John Lanchbery, 79; Conducted, Arranged, Adapted Music for Ballet

Times Staff Writer

John Lanchbery, who helped upgrade music for ballet in a 55-year career of conducting, arranging and re-composing scores for many of the world's great companies, has died. He was 79.

An artist who believed in attending rehearsals to learn how individual dancers think and what they need from their accompaniment, Lanchbery died of cancer Wednesday in a hospital in Melbourne, Australia, his home city.

"I try to inspire the dancers and hope, in turn, to be inspired by them," he told The Times in 1986. "The trick is to maintain the pulse but adjust it to allow phrasing fluctuations. Too many conductors, not knowing what crimes they're committing, give in to dancers. I try to honor my obligations."

John Arthur Lanchbery was born in 1923 in London. He started music lessons at age 8, studying the violin. After training at the Royal Academy of Music, he served in the Royal Armored Corps during World War II.

After the war, Lanchbery became musical director of London's Metropolitan Ballet (1947-49) and then joined the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet in 1951. He became principal conductor of the Royal Ballet in 1960, leaving in 1972 to become the musical director of the Australian Ballet (1972-78) and then the American Ballet Theatre (1978-80).

He also conducted or arranged ballet scores for companies in Brazil, France, Japan, South Africa and Sweden.

Along the way, Lanchbery became renowned for being able to fashion persuasive ballet scores by stitching together a patchwork of preexisting musical sources -- with adaptations from grand opera and operetta among his specialties.

These adaptations include "La Fille mal Gardee" (1960) for choreographer Frederick Ashton; "The Merry Widow" (1975) for Ronald Hynd; "Mayerling" (1978) for Kenneth MacMillan; and "Dracula" (1997) for Ben Stevenson.

Lanchbery's scores and arrangements have also enriched a number of ballet telecasts and films, including the feature-length motion pictures "Tales of Beatrix Potter" (1971) and "The Turning Point" (1977).

In 1951, he married Elaine Fifield, then a principal dancer in the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet. Their union ended in divorce nine years later.

In 1991, Lanchbery was awarded the Order of the British Empire. His other honors include the Bolshoi Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. His autobiography, "A Conductor's Life," is scheduled to be published later this year.

"Jack was truly exceptional," said Maina Gielgud, a former artistic director of the Australian Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, in a statement issued Thursday.

"He was not only the finest conductor for dance of his generation -- and probably well beyond -- but also a man whose vitality, education and generosity have helped and inspired countless dancers and choreographers."

Lanchbery is survived by his daughter, Margaret; and his companion, Thomas Han.

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