George Lloyd: Myths And Misconceptions

George Lloyd at the Lyceum Theatre in 1935, conducting his opera Iernin with The New English Opera Company. Picture shared with kind permission of William Lloyd.

     By Peter Davison

About a year ago, I was asked by William Lloyd, nephew of the Cornish composer George Lloyd (1913-98) to write an extended essay re-evaluating his uncle’s music. William and his wife Alison have run the George Lloyd Society, its extensive library and archive for many years. At times, it has been a thankless task, because interest in George Lloyd has waned since his death in 1998, although it revived briefly in 2013 for his centenary. That year, Lloyd’s music featured at the last night of the Proms, which included a performance of his HMS Trinidad March, but this moment of international prominence proved little more than a flash in the pan. Such opportunities only serve to amplify frustration; so close and yet so far!

Perhaps this feeling of mild desperation persuaded William to engage me. He knew I would be sympathetic, even if I was largely ignorant of George Lloyd’s considerable body of work. I knew there were symphonies but was surprised to learn that there were twelve of them. There were also concertos – four for piano, two for violin and one for cello. In addition, there were three operas, several grand choral works, music for brass band, a clutch of tone poems and various chamber and solo piano works. I left the archive one day, burdened with a weighty box of scores and over twenty CDs, and began working my way through George Lloyd’s seven decades of output.

What I noticed, as I set about this Herculean task, was that it was hard to listen to this music without its historical baggage. I found that, as someone with two music degrees and thirty-five years of experience programming public concerts, listening to Lloyd’s music was, at times, an assault on all my assumptions about how twentieth century music should sound.

My impression of Lloyd, prior to this immersive exploration of his work, was of a fluent but predictable tunesmith in the mould of Eric Coates. Like every half-baked notion, it was easy to find support for it. In the 1980s, when a BBC producer approached the then Director of Radio 3, John Drummond, about performing George Lloyd’s music at the Proms, the alleged response was ‘over my dead body’. In his eyes, Lloyd represented everything modernism was meant to oppose; populism, heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality and romantic clichés.

The story of George Lloyd’s life equally threw spanners in the works. He was no ordinary talent, but an acclaimed prodigy and war hero. Born in Cornwall in 1913, Lloyd wrote and conducted his first opera Iernin aged 21, establishing himself as a national figure hailed by Vaughan Williams, Thomas Beecham and John Ireland. But Lloyd sacrificed his promising career to join the Royal Marines during the Second World War, serving on the Arctic convoys, until a terrible accident in 1942 left him seriously injured. It was thought he would never recover, but his wife Nancy had other ideas. She took charge, using unorthodox healing techniques such as hypnotherapy, so that Lloyd recovered sufficiently to write two mighty symphonies; the Fourth and Fifth.

Just after the War, Lloyd found the BBC less receptive to his work. This and his fragile health persuaded him to retreat from musical life. He moved to Dorset to grow mushrooms and carnations for over twenty years. Among his supporters in those fallow times was the pianist, John Ogdon, who in 1962 persuaded Charles Groves and the Liverpool Philharmonic to perform Lloyd’s First Piano Concerto; a taut one-movement work of tormented dissonance which was in many respects untypical of him.

In the early 1980s, Sir Edward Downes persuaded the BBC to drop their scepticism towards Lloyd, and he began performing the symphonies (and recording some of them) with the BBC Northern in Manchester. Then, in 1984, an American Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, scooped Lloyd up as Principal Conductor, commissioning two symphonies from him (the Eleventh and Twelfth). Now in his seventies, Lloyd, assisted by his nephew William, went on to record almost all his music on CD, using major professional orchestras and performers to ensure the highest standards. In this last phase of his life, Lloyd completed a sequence of ambitious works including his Symphonic Mass (1992) and a final touching Requiem (1998) for choir and organ.

But what of those myths and misconceptions? I had realised at an early stage what a good job my academic education had done to skew my judgement. I struggled to listen with a genuinely open mind. The intellect acted as a carping critic, but the heart responded on a more human level. If this music was so awful, why was I so moved by it? It had many of the characteristics attributed by its hostile critics, but could their premises be suspect? Perhaps the naïve, heartfelt lyricism of this music was not a curse after all. We live in an age of irony, obscuring complexity and scarcely concealed cynicism, and this music was not capable of any of these things. It was sincere and good-humoured, in general terms optimistic and generous, yet never facile or evasive of darker emotions.

It is true that some of Lloyd’s early symphonies are too close to their models which are found in Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. We hear a young composer searching for his authentic voice, but this seems hardly cause to condemn it. His first opera Iernin (1934) astonishes with its dramatic and musical fluency. Here was a composer with a wonderful ear for orchestral colour, who owed much to Berlioz, Verdi and Tchaikovsky. While he clearly belonged to the symphonic tradition of Elgar, his provenance was more European than English, with little trace of the pastoralism associated with Vaughan Williams. Lloyd evidently defied categorisation. He was his own man, composing in his own way.

That fashion and musical politics left Lloyd behind after 1945 was a terrible misfortune. Some of the mud from that debacle still sticks, even if there is now a greater openness to music that is straightforwardly lyrical. For example, Lloyd’s Fourth Symphony (1946) received a critical mauling at the hands of the BBC’s assessors, yet it is always popular with audiences, providing an eloquent testimony of Lloyd’s wartime experiences. His symphonic slow movements are always masterful and memorable; sustained lyricism and formal balance combined to perfection, and the Lento Tranquillo of the Fourth is one of his best.

I discovered that Lloyd’s mature musical language is not regressive, but highly sophisticated and supple, encompassing complex modal harmonies, fluid chromaticism and even tone-rows. He had absorbed the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, while his piano works, many of them written for John Ogdon, are far from exercises in picturesque Romanticism. An African Shrine (1966) is a tour de force of virtuosity and harmonic invention, marked by pounding rhythms and complex textures.

Photo shared with kind permission of William Lloyd. Copyright The George Lloyd Society.

In his later years, Lloyd continued to show great ambition and a willingness to explore the big questions of human existence, something most contemporary composers are reluctant to do. The Twelfth Symphony (1989) is a profound statement of an old man’s spiritual serenity and is filled by many hauntingly beautiful passages. The late choral works are also masterpieces. The Vigil of Venus (1980) has pagan vitality and exultant lyricism, while his exuberant Symphonic Mass (1992) was conceived to offer thanks for a good life, despite its traumas and frustrations. Lloyd was by his own confession an optimistic believer, although not a conventionally religious man. A Litany (1995) is another substantial choral work which sets a poem by John Donne, concluding with the plea:

That music of Thy promises,
Not threats in thunder may
Awaken us to our just offices;

Lloyd responds with a joyful chorus, reminding us that we should never underestimate the power of music to awaken in us ideals and new possibilities. In an age of fake news, social polarisation and terrorism, we surely need more of such music and the hope that it can provide.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, who was formerly Artistic Consultant to The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. He was editor of ‘Reviving the Muse; Essays on Music after Modernism’ (Claridge Press 2001), and he is currently artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society.

To read Peter’s full essay on George Lloyd, The Swing of the Pendulum – George Lloyd and the Crisis of Romanticism.