George Lloyd’s Surprisingly Good Symphonies

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LLOYD: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7 (“Proserpine”) / BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra; Edward Downes, conductor / Lyrita 1135

Here’s an odd recording: the sixth and seventh symphonies of somewhat obscure British composer George Lloyd (1913-1998) conducted by the late Edward Downes. The recording of the Sixth Symphony comes from a BBC studio performance of December 31, 1980, the Seventh from a similar performance of September 15, 1979.

Lloyd and his wife Nancy made their living as “market gardeners,” raising and selling carnations and mushrooms. They made enough to keep alive and allow George to write his music. Following his artistic credo, “I just write what I have to write,” Lloyd sort of popped in and out of the British music scene from the early 1930s until the time of his death. John Ireland was an early advocate; Sir Charles Groves programmed some of his works in the 1950s and early ‘60s; but he never really caught on with the public, despite his strong proclivity towards tonality, until the early 1980s when Downes began performing and recording his works. Lloyd’s two principal influences were Berlioz and Verdi, but he really didn’t sound like either. He followed his own muse with sometimes surprising results, such as the deeply-felt, forlorn slow movement of the Sixth Symphony with its craggy melodic line, somewhat reminiscent of a slightly more modern Mendelssohn. Lloyd really did know what he was about, too, using slightly edgy string and wind figures to play opposite the lyrical melody.

The sprightly, mostly lyrical Sixth, written in 1956, was followed by the epic, dramatic Seventh. Typical of a composer who wrote mostly for himself, it was penned in 1957-59 but languished on Lloyd’s desk until 1974 when he finally got around to orchestrating it. This sounds like a completely different composer; the music is exceptionally colorful in orchestration, showing the influence of Berlioz, and here Lloyd uses more dissonance though not enough to brand him as a modernist in the Stravinskian mold. Themes are more obscure and diffuse, which makes them better fodder for variations as each of the three large movements (15:26, 14:26 and 20:28) unfold. The orchestral forces called for are also huge, including triple woodwinds, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones and four percussion players. The symphony was influenced by the Greek legend of Proserpine, which Lloyd wrote “seems to tell us something about the human condition of having one foot on this earth and another somewhere else – wherever that may be.” The legend is that Proserpine, the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, lived in isolation amid beautiful flowers and limpid streams before Pluto whisked her off to the underworld where she became his queen.

In his early years Lloyd had aims to be an opera composer, his Iermin and John Socman having a brief but spirited vogue, but it was not to be. His symphonies thus became his surrogate operas, and the “Proserpine” symphony is most definitely one of these. The extraordinarily colorful music is both emotionally appealing and intellectually stimulating, including several dramatic moments. By and large, it almost sounds like the work of an entirely different composer from the Sixth. Distant trumpets, swirling clarinets and a plentiful use of the percussion section—triangle, woodblocks and xylophone in addition to the tympani—are hallmarks of this work. The third movement, which is the slow one (“Largo”), felt as if it were dragging somewhat, but the last movement—for all its great length—is like a miniature world in itself, dramatic and powerful.

All in all, this is a stunning achievement and a tribute to the indomitable spirit of both composer and conductor. Recommended for those who think great modern symphonies can’t be tonal!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “George Lloyd’s Surprisingly Good Symphonies

  1. Dear Ms Bayley,

    Many thanks for this review. It is particularly welcome because you make points about George Lloyd’s music which are new and fresh. Your identification of the edgy strings against the lyrical melody in No. 6, for example, is accurate, but not something that reviewers have highlighted before. Your observation about his use of dissonance has never been mentioned by those reviewers who brand him as ‘hopelessly regressive’ and ‘hidebound by tonality’. ( In order to fox those reviewers in one symphony he included one chord with all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, and made it sound so natural that nobody noticed ! He was a true naif – no fool. )

    You may be interested to note that, when conducting, George Lloyd himself used significantly more rubato than Sir Edward Downes, which can be heard in the recordings of the composer conducting. Thanks again, William Lloyd, The George Lloyd Society

    Like

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