A British Arctic Symphony

Once almost forgotten, the Cornish composer George Lloyd has been rediscovered. Serving on the Arctic convoys and then retreating to Switzerland, Lloyd returned to our shores to write some of our finest 20th-century music. 

Recently issued by the Lyrita record label is a definitive collection of symphonic music by another of our country’s many overlooked composers, the Cornishman, George Lloyd ~ a figure who, after war service in the Royal Navy on HMS Trinidad, sought mental refuge and spiritual self-repair in the peace of Switzerland; and when back in England, in market gardening and mushroom farming, of all things, but with the early mornings of his horticultural day devoted to composing. 

 Festival of Britain

The Symphonies 1-6 and Agincourt-themed Overture, John Socman (written for the 1951 Festival of Britain) are presented on Lyrita’s handsome box-set, with not only detailed programme notes by Paul Conway and a fascinating assessment of Lloyd’s life and times ~ childhood in St. Ives, to inter-war years questing for recognition ~ but a photo-album, too, of the composer with fellow musicians, friends and family. The latter, it becomes apparent, were very important to Lloyd: his father was a collaborator on operatic ideas; and the composer’s marriage very likely saved his sanity, following the trauma of war spent in the Arctic convoys.

 From the new box-set of discs, I have chosen for review the hugely-impressive, splendidly-designed musical architecture that is the lyrical, hour-long Symphony No. 4, written at the war’s end and subtitled, ‘The Arctic’. Having heard Lloyd’s music very occasionally in the concert-hall (The Vigil of Venus some 25 years ago) it struck me as I listened to Symphony No. 4 how, actually, poorly served we are for choice by our orchestras today ~ as this Fourth Symphony by Lloyd is a masterpiece, and I simply cannot understand why it is not regularly played and broadcast in this country. It actually fell to an American orchestra, New York State’s Albany Symphony Orchestra, to perform the piece before the microphones (in a rich, wide acoustic) under the composer’s baton ~ although to be fair to our own native musicians, the bulk of the box-set displays the equally virtuosic playing of Manchester’s BBC Philharmonic.

 Proud stoicism

Noble horn and brass statements give a proud stoicism to this extensive musical drama (not an obvious programmatic description of frozen wastes, perhaps, but a complicated, personal response, in terms of heightened feelings, to extraordinary surroundings and times) ~ a first movement of Sibelius-like stored energy, yet filtering away into moments of sustained lyricism. In the slow movement, such lyricism almost makes you wonder as to whether the composer had visions of sunny pastoralism in the Arctic: so carefree does it seem.

I kept being nagged by a feeling when listening that I could also hear an American-type idiom in the air ~ as if US composer, Roy Harris, had also waved a wand over the score, bringing his muscular, taut tonality (evoking black pine forests and rivers of snow water) to the proceedings. But nothing can prepare you for the 20-minute-long final movement: a piece that I have since played three times since being sent the CD. With perfect, sure footing in its initial sequences that make complete ‘conversational’ sense (no idle note-spinning here), a quietly-confident, striding-out march-theme sweeps up through the orchestra ~ bringing out playing of undoubted, infectious, even hypnotic spirit.

The striding theme reappears in the movement, leading us to a great, optimistic conclusion ~ and again causing the listener to ask: could this really be the work of a man so recently scarred by war? Truly must George Lloyd have been a man of great inner strength. 

Stuart Millson

CD details: George Lloyd, Symphonies 1-6, Lyrita, SRCD.2417 (This article first appeared in The Quarterly Review.)