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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

English Composers Lost at the Proms

By Norman Lebrecht / April 27, 2005

It was the most fertile year in the annals of English music. Seven good composers were born in 1905, among them the officially secretive Elizabeth Poston who encoded military signals in her music during the Second World War and the unregenerate Stalinist Christian Darnton, whose convictions got him banned from the BBC.

Gentle Walter Leigh, killed in Libya in 1942, is survived by an intriguing setting of Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Busy William Alwyn founded the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, wrote numerous film scores, five symphonies and an opera on Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Where are they now? Well you might ask.

Michael Tippett has, for reasons more sentimental than musical, commanded the lion’s share of centennial attention. Tippett is being given ten performances at this summer’s BBC Proms. Among fellow-centenarians, Constant Lambert gets two, Alan Rawsthorne one, the rest not a peep. Tippett lived longest, but there is a case to be made that Lambert and Rawsthorne, an inseparable saloon-bar pair, left a larger footprint in the cultural sands.

Constant Lambert was deemed a genius by most who knew him, notably Diaghilev, who commissioned his first ballet and the novelist Anthony Powell who imprinted his traits on the composer Hugh Moreland in A Dance to the Music of Time. The economist Maynard Keynes, probably the cleverest Englishman of his century, considered Lambert ‘potentially the most brilliant person I have ever met’.

Adroit in all the arts, he exercised a machiavellian influence over Ninette de Valois, founder of British ballet, serving as her conductor, musical conscience and aesthetic touchstone. He seemed to know instinctively what was right for her company, and took what he liked for himself; he was the first lover of the adolescent Margot Fonteyn, grooming her from gawky kid to world star.

Into the intellectual somnolence of English music Lambert hurled Music Ho!, a best-selling ‘study of music in decline’ that ridiculed Elgarian romanticism and atonal modernism, propounding a multicultural future. His ballets were charged with supernaturalism (Horoscope, 1938) and transvestism (Tiresias, 1951).  Rio Grande, a fantasy for piano, contralto, chorus and orchestra will be heard on the Last Night of the Proms. Lambert, when sober, was the life force of the English renaissance.

His best friend and roistering partner was Alan Rawsthorne, a Lancastrian whose dour expression concealed an inventive wit. At the outbreak of war he followed his wife, a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, to Bristol, losing the manuscript of his violin concerto when their flat was bombed. Lambert, passing by with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, bravely rescued the couple’s dog and hosed the blazing house with water, all the while reciting an essay by Gorky.

Rawsthorne’s piano concerto was played at the first concert in liberated Paris, German artillery pounding in the distance. He took on the role of surrogate father to Walter Leigh’s orphaned daughter and mingled among poets and composers, Dylan Thomas to William Walton, at the ‘Gluepot’ pub behind the BBC in Portland Place. His violin concerto, rewritten from scratch, was highly acclaimed, as was his first symphony, but royalties were meagre and he fell back on detested film work.

Lambert, sacked by Covent Garden for alcoholism, made arrangements of baroque composers and reorganised a rackety personal life around Isabel Nicholas, a breath-catching artists’ model who had collected Epstein, Derain, Picasso and Giacometti among her many lovers. He collapsed in a gutter in August 1951, dying of undiagnosed diabetes. Rawsthorne moved in soon after with his dazzling widow.

Isabel matched her husbands drink for drink, swore like a navvy and was a fine painter besides, collaborating with Rawsthorne on a Frederick Ashton ballet, Madame Chrysantheme. His film work, however, was taking a creative toll. After a memorable score for The Cruel Sea, his second violin concerto flopped and a second symphony stalled. He turned his hand to Practical Cats for speaker and orchestra, after T S Eliot’s poems.

Alarmed at his dissolution, with Isabel insisted, they left London, taking a cottage in an idyllic Essex village, near Thaxted. Rawsthorne promptly suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Ordered to stay dry for three years, he recovered confidence and won a distinctive personal following, albeit in Britten’s shadow, until his death in 1971. The second piano concerto is his only piece at the Proms – and rather than cavil at the smallness of that tribute we should offer thanks to the BBC since no-one else has remembered Rawsthorne in his centenary year.

The three symphonies are compellingly done by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on a new Naxos disc, but they cannot be heard in concert. The only live performance of a large work outside the Proms is the first piano concerto, played by Rawsthorne’s biographer John McCabe, at the Presteigne Festival, in Wales.

Let’s not get into quality judgements. Some pieces by Lambert and Rawsthorne are slapdash, audibly the worse for drink. It may well be that colourful lives consumed compositional energies. But at peak – Rawsthorne’s concertos, Lambert’s Aubade Heroique – the music grabs the attention and illuminates an important epoch in cultural evolution.

So who’s to blame for centennial neglect? The finger points at craven British orchestras which seldom venture these days from a narrow corridor of safe works. London bands which once begged Lambert to conduct them cannot spare a birthday bouquet. Birmingham, which commissioned a Rawsthorne symphony, will not revive it. The Halle shows no interest in a local hero. Their timidity diminishes the art they exist to serve.

British orchestras are run by three blind mice who fear the public would flee in panic if presented with more than one British composer of any period – Britten in his day, Tippett beyond. By shrinking the menu orchestral managers have turned the concert hall into a 1940s British restaurant: one dish of the day, take it or leave it. Choice would be a fine thing.

How can we ever understand art if it is curated monolithically?  In 1905, this country produced a bumper crop of good composers, the biggest in our island history. In 2005, all but one of these enterprising creators lies mouldering in limbo.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001