Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Hubert Foss

Letter No.: 
5th December 1951

The White Gates,
Dorking, Surrey.

Dear Hubert,

I am so glad you are writing about Constant.  Have jotted down a few reminiscences which may be useful to you.

(R. Vaughan Williams).

Constant Lambert came to me as a pupil straight from school.  I think he was about sixteen then and all who had to do with him realised at once his brilliant qualities and some of us insisted that he must be given a scholarship.
The first works he showed me were perfectly delightful tunes, songs, I think and pianoforte pieces very much in the folk song style.  I wish they were extant still, but I epxect he destroyed them as he soon became ashamed of them, and as he got to know more about French music got more and more away from the folk-song idiom. Indeed, at one of his early lessons he took me to task seriously for being influenced by folk song and told me I was all wrong. I took his rebuke quite meekly and kept my own opinion to myself.
The first work which he showed me with the “New look” was a very remarkable piece for clarinet solo without accompaniment. Again,  I do not know what happened to that.
Though he was so brilliant he was difficult to teach because he knew what he wanted and did not see the point of going through the ordinary mill, and I preached him a sermon once and told him that later on he would find the want of the “stodge” which I was trying to make him do, and would then come back and ask me or someone else to teach him, which he countered with the invincible argument, “Well won’t that be the time to do it?”. I was non-plussed.
Lambert conducted the first performance of my ballet “Job”,1 and wonderfully he did it, because his work included cutting down the orchestra to the then dimensions of Sadlers Wells. I remember he got over one difficulty when he added in a bass part for the harp, which was extremely effective. These rehearsals were the only occasions on which I knew him really worried and nervous. Rehearsal time was short, the orchestra was difficult, the clarinet said he could not, according to his trade union rules, double clarinet and saxophone & so on, but he triumphed over it all.
Though nominally he was a pupil of mine I was really much more a pupil of his. I feel sure it was he who pointed out to me that the introduction to my “London Symphony” was a clean crib of Debussy’s “La Mer”. But he denies he ever said this.
As we all know, he hated Brahms and once told me that he longed to push as if by accident that plaster cast of Brahms which decorates one of the passages at the R.C.M. and smash it for ever.
I do not think his music was easy to get at straight away. I remember when I heard his “Summer’s last will” for the first time I did not care about it. It was only at a later performance that I realised what a fine work it is. When I wrote and told him so he gave me a characteristic and delightful answer.

If I think of anything more to say I will tell you later.2

Hubert Foss, Esq.,

1. But see VWL2321 where VW corrects himself. Lambert had died the previous August.
2. Foss had written an appreciation of Lambert for the Musical Times (92 (1951), 449-51), but his planned biography was never completed. See Duncan Hinnells, An Extraordinary performance: Hubert Foss and the early years of music publishing at Oxford University Press (OUP, 1998).

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Typewritten, signed.

Cobbe 569
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