October 2000

John Lambert
Oliver Knussen


It was, I think, in 1963 when my father decided that if I was really determined to be a composer some guidance would be wise. We were recommended to a new harmony instructor who had been a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and more recently Director of Music at the Old Vic. So it was that I walked one afternoon from my primary school to the Watford School of Music, armed with my output to date. I arrived early, waited apprehensively in the teaching room, and the door eventually opened. A gently authoritative and very well-spoken man, whose manner combined a certain formality and the hint of a twinkle in the eye, introduced himself and we quickly got down to basics as he looked through my pieces. What music did I like? What theoretical work had I done? A few ear tests and then, to my chagrin, a request that I write eight single-line melodies of at least eight bars in time for the next lesson - rather a come-down for someone who had high hopes for the cantatas and orchestral pieces I had brought!

What is evident to me now is that John had immediately pinpointed what was most lacking in my efforts, skirted elegantly around the question of expressing himself on the appalling disparity between ambition and execution (thus sparing my feelings) and was also preparing the ground for the studies of harmony and, above all, counterpoint which soon followed. The next week the melodies, such as they were, were quietly but firmly criticised, and some parallels drawn between them and my own creative attempts; further exercises and ear-tests were introduced, and we were off. Needless to say I was more interested in writing new pieces (at the rate then of about one a week) than all of this theoretical stuff, and eventually a bargain had to be struck: we would discuss the composition of the week if exercises had been carefully done, and if they weren't (or hadn't been done at all) then the lesson would be spent in doing them properly. Once these guidelines were established, a pattern was set that continued with small variations for the next seven years. When I think of the things I showed him in those first years, I cringe - but John had the great gift of being able to assess something in the pupil's intended terms and, in the process of helping, to define those terms more clearly, to raise one's sights and awareness little by little.

At some point during the first few months I asked John about his own music, but the question was brushed aside: he'd written a Mass and some songs but didn't think they would be of much interest to me, or words to that effect. He was, however, very forthcoming about the music he'd heard, and often his observations were astonishingly acute. As lessons progressed, the talk about other music grew, and then one day he invited me to a concert he was giving at the Wren church in the City of London where he was organist, St. Vedast-alias-Foster. At that concert I heard him direct his own cantata, The Golden Sequence, and was astonished by the forthrightness of the musical speech, angular yet elegant, tough but carefully crafted. A year later I heard the Veni Creator cantata under the same circumstances - a carefully wrought single-span arch nearly a quarter of an hour long, for only two tenors and organ (the church "choir" at St. Vedast's consisted of two male voices, and all manner of music was adapted for them). I felt then - and still do - that this is one of his key works, and would stand up to any other British music of the period.

John Lambert spent his formative years of study in Paris with Boulanger, whom he revered. Boulanger's teaching can be said to have valued the perfection of contrapuntal craft and Žcriture above the radical development of conceptual thinking of the Darmstadt composers. Thus early in his career J.L. may have felt that he was out of step with what was in the air. As it turned out, his creative personality was liberated by the climate of the 1960's and this made possible the strong, elegantly constructivist sequence of works which leads from the Organ Mass to J.L.'s orchestral masterpiece Formations and Transformations, which was eventually heard at the Proms in 1972 but, like so much of his work, has never been heard again. These pieces solve formal and harmonic problems with such consummate skill that the listener is scarcely aware of a problem being posed. It is musician's music, to be sure, but the shapes are dramatic and tension maintained and released in a way that discloses theatrical experience. Their individuality and strength would be more apparent now, I think, and they are surely ripe for rediscovery.

(C) 1995 Oliver Knussen

This article appeares in full in the booklet accompanying the NMC John Lambert CD. Several of Lambert's works – including the Veni Creator cantata – can be heard in a concert at St Johns Smith Square on 24 October.

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Previous articles:

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester