True to the Tune
George Lloyd was once told his music had "no contemporary significance'. But things are different now, says Richard Morrison.
GEORGE LLOYD? Isn't he the modern composer who writes tunes? And is ridiculed constantly for this strange occupation? 'A lot of people hate my guts and think I'm a complete anachronism,' confirms the man. 'Only a few weeks ago a composer laid into me in The Spectator. He attacked me viciously, as someone who really should not exist.'
Lloyd is 80 at the end of this month, and well accustomed to dealing with verbal abuse. Being attacked is, he reckons, probably better than being cold-shouldered. Through most of the Fifties and Sixties, Lloyd and his melodious, ripely Romantic symphonies (12 of them now) were simply ignored by the musical establishment. Those responsible for programming new music in that doctrinaire era tended to believe that if it wasn't 1 2-tone, it wasn't worth the time of day. 'If I sent the BBC a score in the Fifties,' claims Lloyd, 'they sent it back unread. In fairness, they've made it up to me since.' Why did Lloyd stick to writing in his gorgeously old fashioned style? 'I never wrote 12-tone music, because I didn't like the theory. I did study the blessed thing in the early Thirties. I thought it was a cock-eyed idea that produced horrible sounds. It made composers forget how to sing.'
Whatever else may be said about Lloyd, his symphonies certainly sing. Nor has he ever forgotten about that other small matter: the audience. 'So many people have no religion, no spiritual outlet. So they go for music. You can see it in their eyes when they listen: they are searching desperately for something to feed their souls. Twelve-tone music gave them nothing. Whereas I often get letters from people who tell me that they have had trouble, even tragedy, in their lives - and that when they play my music they feel better.'
That, perhaps, is easily understood. Lloyd has had his share of trouble, and it would be remarkable if his music did not speak strongly to others in distress. He was, however, successful astonishingly early on: three symphonies before he was 20, not bad for a Cornish boy who had hardly gone to school (rheumatic fever struck in his childhood). Then in 1934, he wrote an opera called Iernin, with a libretto by his father. It was staged in Penzance by a mixture of good local amateurs and London professionals. By chance. Frank Howes, music critic of The Times came to hear it 'and wrote a fantastic report in The Times,' remembers Lloyd. 'It was so flattering that people said: "This opera must be put on in London." '
So it was, at the Lyceum. Another opera followed, called The Serf. this time written for Covent Garden. It was not a triumph. 'Albert Coates, who had been a great conductor, was deteriorating rapidly and he made a frightful mess of it,' says Lloyd. 'It drove me out of the theatre, actually. Then the war came, and that was the end of everything for me.'
Lloyd served in a cruiser, accompanying the bleak Arctic convoys to Murmansk. In 1942, the cruiser was blown up. 'I was at the bottom of the ship. Most of the people down there were drowned in oil. I got out, but my whole nervous system seemed burnt out.' They called it shellshock, or PTSD, and many never recover. Lloyd was lucky; his Swiss wife nursed him slowly back to health. 'Even so, it took me 20 years to learn to hold my hand out straight without shaking.' His Fourth Symphony, a strange, haunting work, was written as he recuperated. The work ends with a series of brittle little marches - all forced cheerfulness. 'When the funeral is over the band plays quick cheerful tunes,' is how Lloyd explains it.
Professionally, it must have seemed as if Lloyd was attending his own funeral. He had been commissioned to write an opera for the Festival of Britain 'I was very ill, but I delivered the opera, John Socman, on time, and the Carl Rosa Company performed it. But everybody was fighting everybody else, and I hadn't got the strength to sort it out. The conductor and producer wouldn't talk. Edward Downes, in his first job in opera, had to act as go-between. When I finally heard a performance, it was a shambles. I said 'I'll never go in an opera house as long as I live. In fact I didn't for 17 years.'
Lloyd's life fell apart. 'My health went skew-whiff again. My father died. And I realised that nobody wanted to hear my music.' He stopped composing, and started growing produce: first carnations, then mushrooms. Tucked away in obscurity in Dorset for 20 years, he prospered as a market gardener. His health recovered, and he picked up the threads of his composing career, getting up at dawn to write before the horticulture called. Ebullient works, such as the Ninth Symphony with its 'merry-go-round' finale, date from this period.
Then, miraculously, people started to take notice of his music once more. The pianist John Ogdon championed his piano concertos; Edward Downes his symphonies; Lyrita and Conifer began to record his music; an American orchestra, the Albany Symphony, commissioned him to write several works. 'All of a sudden, buckets of dollars! I couldn't believe it.' The wheel had turned full circle: tonality was back, and Lloyd was in vogue again.
So is his anti-progressive stance vindicated? What of the perfectly rational belief that new music should say something new? 'Well, those who believe that have been proved wrong, haven't they?' says Lloyd 'The new trend is a return to simpler things.'
In fact, Lloyd denies that his unquestionably English sounding music merely reproduces the idiom of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius. 'I was never influenced by all those English late Romantics. The only one I admired at all was Elgar. I couldn't stand Vaughan Williams. But quite honestly it doesn't worry me who I am compared with. I just write what I have to write.
Try Lloyd's music. You may love it for its ardour, or hate it for its complacent retrospection. Either way, it will challenge your assumptions about how 'modem music' should sound. Fellow composers will probably continue to laugh at him. But how many could say 'I write what I have to write' with such conviction?
Reprinted from BBC Music Magazine