England’s Forgotten Symphonist

A long time blacklisted by the snobbish BBC, George Lloyd is the greatest English symphonist you’ve never heard of

Culture & Anarchy Music

The bombardment of the music-loving public by the great anniversaries of this yearthe bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi and the centenary of Benjamin Brittenis already well under way. To more refined minds these things seem like stunts and downright commercial opportunism. At a time when record companies are struggling, they provide a superb excuse to reissue, repackage and push out scores of old recordings, supported by a wave of publicity. That in itself is no bad thing. If the anniversaries provide a chance to open the minds of a new generation of people to three of the greatest composers in the history of the art form, that must only enhance what passes for our civilisation.

I want to deal, however, with another musical anniversary before any of these. On June 28, 1913, five months before Britten was born, George Lloyd came into the world in St Ives in Cornwall. St Ives was even then an artists’ colony, and Lloyd’s parents were well-to-do patrons of the arts. He soon exhibited a talent for music. His father ensured he had tuition, including lessons from the legendary violinist Albert Sammons. By his mid-teens Lloyd was writing music. By the time he was 20 he was writing an opera. By the outbreak of the war in 1939 he had had two operas performed at Covent Garden, and had written three symphonies. But the war changed everything.

Lloyd volunteered to join the Royal Marines. He was a bandsman, which meant working in the engine room when his ship was at sea. In 1942 he was on the arctic convoys. His ship, HMS Trinidad, managed to launch a missile at itself, and the engine room took a direct hit. Miraculously, Lloyd survived: but he was so badly shell-shocked his doctors told his wife he would have to spend the rest of his life in an institution. She refused to believe them. When the war ended, she took him to her native Switzerland to try to help him recuperate. Within a few months he was starting to write music. To start with he could only manage 15 minutes a day before the noises in his head became too much: but within a year he had written one of the greatest symphonies of modern times.

One evening in September 1981 I turned on Radio 3 and heard an astonishing piece of music. I knew it was English; it was obviously a symphony. It was epic in form. I had just missed the opening, I realised, and an hour later it was nearing a magnificent end and I was none the wiser. I knew, or thought I knew, all the great English symphonists, and I knew none had written this. The broadcast was a recording from that summer’s Cheltenham Festival. The announcer said we had just heard the first performance of the Symphony No 4 by George Lloyd, who was coming to the stage to take a bow. The applause was ecstatic. I was amazed. Who was this man?

The 35 years between Lloyd finishing his symphony and its being performed were extreme in their difficulty even by the standards of struggling composers. Musical tastes had changed, as exemplified by the justified admiration of Benjamin Britten. Lloyd used to say Verdi was his “god”. He wrote, unashamedly, tunes: big, beautiful tunes. His nearest comparator in British music of the time was probably Malcolm Arnold. But, unlike Arnold, Lloyd could not get his music performed. He wrote an opera for the Festival of Britain in 1951 that was under-rehearsed and whose performance was a disaster. On the verge of another breakdown, Lloyd forsook composing. He and his wife settled in Sherborne and set up a successful market garden, growing carnations and mushrooms, but he continued to write, and by the early 1970s there were eight symphonies.

He had, however, been blacklisted by William Glock, the narrow-minded snob who ran the Third Programme, so the BBC’s patronage and exposure were closed to him. In the 1970s the pianist John Ogdon discovered Lloyd’s music and was determined to have it played on what was, by then, Radio 3. He sent the 8th Symphony to the network without saying whom it was by. Only when it had been scheduled for performance, and it was too late to change anything, did he reveal the composer was Lloyd. His rehabilitation had begun.

The day after I heard the first performance of the 4th I went to every record shop in Cambridge trying to buy it, or anything else by Lloyd, of whom I knew nothingthis was before the internet. I drew a blank. It was as if he didn’t exist. Then, about two years later, I was browsing in a record shop in London and found the three Lyrita discs of the 4th, 5th and 8th Symphonies: I bought them and raced home to listen to them. The sleeve notes solved some of the mystery, telling the story I have retailed here.

When I joined the Daily Telegraph in 1986 I asked Alan Blyth, its chief music critic, whether he knew Lloyd. “He’s a funny old boy,” he said, and gave me his address. 

I wrote and requested an interview. A month later, my telephone rang. “My name is George Lloyd. You wrote to me.” I stood up, which seemed only right. “You want to meet me. Are you a music critic?” I told him I was a leader writer. “That’s all right. I hate critics. What are your politics?” I told him I admired Mrs Thatcher. “So do I. You can come and see me.” 

I went at 3pm one afternoon to a mansion flat near Baker Street station and left at about 11pm. We talked about his whole life, his composition, his literary and political interests, his war. It was the start of a friendship that lasted until his death in 1998.

George was a genuinely great man. He overcame adversity and prejudice to give the world the music he felt in his heart. I must have listened a thousand times to his 4th symphony and it continues to overwhelm me, for all sorts of reasons. Amid your excursions into Wagner, Verdi and Britten, treat yourself to Lloyd’s 4th and you, like me, will wonder where he has been all your life.