Arts

George Lloyd: The broken man who created healing music

Cornish composer George Lloyd (Getty)

The British composer George Lloyd, who died more than 20 years ago, remains a neglected figure. He had the misfortune to live through the post-war period, when modernist experimentation became the prevailing fashion and composers like him, who believed in writing lyrical music in traditional forms, were often derided. The experience was especially painful because in the 1930s Lloyd had been hailed as a prodigy and a worthy successor to Sir Edward Elgar.

In 1934, aged just 21, Lloyd had composed a Celtic opera, Iernin, which received praise from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Thomas Beecham. But when war broke out in 1939, Lloyd abandoned his creative life and joined the Royal Marines. In 1942, while on duty protecting wartime supplies across the Arctic, he was involved in a horrific accident. His ship, the HMS Trinidad, accidentally torpedoed itself, resulting in injuries which his doctors believed would leave him a physical and nervous wreck for the rest of his life. There was little likelihood of Lloyd ever composing again. But his wife, Nancy, had other ideas, taking him into her full-time care and initiating a series of unusual treatments, including hypnosis, positive thinking, homeopathy and strict diets.

Lloyd was soon composing, writing two large-scale romantic symphonies (the Fourth and Fifth). But if overcoming shellshock was not enough, Lloyd found the musical establishment set against him. The BBC was no longer willing to broadcast his music and, even though he was commissioned to write an opera for the Festival of Britain in 1951, his nerves could not stand the strain of the rehearsals. George and Nancy withdrew from musical life to run a market garden in rural Dorset, although Lloyd continued to produce symphonies, concertos and other works notwithstanding the slight prospects of their ever being performed.

In 1972, Lloyd moved to London, and in the late 1970s he was once again taken up by the BBC. More performances followed. In 1984, he began an association in the US with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned two symphonies (the Eleventh and Twelfth), while also creating a record label, Albany Records, to record and promote Lloyd’s work. The new source of income allowed him to issue yet more discs and to raise his profile.

By this time in his eighties, the composer enjoyed an unlikely renaissance, winning the praise of critics and the concert-going public, as well as receiving commissions for large-scale choral works.

It was perhaps no coincidence that George Lloyd found success in the US because on his mother’s side there was a distinguished American ancestry. His great-grandfather, William Henry Powell, had painted the frieze Discovery of the Mississippi in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. Lloyd’s grandmother was also a noted American painter, Frances (Fanny) Powell. She was one of the founders of the St Ives School in Cornwall, where George was born and grew up.

Lloyd was prolific over six decades, writing 12 symphonies, four piano concertos, two violin concertos and a valedictory cello concerto. His three operas, Iernin, The Serf and John Socman are rarely performed, but there are also piano pieces of striking originality such as An African Shrine, a virtuoso showpiece written for the pianist John Ogdon. The work reveals modernist influences from Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky. This should be no surprise, since Lloyd was never an ideologue or pedant in his approach to writing music. That openness may also explain why he remains a highly respected figure in the brass band world, having composed a series of virtuoso works for brass ensemble, including his magnificent Tenth Symphony.

However, Lloyd’s true masterpiece is his Symphonic Mass (1991), which fuses sacred texts and secular forms with imagination and coherence. Lloyd was not a formal member of any church, but retained a great sympathy for Christian ideas such as compassion and self-sacrifice. His faith also encompassed a strong belief in the healing power of Nature, encapsulated in his most original work: a choral setting of the pre-Christian text The Vigil of Venus, which praises love in all its forms.

Lloyd’s spirituality and aesthetics were derived from the same deep source. His stubborn resistance to the cynical and alienating creeds of modernism allowed him to write music that was directly expressive and ultimately optimistic in tone. Music was for George Lloyd a means of prayer, a way to articulate his connection to the divine energies that inspired him.

His final work, a Requiem for choir, organ and countertenor, written in 1998 to commemorate the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, might be perceived as naïvely religious. Yet listeners can only be moved by the extended passages of mournful expression which lead us towards serenity and transcendence. The attainment of spiritual peace was a hallmark of Lloyd’s later compositions, evidence that the wounds of his youth had been mercifully healed.

Peter Davison is artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society UK. For further information, visit georgelloyd.com