The Rio Grande is a secular cantata by English composer Constant Lambert. Written in 1927, it achieved instant and long-lasting popularity on its appearance on the concert stage in 1929. It is an example of symphonic jazz, not unlike the style of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, although it is very much Lambert's individual conception. It combines jazzy syncopation with lithe Latin American dance rhythms that create an air of haunting nostalgia. The Rio Grande is set to the impressionistic poem of the same name by Sacheverell Sitwell, and takes roughly 15 to 20 minutes to perform. This piece was dedicated to Angus Morrison, who played at its first performance.
The Rio Grande is scored for alto soloist, mixed chorus, piano, brass, strings and a percussion section of 15 instruments, requiring five players. It combines jazzy syncopations, ragtime and Brazilian influences, harmonies and rhythms inspired by Duke Ellington, with a traditional English choral sound. The outer sections are brisk, surrounding a central nocturne. The piano part often plays triplets against duplets, redolent of a rumba. The coda is based on material from the central section.
Lambert noted in a 1928 article:
The chief interest of jazz rhythms lies in their application to the setting of words, and although jazz settings have by no means the flexibility or subtlety of the early seventeenth-century airs, for example, there is no denying their lightness and ingenuity … English words demand for their successful musical treatment an infinitely more varied and syncopated rhythm than is to be found in the nineteenth-century romantics, and the best jazz songs of today are, in fact, nearer in their methods to the late fifteenth-century composers than any music since.
Music critic Christopher Palmer said of this piece that
Lambert would be the first to concede, today, that some of the harmonic and rhythmic clichés he decried in others had slipped into his own work. Yet, for all that, The Rio Grande retains a pristine quality. Now hard, now soft, it sparkles and glitters one moment, then seduces us the next with the kind of bluesy urban melancholy to be found in deeper, richer measure in a quite different context in Summer's Last Will and Testament. It is above all the work of a poet, and Lambert’s poetic sensibility has ensured the survival of his best music. The free-fantasy form is simplicity itself: first section (allegro) – cadenza for piano and percussion – slow central section, in the style of a nostalgic tango – recapitulation – tranquil coda.
The poem refers to a river in Brazil, although there is no Brazilian river called Rio Grande.
The idea for this piece began when in 1923 Lambert attended Will Vodery’s Plantation Orchestra. He later wrote: ‘After the humdrum playing of the English orchestra in the first half, it was electrifying to hear Will Vodery’s band in the Delius-like fanfare which preluded the second. It definitely opened up a new world of sound.’ That "new world of sound" is the syncopated jazz sound that he would incorporate in The Rio Grande. While George Gershwin was clearly a major influence, Vodery's mention shows us that besides Gershwin, the entire jazz and Broadway zeitgeist of the day served as the influence for this piece. Frederick Delius also served as an inspiration. The chorus’s fortissimo opening statement is a direct transcription of the fanfare that appears frequently in Delius' work (the famous "Walk to the Paradise Garden" from A Village Romeo and Juliet, to quote just one instance, has it in almost every bar). Delius knew much about spirituals from living among African-Americans in Florida.
The first concert performance was in Manchester on 12 December 1929 with Sir Hamilton Harty as piano soloist, and the composer conducting the Hallé Orchestra. It had its London premiere the following day, 13 December, at the Queen's Hall, London, with the same forces. It was repeated at the subsequent Hallé concert the following month.
This is generally considered Constant Lambert's most famous work. Lambert intended Summer's Last Will and Testament to be his masterpiece but, to his chagrin, it never surpassed The Rio Grande in popularity.
The composer made two recordings of The Rio Grande as conductor, both of which have held their place in the catalogue:
- 11 January 1930: Albert Walter Whitehead (male alto; also seen as A. W. Whitehead, and Alan Whitehead), Sir Hamilton Harty (piano), St Michaels Singers, the Hallé Orchestra.
- 14 January 1949: Gladys Ripley (alto), Kyla Greenbaum (piano), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra.
Later recordings include:
- Jean Allister (contralto) and Eileen Joyce (piano) with the B.B.C. chorus and the B.B.C. orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, B.B.C. Prom, broadcast 'live' from the Royal Albert Hall, London on Saturday, 12 September 1959 
- Jean Temperley (mezzo-soprano), Cristina Ortiz (piano), the London Madrigal Singers, the London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn (conductor), Angel Records, 1974.
- Sally Burgess (alto), Jack Gibbons (piano), Chorus of Opera North, English Northern Philharmonia, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor) (this recording was nominated for a Gramophone Award and awarded a Penguin Guide 3-star rosette)
- Della Jones (mezzo), Kathryn Stott (piano), BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth (conductor).
The poem The Rio Grande by Sacheverell Sitwell was from "The Thirteenth Caesar, and other Poems":
- By the Rio Grande
- They dance no sarabande
- On level banks like lawns above the glassy, lolling tide;
- Nor sing they forlorn madrigals
- Whose sad note stirs the sleeping gales
- Till they wake among the trees and shake the boughs,
- And fright the nightingales;
- But they dance in the city, down the public squares,
- On the marble pavers with each colour laid in shares,
- At the open church doors loud with light within.
- At the bell's huge tolling,
- By the river music, gurgling, thin
- Through the soft Brazilian air.
- The Comendador and Alguacil are there
- On horseback, hid with feathers, loud and shrill
- Blowing orders on their trumpets like a bird's sharp bill
- Through boughs, like a bitter wind, calling
- They shine like steady starlight while those other sparks are failing
- In burnished armour, with their plumes of fire,
- Tireless while all others tire.
- The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town
- To where, in the square, they dance and the band is playing ;
- Such a space of silence through the town to the river
- That the water murmurs loud -
- Above the band and crowd together;
- And the strains of the sarabande,
- More lively than a madrigal,
- Go hand in hand
- Like the river and its waterfall
- As the great Rio Grande rolls down to the sea.
- Loud is the marimba's note
- Above these half -salt waves,
- And louder still the tympanum,
- The plectrum, and the kettle-drum,
- Sullen and menacing
- Do these brazen voices ring.
- They ride outside,
- Above the salt-sea's tide.
- Till the ships at anchor there
- Hear this enchantment,
- Of the soft Brazilian air,
- By those Southern winds wafted,
- Slow and gentle,
- Their fierceness tempered
- By the air that flows between.
- "Composers at Oxford University Press". Ukcatalogue.oup.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- "Constant Lambert (Composer, Arranger) - Short Biography". www.bach-cantatas.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- "The Rio Grande - Lambert - PACO028". www.pristineclassical.com. Archived from the original on 16 October 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- Villa-Lobos Website
- "Constant Lambert - The Rio Grande] notes by Paul Serotsky". www.musicweb-international.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- "Lambert: Summer's Last Will and Testament, The Rio Grande & Aubade héroïque". Hyperion Records. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
- Morrison taught piano at London's Royal College of Music from 1926 to 1972. Although he largely shunned a concert career, he became friends with several British composers of his generation, notably Constant Lambert and William Walton. For his services to English music Morrison was awarded a CBE in 1979. See http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100210725
- Audiophile Audition
- "Lambert and Rawsthorne by David Heyes". www.musicweb-international.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- Gramophone, September 1990[dead link]
- 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, Matthew Rye
- "LAMBERT". www.classicalcdreview.com. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- "Constant Lambert Vol.II - Composer [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)". www.musicweb-international.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.
- "Lambert Rio Grande [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Feb 2003 MusicWeb(UK)". www.musicweb-international.com. Retrieved 21 August 2016.