashton.

His drive and energy were crucial in those early years when he was conductor, composer and guiding spirit, suggesting scores, writing them himself, adapting and arranging other people's. His enthusiasm was contagious. "It sparkled," said one of his colleagues, "it flowed like a torrent, it drenched like a fountain". He was a liberal – and liberating – influence from the start, broadening the company's horizons, raising its sights, shaping and educating a long line of principal dancers, from Ashton to Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn.

Fonteyn was 14 when she entered the company in 1934. Her first starring role came a year later in A Day in a Southern Port, a ballet set to Lambert's first major orchestral success, The Rio Grande. Ashton's choreography, like the conductor's music, evoked the backstreets of Toulon (where both of them regularly went for cheap holidays), and the whores at the port. The unmistakably erotic implications of Edward Burra's louche backdrop and the sexy dancers in skimpy skin-tight costumes profoundly shocked a public more accustomed to classical Russian ballerinas in demure white skirts supported by a corps de ballet of decent English girls straight out of school. The experience marked the start of what became a long and passionate affair between Fonteyn and Lambert.

Lambert's entire career was an attempt to counteract the provincialism, insularity and amateurishness that marked British life in the arts between the wars. As both conductor and critic, he avoided the dominant German tradition that had long stifled English music, favouring instead French or Russian composers. He championed neglected or unperformed music, highbrow or lowbrow, classical or contemporary, from Sibelius and Schoenberg to Satie, Liszt and Elgar (both drastically out of fashion) to Duke Ellington. Lambert was mesmerised in Paris by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and in London he hung out with Ellington in smoky Soho dives at a time when jazz was commonly dismissed as a crude commercial racket, and the very concept of a British ballet seemed intrinsically absurd. Lambert's own tense, spiky, often melancholy, always essentially urban compositions are permeated by the blues.

The lesson he learned above all from Diaghilev was that ballet could be an intoxicating live creation in which dance, design and music are one. His musicianship was phenomenal. He could make the Sadler's Wells orchestra sound as if it had doubled in size, according to Helpmann, who thought he was probably the most remarkable ballet conductor who ever lived. Both players and dancers rose to meet the fastidious and exacting standards of a mind that, as De Valois said, "knew no second rate". They also rejoiced in his company – "so lively and funny and daft and wild", said one of the principals, William Chappell.Among Lambert's encouraging ploys was a ditty composed for the orchestra to sing while rehearsing a rival composer's score: "Oh dearie me / I do want to pee / And I don't much care if the audience see."

During Sadler's Wells's formative years, he would go anywhere and do anything, performing unfamiliar works in improvised auditoria to unsophisticated audiences on tour, and staying in hotels that padlocked the bathtaps "in case anyone steals a bath on the sly". He conducted one performance up a ladder, and took rehearsals for another on the company's first continental trip from behind the counter of a Rotterdam post office with choir and orchestra jammed into the front hall. No detail was too small, no problem too big for him to tackle, said Ninette de Valois, who used to beg god in the darkest days of WW2 to make sure nothing happened to Constant.

It was Lambert who maintained company morale on gruelling wartime tours, working eight hours a day, six days a week, for months on end. When the orchestra was called up, he played for the dancers on out-of-tune pianos in unheated halls. "The fog swirls up the spiral stone stairways of the lodging houses at night," he wrote from Glasgow, "and chokes one in the morning when in the empty theatre one sits practising Chopin with icy hands to the accompaniment of vacuum cleaners."

"Without him, we would never have achieved what we did," said Ashton, looking back long after the Royal Ballet had grown triumphantly from the Sadler's Wells company. But the forces so prodigiously expended in wartime proved Lambert's undoing. Ill health, exhaustion and excessive drinking began to catch up with him. In 1947, soon after the company moved permanently to Covent Garden, he was forced to resign as musical director by the opera house's brutally efficient administrator, David Webster (who had already secretly offered the job to another conductor). Though partially reinstated the year after, Lambert never fully recovered from the blow. People close to him sensed with foreboding his increasing perturbation.

He had written his own epitaph 15 years earlier in the final saraband of what many then and now consider his masterpiece, Summer's Last Will and Testament, a choral setting of Thomas Nashe's poem about 16th-century London in the plague years. "I remembered the words 'Come, come the bells do cry. I am sick, I must die; Lord have mercy on us!'" said a fellow conductor long afterwards. "And I thought of his setting of these words and I had the awful feeling of a man really destroying himself." Lambert conducted the work for the last time on 15 July 1950, and died just over a month later from drink and long undiagnosed diabetes.

There is a lively memorial portrait of him as the composer Hugh Moreland in A Dance to the Music of Time by his close friend Anthony Powell, who said it was impossible to convey in writing more than a fraction of Constant's incomparable quality. Stephen Lloyd's biography has a damn good try. It is a model of meticulous scholarship, as authoritative as it is compendious in 700 pages of tiny print with 1,700 footnotes and 13 appendices (one of them devoted entirely to limericks about bishops). The result is both majestic and moving, and will, I hope, restore Lambert's reputation not only as a composer, but as one of the most remarkable individuals in an outstandingly gifted English generation. Lloyd ends with a piece of characteristically Lambertian advice from the tomb: "It's no good escaping your doom / By taking a ticket to Spain; / The bulging portmanteaux of gloom / Will arrive by a later train."

• Hilary Spurling, author of lives of Matisse and Ivy Compton-Burnett, is writing a biography of Anthony Powell. To order Constant Lambert for £32.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


Hilary Spurling

The GuardianTramp

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