OBITUARY : John Lambert

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The Independent Online
John Lambert was a fine composer and a central figure in the British musical scene, yet also one of its most self-effacing characters. On meeting Lambert a few years ago, a well-known American conductor exclaimed, "Ah, the father of new British music!", but Lambert was so uninterested in self-publicity that few people realised just how true that statement was.

For over 25 years Lambert's composition classes both private and at the Royal College of Music, in London, attracted a regular stream of the most gifted young composers not only from Britain but Europe, Scandinavia, and North and South America. The resultant list of pupils makes impressive reading, including as it does such diverse composers as Javier Alvarez, Simon Bainbridge, Gary Carpenter, David Fanshawe, Oliver Knussen, Jonathan Lloyd, Carlos Miranda, Barrington Pheloung and Mark-Anthony Turnage. What is so striking about that list is that all the figures in it have gone in completely different, even contradictory, directions. Lambert was extremely proud of that diversity, and it was the key to his special teaching abilities.

He loathed narrow-mindedness and orthodoxies of any sort; dogma was anathema to him. If a student arrived convinced of one or other fashionable style, Lambert's habit was to confront the student with its opposite. I vividly remember bringing him some wildly over-complicated music in an early lesson and embarking upon an earnest defence of it; he soon interrupted and spent the rest of the lesson giving an illustrated talk on the music of Miles Davis, tapes of which I was promptly lent. At the end he merely commented, "Oh, by the way, if you could be as complex as he is with as few notes . . . ."

Part of the reason Lambert was such a magnetic figure to the young was his intense curiosity and openness to the latest trends in music, from whatever source. He felt his own development as a composer had perhaps been held back by the general ignorance of serial music in Britain in the late Forties and early Fifties, and was determined that no student of his should suffer similarly; in fact Lambert was one of the first in Britain to take an interest in this music, inviting such seminal figures as Boulez and Lutoslawski to give seminars at the college in the early Sixties.

A pupil of Nadia Boulanger, Lambert had an excellent ear and tried to instil the same faculty in his pupils, both by means of his own "English solfge", which revolutionised aural teaching at the college, but also by developing an "analytical ear" - the ability not merely to spot an interesting sound or phrase but to take it apart instantly and sense its potential.

He encouraged this principally through his cherished Experimental Music Group, a weekly class in improvisation which he ran from 1970 until his retirement in 1990, and in which many of the aforementioned talents flourished. This involved a wide cross-section of students both from the college and elsewhere, combining music with live electronics, theatre, dance, film and animation; a forum in which one could try out the most unexpected, even bizarre things and, if they did not come off, that was as important a discovery as if they did. It was a typical product of his catholic imagination.

Lambert's own achievements as a composer bear vivid witness to his animated personality, but his gifts were slow to mature. He used to say that he had evolved from an "academic adolescence to an experimental middle age" and it was only in the later Fifties, when he became Music Director at the Old Vic, where he collaborated with some of the leading directors of the day (including Franco Zeffirelli), that he began to open up; he enjoyed this post enormously, relishing the chance to compose music for a wide variety of productions, and commissioning fellow composers such as Thea Musgrave and Michael Tippett (whose music for The Tempest, 1962, was one of the most striking products of this era).

The crucial work in Lambert's output at this period was the Organ Mass, composed over a five-year period from 1964 to 1968, which traces his path through serial techniques towards a more experimental manner. Thereafter, stimulated by the company of the students around him at the Royal College, he became known for ebullient, strikingly direct music in which traditional and avant-garde elements were fused into a highly personal language; he reached a wider audience with such works as the 1973 Proms commission Formations and Transformations and the opera Family Affairs, premiered at the 1988 Brighton Festival; while such later works as the choral work Scale (1988) and the delicate Second String Quartet (1986) revealed a more intimate side to his compositional manner (the latter is one of a number of pieces to be released shortly on a Lambert disc on the NMC label).

His most ambitious project was the cycle Sea-Change (1978-94), five contrasting works for ensemble and electronics, pushing instrumental technique to its limits; the four pieces played during his lifetime were amongst his favourite of his own works. Whatever the task in hand, he applied the same rigorous standards of impeccable craftsmanship and contrapuntal virtuosity to his own music that he de- manded from his students and as a consequence his music earned the admiration of such distinguished colleagues as Ligeti and Dutilleux.

His unflinching generosity towards pupils was remarkable by any standards, and inspired a corresponding loyalty in them. Although in later years his reputation as a teacher sometimes overshadowed his achievements as a composer, I never knew him once complain about this, or about anything else for that matter. A visit to the house in Brighton he shared with his long-standing friend the organist Timothy Bond was always an occasion for excellent food and wine, much laughter and gossip and excited discussions about music, his curiosity with regard to young composers undimmed.

In the last year of his life, when he was seriously ill with cancer of the liver, he still insisted that he was quite content and maintained an unflinchingly optimistic outlook, remaining alert and continuing to receive visitors until a couple of days before his death. Although he rarely blew his own trumpet, he was intensely aware both of his substantial compositional achievements and of a teaching record few, if any, could rival; when the history of British music since the Sixties comes to be written, his crucial importance in it will surely be recognised.

Julian Anderson

I was one of the many young composers who were privileged to have been guided by John Lambert's unique gifts as a teacher, writes Simon Bainbridge. Lambert was never dogmatic in his teaching, but always insisted on a clear, logical, "through-composed", linear thinking. In fact he taught counterpoint as a central concept to creative compositional thought and expression, a quality that is present in the music of all his students.

Above all else, it is his qualities as composer that should be remembered. He was unjustly neglected in his lifetime, and it is a fitting tribute that a CD of his music is to be issued next month.

John Lambert, composer: born 15 July 1926; Organist and Director of Music at St Vedast-alias-Foster, London 1949-78; Director of Music, Old Vic Theatre Companies 1958-62; Professor of Composition, Royal College of Music 1964-90; FRCM 1976; died Brighton 7 March 1995.