John Lanchbery

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John Lanchbery
Peter Lyons (left) and John Lanchbery (right).jpg
Peter Lyons (musician) (left) with John Lanchbery (right)
Born (1923-05-15)15 May 1923
London, England
Died 27 February 2003(2003-02-27) (aged 79)
Melbourne, Australia
Occupation Composer, musician

John Arthur Lanchbery OBE (15 May 1923 – 27 February 2003) was an English, later Australian, composer and conductor, famous for his ballet arrangements. He served as the Principal Conductor of the Royal Ballet from 1959 to 1972.


John Lanchbery was born into a working class[citation needed] family in London in 1923. Despite his family finances,[citation needed] he took violin lessons from the age of eight, when he started composing.[1] He won a scholarship to Alleyn's School, a public school in Dulwich.[2] Whilst at Dulwich he formed a lifetime friendship and collaborative partnership with Peter Lyons (musician) [3] and also became friends with Kenneth Spring, whose mother was a composer and encouraged his musical talent.[4] In 1942 he was awarded the Henry Smart Composition Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). His studies were interrupted the following year, and he served in the Royal Armoured Corps. After the war, Lanchberry spent two more years at the RAM. He then returned to Alleyn's as the second music master, hoping to be offered the position of head of music; when the job failed to materialise, he left to work for a music publisher.[2] While working for the Anglo Soviet Music Press, they suggested that he audition for the post of conductor with the Metropolitan Ballet.[5] He made his debut with them at Edinburgh in 1948.[1] Two years later the orchestra collapsed for lack of funds but by then he had learned his craft.[1] Working with choreographer Celia Franca, Lanchbery wrote The Eve of St Agnes (the story was based on John Keats' poem of the same name), one of the first commissioned ballets to be shown on BBC television.[1]

He was taken on by Sadler's Wells company. The first professional ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan was Somnambulism in 1953, with music by Stan Kenton orchestrated by Lanchbery. They also did The House of Birds (La Casa de los Pájaros) in 1955 (to original music by Federico Mompou). To choreography by Frederick Ashton he arranged La fille mal gardée (original music by Ferdinand Hérold and others) for the Royal Ballet in 1960. This work includes the famous Clog Dance used for many years as a theme tune for Home This Afternoon on BBC radio. He served as the Principal Conductor of the Royal Ballet from 1959 to 1972.[2]

Other conductors earn revenues for recordings but Lanchbery, although he made several recordings, had his income mostly supplemented by the copyright he earned from his orchestral arrangements, used by ballet companies all over the world. He effectively re-wrote Ludwig Minkus's Don Quixote for Rudolf Nureyev in 1966. Arguably, Don Quixote was not a satisfactory ballet score until Lanchbery re-arranged it, although Minkus's original version has twice been recorded complete in recent years. He did the same for Natalia Makarova in Minkus's La Bayadère for the American Ballet Theatre in 1980. Boldest of all was Macmillan's Mayerling (1978) where Lanchbery arranged more than 30 pieces by Franz Liszt.[1] Some critics, however, have found fault with his tampering of the original scores.[6]

In 1970 he arranged the score for the ballet film The Tales of Beatrix Potter.[1] His sources were many and varied, including the operas of Michael William Balfe and Arthur Sullivan.[7] He also arranged the music and conducted the orchestra for Nijinsky in 1980.

Lanchbery was the first to convert operas into ballets (The Tales of Hoffmann, The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus),[1] and he also wrote music for some British films of the 1960s, including Deadly Nightshade (1953) and Colonel March Investigates (1955). He was involved in The Turning Point (1977), starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne, and his score for Evil Under the Sun (1982) was based on songs by Cole Porter, a memorable rendition of "You're The Top" by Diana Rigg. He also wrote scores for two silent film classics: D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and John Ford's The Iron Horse.[5]

He received honours from Russia and Sweden and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1991. He married Sadler's Wells principal Elaine Fifield in 1951. They had a daughter, Margaret, and divorced in 1960.[5] He became an Australian citizen in 2002, making his home in Melbourne, where he died on 27 February 2003, survived by his daughter and his companion, Thomas.


Some of the most popular ballets are arrangements of works written for a different purpose. Perhaps the best-known is Alexander Glazunov's arrangement of Frédéric Chopin's piano music into the ballet Les Sylphides. Another famous example is La Boutique fantasque, an arrangement of Gioachino Rossini's music by Ottorino Respighi in 1919. However the most prolific arranger of music for ballet was John Lanchbery.

A simple list gives some idea of his influence:

Lanchbery's works included supporting tertiary student: during a 1976 visit to Australia, Lanchbery conducted the 27th Intervarsity Choral Festival choir performing Rossini's Petite Messe Solonelle and Gaudeamus igitur in Hobart[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Noel Goodwin (28 February 2003). "John Lanchbery". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c "John Lanchbery". The Daily Telegraph. 1 April 2003. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  3. ^ Obituary of Peter Lyons, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Friday, April 20, 2007.
  4. ^ John Lanchbery, 'Ken Spring obituary', Edward Alleyn Club Magazine (Spring 1998).
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Nadine Meisner (3 March 2003). "Obituary: John Lanchbery". The Independent. Retrieved 21 June 2009. 
  6. ^ Rodney Stenning Edgecombe: "It had been [Frederick] Ashton's good fortune to have Constant Lambert as his mentor in his early career, but his later years were dominated by a musical butcher called John Lanchbery." The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts edited by Mark Thornton Burnett, Adrian Streete, Ramona Wray. Edinburgh University Press, 2011: page 211
  7. ^ Sullivan's contribution included "O turn thine eyes away" from The Beauty Stone.
  8. ^ "The 27th Intervarsity Choral Festival: HOBART, 8 May–24 May 1976". Retrieved 2015-01-27. 


  • "John Lanchbery". Times Online Obituary. London. 28 February 2003. Retrieved 21 June 2009. 

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