As a conductor, John Lanchbery was largely associated with ballet, though he also worked in so-called television opera and operetta. As a composer and arranger, he wrote music for films, television and radio, and fashioned new orchestral versions of famous ballets, including Les Sylphides, The Tales of Hoffmann, Don Quixote, and Giselle. He also adapted the scores of popular operettas to ballet, among them Die Fledermaus, Rosalinda, and The Merry Widow. Lanchbery may be best known today for his numerous ballet recordings, which include acclaimed performances of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. From the mid-twentieth century forward, Lanchbery served as music director for major ballet companies in England, the U.S., and Australia. When he appeared in the concert hall, he generally conducted ballet music or lighter scores like Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Many of his recordings are still available from EMI, DG, Decca, and Naxos.
John Lanchbery was born in London on May 15, 1923. He began violin lessons at eight. In his later teens he studied music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, not finishing until after military service in World War II. In the postwar era, Lanchbery worked for a music publisher as he concluded studies at the RAM.
His first important post came in 1948 as music director of the Metropolitan Ballet, a small company founded the year before that would disband in 1950. Lanchbery became music director of Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet in 1951 and worked there with Kenneth MacMillan on several notable ballets: MacMillan's first effort, Somnambulism (1953; music by Stan Kenton), was orchestrated by Lanchbery and was a huge success.
Lanchbery probably achieved his greatest acclaim as principal conductor at the Royal Ballet (1959-1972), with whom he made many successful tours abroad. During his tenure, Lanchbery made numerous popular arrangements of well-known ballet scores, including Don Quixote, for a 1966 production danced by Rudolf Nureyev.
Lanchbery arranged music for the 1970 ballet movie Tales of Beatrix Potter. The score, like the film, achieved success as a recording in its several incarnations, among which is a 1998 EMI CD containing the original soundtrack. Lanchbery held two further music directorships: one at the Australian Ballet (1972-1977) and the other with the American Ballet Theater (1978-1981). After 1981 he freelanced as a conductor and from the 1970s spent much time in Australia, eventually becoming a citizen in 2002.