Lambert, the son of Russian-born Australian painter George Lambert, was educated at Christ's Hospital and the Royal College of Music. His teachers there were Ralph Vaughan Williams, R. O. Morris and Sir George Dyson (composition), Malcolm Sargent (conducting) and Herbert Fryer (piano).
For a few years he enjoyed a meteoric celebrity, including participating in a recording of William Walton's Façade with Edith Sitwell. Lambert's best known composition is The Rio Grande (1927) for piano and alto soloists, chorus, and orchestra of brass, strings and percussion. It achieved instant success, and Lambert made two recordings of the piece as conductor (1930 and 1949). He had a great interest in African-American music, and once said that he would have ideally liked The Rio Grande to feature a black choir.
During the 1930s, his career as a conductor took off with his appointment with the Vic-Wells ballet (later The Royal Ballet), but his career as a composer stagnated. His major choral work Summer's Last Will and Testament (after the play of the same name by Thomas Nashe), one of his most emotionally dark works, proved unfashionable in the mood following the death of King George V, but Alan Frank hailed it at the time as Lambert's "finest work". Lambert himself considered he had failed as a composer, and completed only two major works in the remaining sixteen years of his life. Instead he concentrated on conducting, and appeared at Covent Garden and in BBC radio broadcasts, and accompanied the ballet in European and American tours.
The war took its toll of his vitality and creativity, and his health declined with the development of diabetes which remained untreated for years owing to his fear of doctors, stemming from his childhood.
Lambert was renowned as a raconteur in his day and as an expert on many different arts and modern European culture. He was also one of the first "serious" composers to understand fully the importance of jazz and popular culture in the music of his time. He responded positively to the music of Duke Ellington. His embrace of music outside the 'serious' repertoire is illustrated by his book Music Ho! (1934), subtitled "a study of music in decline", which remains one of the wittiest, if highly opinionated, volumes of music criticism in the English language.
He was at the centre of a brilliant literary and intellectual circle including Michael Ayrton, Sacheverell Sitwell and Anthony Powell, and despite Powell's denial, he is often said to be the prototype of the character Hugh Moreland in Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.
His father, although born in Russia and of American heritage, identified as an Australian, and Constant was always conscious of his Australian connections, although he never visited that country. He had his pick of British pianists but he chose the Australian pianist and composer Arthur Benjamin to premiere his Piano Concerto in 1931. He formed a strong bond with the dancer Robert Helpmann on his arrival in London. And he chose the young Australian pianist Gordon Watson to play the virtuoso piano part at the premiere of his last ballet, Tiresias.
As a conductor he had an instinctive appreciation of Liszt, Chabrier, Waldteufel and romantic Russian composers, and made fine recordings of some of their works. However, it was only when his health was declining that his career had a chance to flourish with the development of the BBC Third Programme and the Philharmonia Orchestra, having struggled for many years to extract vital performances from second-rate ensembles.
Lambert's first marriage was to Florence Kaye; their son was Kit Lambert. After divorcing Kaye, in 1947 Lambert married the artist Isabel Delmer; after his death, she married Alan Rawsthorne. Lambert's first wife Florence Kaye married Peter Hole; their daughter Anne later took the stage name Annie Lambert.
Lambert earlier had an on-and-off affair with the ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn. According to friends of Fonteyn, Lambert was the great love of her life and she despaired when she finally realised he would never marry her. Some aspects of this relationship were symbolised in his ballet Horoscope (1938).
Lambert died on 21 August 1951, two days short of his forty-sixth birthday, of pneumonia and undiagnosed diabetes complicated by acute alcoholism, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, London. His son Kit was buried in the same grave in 1983.
- Romeo and Juliet (1925)
- Pomona (1927)
- Horoscope (1938)
- Tiresias (1950)
- Les Patineurs (1937; arranged from music by Giacomo Meyerbeer)
Choral and vocal
- Eight poems of Li Po (1928)
- The Rio Grande (1927) (set to a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell)
- Summer's Last Will and Testament (1936; to words by Thomas Nashe)
- Dirge from Cymbeline (1947)
- Piano Concerto (Concerto for piano, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings, 1924)
- The Bird Actors Overture (1924)
- Music for Orchestra (1927)
- Aubade Heroique (1941)
- Concerto for Piano and 9 Instruments (1931)
- Piano Sonata (1930)
- Elegy, for piano (1938)
- Trois pieces negres, pour les touches blanches, piano duet (4 hands) (1949)
- Driver, Paul (September 1980). "Façade Revisited". Tempo, New Ser. (– Scholar search). 133/134: 3–9. JSTOR 00402982. [dead link]
- Palmer, Christopher (April 1971). "Constant Lambert: A Postscript". Music & Letters (– Scholar search) 52 (2): 173–176. doi:10.1093/ml/LII.2.173. JSTOR 00274224. [dead link]
- Frank, Alan (November 1937). "The Music of Constant Lambert". The Musical Times (– Scholar search) (The Musical Times, Vol. 78, No. 1137) 78 (1137): 941–945. doi:10.2307/923287. JSTOR 00274666. [dead link]
- Frank, Alan (April 1974). "Review of Constant Lambert by Richard Shead". Music & Letters (– Scholar search) 55 (2): 241–242. JSTOR 00274224. [dead link]
- Lambert. Music Ho!. Retrieved 2011-06-26.
- Graeme Skinner, musicologist
- Foss, Hubert (October 1951). "Constant Lambert, 23 August 1905-21 August 1951". The Musical Times (– Scholar search) 92 (1304): 449–451. JSTOR 00274666. [dead link]
- Motion, Andrew. The Lamberts: George, Constant & Kit. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986. ISBN 0-374-18283-3.
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- Free scores by Constant Lambert at the International Music Score Library Project
- "Constant Lambert". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 28, 2010.
- 'The Jazz Age', lecture and concert by Chamber Domaine given on the 6th of November 2007 at Gresham College, including the Suite in Three Movements for Piano by Lambert (available for audio and video download).
- Constant Lambert (1905-1951), Composer, conductor and critic: Sitter in 24 portraits (National Portrait Gallery)