The one and only Constant

He died at just 45, but Constant Lambert more than made his mark as a composer, conductor and critic, as well as a great wit. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his work with the Royal Ballet in its early years
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Fifty years ago today, Constant Lambert's premature death deprived the Royal Ballet of one of its most invaluable members, and in all that time, the company has never really managed to replace him. Not surprising, since his contribution was unique. Composer, conductor and music director were the official descriptions, but what he achieved was much more.

As a teenage student at the Royal College of Music, deaf in one ear and walking with a limp following illness, his music already attracted attention. At only 20, he was introduced to the great ballet director Sergei Diaghilev. Lambert and his friend Angus Morrison, a pianist, played for Diaghilev the "suite dansée" Adam and Eve, which Morrison had conceived and Lambert composed. Diaghilev liked it enough to commission a ballet from Lambert, but wanted a more "English" subject to attract sponsorship for his London season from Lord Rothermere, and stipulated Romeo and Juliet. So Lambert adapted his score.

Bronislava Nijinska was to choreograph and the English painter Christopher Wood to design a straightforward staging of the story. But Diaghilev had second thoughts. He changed the plot to show a ballet on that subject being rehearsed and the relationship of its leading dancers, and he brought in the surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miro as designers. Lambert, furious, quarrelled with Diaghilev and claimed that he would have withdrawn his music if not prevented by contract. How many young artists, keen to make a name, would have dared affront the great man? Still, the publicity did not hurt.

Romeo and Juliet was premiered by the Diaghilev Ballet in May 1926, and Lambert's next work, a Divertimento, was produced as a ballet, Pomona, by Nijinska at the Colon, Buenos Aires, the following year. At that time, Lambert's output of mainly short concert pieces was quite prolific, and regarded as most promising. But then Lambert was asked to arrange music by Mozart and Schubert for two ballets by Ninette de Valois at the Old Vic, and by Scarlatti for Frederick Ashton's ballet Mars and Venus with Marie Rambert's dancers in a play at the Duke of York's Theatre. He also wrote incidental music for Oscar Wilde's Salome at the Gate Theatre, with the actress Margaret Rawlings in the title role performing choreography by De Valois.

Thus drawn further into dance, he was inevitably invited on to the committees of the Camargo Society, a club started to establish ballet in Britain after Diaghilev's death. Lambert conducted the first Cam-argo programme in October 1930, and the evening's one big hit was a ballet by Ashton, described as "an orgy of sailors and their doxies", to Lambert's most popular concert piece, The Rio Grande. Later, the Camargo Society presented Lamb-ert's Adam and Eve (spurned by Diaghilev), with choreography by Antony Tudor.

Now Lambert was engaged by De Valois for her Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet as music director. Besides conducting (some informed observers insisted that his conducting of The Sleeping Beauty was the chief factor in the company's instant conquest of New York when it went there in 1949), he often arranged and suggested music for ballets.

His fondness for Purcell led to De Valois's The Birthday of Oberon, Robert Helpmann's Comus and, when the company moved to Covent Garden after the Second World War, the semi-opera The Fairy Queen with ballets by Ashton as its most prominent element. Another of Lambert's enthusiasms prompted one of the most successful pre-war ballets at Sadler's Wells, Apparitions, with his choice of 14 pieces by Liszt, Ashton choreography, designs by the immensely fashionable Cecil Beaton, and the 16-year-old Margot Fonteyn in the lead. Lambert's libretto was adapted from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and when the Ballet Russe used that score five months later, the Wells came off better in the inevitable comparisons.

Among other ballets to scores selected by Lambert were Les Rendezvous (Auber, 1933) and Les Patineurs (Meyerbeer, 1937), both still going strong. However – and this was his supreme importance – Lambert's interests and activities were never confined to music. His knowledge of painting and literature as well as music enabled him to help dancers to develop (including Fonteyn and Helpmann) as artists by telling them what to read, look at and listen to, then discussing these things with them. Also, even for ballets in which he had no personal involvement, he brought together musicians or designers and choreographers that he thought would suit each other.

He wrote all the time, too, from his highly influential book Music, Ho! (subtitled "A Study of Music in Decline") to music reviews, dashing general journalism, scurrilous letters and instant limericks. He had a neat wit – who else would end a synopsis of The Sleeping Beauty by remarking that Aurora and her Prince, on marrying, "may be assumed" to live happy ever after?

This is the man who was involved on a day-to-day basis with the Royal Ballet in its first 20 years, giving generously of himself and his ideas whenever they could be helpful. He was never solemn about it either – always ready for silly games or stories. During the war years, he toured week after week, playing one of two pianos for accompaniment when no orchestra was available, six nights a week plus matinées, and travel on Sundays. Yet he found time also to contribute heavily to their two most popular new ballets (both successfully revived lately), De Valois's comedy The Prospect Before Us and Ashton's bitterly tragic Dante Sonata.

No wonder that De Valois not only described him as "the greatest ballet conductor and adviser that this country has had", but declared that there was no one to equal him for all-round knowledge and intellectual understanding of ballet. She proved her sincerity when Lambert resigned from Covent Garden in 1947 because of a row with the management over his payment for The Fairy Queen: she soon brought him back as artistic director (jointly with herself and Ashton) and guest conductor.

Amid all this activity, his own career as composer diminished. He wrote, but only a little, for concerts and films; and in 20 years, only two original ballets for the company, both to his own libretto. Horoscope, in 1937, was a success for him, Ashton and Fonteyn (Lambert was then in love with her), but the scenery, costumes and score were lost during the war when the Germans invaded Holland where it was touring, and it was never revived.

Tiresias in 1951 was a different matter: a long (68 minutes), complex ballet with a mythological plot set in ancient Crete about whether men or women enjoy sex more, it proved almost universally unpopular. Ashton's choreography was mostly condemned, too; his previous ballet, Daphnis and Chloe, was at first coolly received, then seen as a masterwork, but Tiresias showed no sign of winning over audiences, even after being shortened and stubbornly kept alive for five years.

A sad end to Lambert's great career. Only six weeks after the premiere, he died, not quite 46, of sudden broncho-pneumonia and hitherto undiagnosed diabetes, exacerbated by heavy drinking. British ballet has never again found a director with his wide knowledge, intelligence, imagination and flair. How much more might have been achieved had he kept his health; yet we may be thankful that he, with De Valois and Ashton, laid the foundations that have endured ever since.

Constant Lambert's Piano Concerto (1924) and 'Prize Fight' will be performed at the Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on Wednesday 29 August at 10pm, and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. 'The Rio Grande' will be performed at the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 15 September, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC 1