George Lloyd wasn’t a Catholic. But his Symphonic Mass is a masterpiece of joy

Lloyd described himself as an optimistic believer, though he didn’t belong to a church (Getty)

The Cornish composer George Lloyd (1913-98) experienced an unlikely renaissance during the 1980s, leading to new creative partnerships. The Albany Symphony Orchestra commissioned his Eleventh (1985) and Twelfth (1989) symphonies, completing a cycle the composer had begun six decades earlier.

At this point, Lloyd could easily have ceased composing, but he received commissions for two major works for choir and orchestra: the Symphonic Mass (1992) and A Litany (1995). Both works were in effect choral symphonies on a grand scale, but not without precedent in Lloyd’s oeuvre.

A cantata from 1980, The Vigil of Venus, was a setting of an anonymous Latin poem, Pervigilium Veneris – an ambitious nine-movement work modelled on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. While the Vigil was another symphonic conception, it also reflected that Lloyd was a frustrated opera composer, having abandoned the genre in the early 1950s. All of Lloyd’s late choral pieces owe a debt to Verdi and Puccini’s melodramas with their intensely lyrical expression.

The Vigil of Venus describes a nocturnal “rite of spring” in late Roman Sicily, as crowds gather to praise the goddess for her fertility and the joys of sexual love, illustrated in the poem by a plethora of classical references. Lloyd’s musical response is colourful, exuberant and celebratory, yet retains a strong sense of ritual so that, while the imagery is often orgiastic and the forms appropriately free, the music never becomes violent or chaotic. The text’s eroticism and primitive spirituality are matched by music that is romantic, archaically modal and full of rhythmic life.

It has been observed that, until its concluding verses, the Vigil’s text lacks a directive ego. Listeners feel they are part of an excited crowd. Drawn into the general dance, we are invited to surrender to Eros, summarised in the poem’s refrain, Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet – “now learn to love who have never loved, now those who have loved must love anew”. Only near the work’s end does the solo tenor adopt the poet’s subjective voice, as he mourns the silence of his muse. Yet love heals him, so that he is once more able to sing and dance.

In the early 1980s, the symbolism of a lyrical voice restored had a wide cultural resonance, because of the destructive influence of post-war modernism which had stifled the expressive freedom of many British composers. On a more personal level, The Vigil of Venus anticipated the revival of Lloyd’s reputation as he entered the most successful phase of his creative life and, as a heartfelt tribute to the goddess, it was an expression of gratitude to his wife Nancy, who had aided his recovery from serious injury after the Second World War.

Thankfulness also motivated the composition of Lloyd’s choral masterpiece, the Symphonic Mass (1992). Lloyd confessed himself an optimistic believer, although too free-spirited to belong to any church.

Indeed, the outsider’s plaintive voice is often at odds with the congregational proclamations of the Mass, echoing the poet’s ambivalence towards the enthusiastic crowds in The Vigil of Venus. Lloyd highlights the opposition between the personal crisis of the romantic artist and the shared confidence of Christian belief.

The work’s Kyrie opens angrily, while its Christe provides the solace of the work’s main hymn-like theme. But the climax of the Symphonic Mass occurs at the end of the Sanctus in music of exuberant praise. An ecstatic eight-note dissonance seems momentarily to compress heaven and earth into a single chord.

By comparison, Lloyd’s Agnus Dei aspires to serenity and acceptance. Only a descending 12-tone chromatic motif played by the trumpet reminds us of former agonies and heroic striving.

Lloyd’s last work for choir and orchestra sets verses from A Litany by the metaphysical poet John Donne. Donne’s wit and wisdom dazzle the reader, and such intellectual gifts encouraged his vanity. In A Litany, Donne asks for God’s deliverance from such fantasies. The contradictions of the creative artist are further exposed, as Donne shuffles his narrative voice between that of priest, poet and mundane sinner, revealing a conflict between his public and private face, between what is declared to others and what whispered only to God.

Donne became a minister in the Church of England, despite a recusant background, and his Catholic sympathies are manifest in his lavish praise of the Virgin Mary; stanzas realised by George Lloyd as an unaccompanied motet of Brucknerian grandeur.

Lloyd could, like Donne, be vain and narcissistic, doubting and tormented; a storm of the human heart becalmed only by the ineffable consolation of the “blessed and glorious Trinity”, which Donne describes as “bones to philosophy, but milk to faith”; words eliciting from Lloyd music of soaring delight for solo soprano.

In the work’s final movement, addressing Christ directly, the poet pleads, “Deliver us from death by dying,” before identifying music as the natural medium of the Holy Spirit and the true language of prayer.

In response, Lloyd gives joyful voice to souls liberated from fear and weakness, at last able to know God’s purpose revealed in and inspired by the beauty of music.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, who is currently artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society. Recordings of all three works conducted by the composer can be obtained from the Society’s website,