When the musical achievement of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the world of West-end Musicals and his predilection to collect theatres and pre-Raphaelite paintings is considered, it is hard to realise that his grandfather -William's father- was in fact a self-employed plumber. William was born into a respectable but quite poor family on 11th March 1914 in London. Lloyd Webber senior was an organ enthusiast - it was his hobby to travel around the country inspecting as many church and civic hall organs as he could afford to visit. Soon his son was accompanying him on these adventures.
William began his career as a teen prodigy: by the age of fourteen he was giving recitals at a number of prestigious venues throughout the United Kingdom. He broadcast on the infant BBC whilst still a teenager.
It was almost inevitable that after winning a scholarship to Mercers School he would progress to the Royal College of Music. It was there that he was fortunate enough to study composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Strangely, the elder composer’s musical style was not to make a huge impact on the younger man. William Lloyd Webber received his Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists in 1933 aged nineteen.
It was about this period that William began to compose music. His first performed work was a Violin Sonatina which is now lost. The first surviving composition is the Fantasy Trio. Curiously, this may have been written for the famous Cobbett chamber music prize: the Phantasy (with a P) was a popular form in the first four or five decades of the last century. There are examples by Bridge, RVW, Britten, Hurlstone and many others. Lloyd Webber spells it Fantasy (with an F) so it is a moot point as to whether it was meant to be entered into the competition. It is interesting that it fulfils Cobbett’s criteria - a single movement work under 12 minutes in length.
This is an attractive piece of ‘rhapsodic’ music which is quite advanced for its time. It is certainly not in the ‘English Pastoral’ school as such. Neither is it Webern - rather more 'late' Frank Bridge or Alban Berg. The general mood is reflective - even if there are some astringent harmonies and progressions. It is well-composed with the parts lying satisfactorily for the instruments. We are fortunate to have this interesting Trio - it was deemed to have been lost but Julian Lloyd Webber found it in a pile of music by other composers in his late father's estate. So it was rescued from oblivion.
The Serenade for Strings is one of the loveliest works in the string orchestra repertoire: it is on a par with Edward Elgar’s and Lennox Berkeley’s pieces of the same name. Lloyd Webber's example has a slightly more complex history than these other two works. The three movements were composed nearly thirty years apart. It was begun in 1951 and completed in 1980. Yet, it is a work that is unified: there is no hint that it is composite. The Barcarole, Romance and Elegy are all romantic without being overbearingly sentimental.
Three Spring Miniatures were originally composed for the piano in 1952. They are ‘light’ music: well-written, full of fun, poetry and lightness and a delight to listen to. Their naïve titles that do not express the flawless artistry of their design - Gossamer, Willow Song and Treetops: they are surely images of the countryside imagined by a townie.
William Lloyd Webber's masterpiece is his orchestral work, Aurora (1951). It is the only piece that the composer would talk about: the only one that he seemed to have enthusiasm for. It is quite definitely a love poem - Julian Lloyd Webber admits this in his interview with Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International. Yet it was a love-poem written in the abstract: it was not inspired by any individual – although, tantalisingly, Julian states that he cannot be sure of this! The listener has to put to one side any feelings of derivation. It is true that echoes of Rachmaninov, Delius and Sibelius can be detected. The opening of the piece has been described as being like ‘Bartok smoothed over by Vaughan Williams’. But it is of little account. William Lloyd Webber was not a trend-setter: he did not intend to break new ground. He used vocabulary that was already available and appealed to his emotions. This is a skilfully composed piece of music with well-wrought structures, harmonies and orchestral colouring. Aurora could be described as being ‘sumptuous’. It is instructive to quote some of the composer's own words in connection with this piece:-
'Arriving from the East in a chariot of winged horse,
Dispelling night and dispersing the dews of the morning
Aurora was the roman goddess of the dawn.’
This short tone-poem attempts to portray the inherent sensuality of her (Aurora’s) nature. If this were the only piece of music written by William Lloyd Webber it would be a considerable achievement.
There is a limited catalogue of orchestral music by Lloyd Webber. It may be that the odd piece will turn up in the future - just like the Fantasy noted above was found by serendipity. There is a youthful symphony which was composed for an examination. I asked Julian if it still exists and he assured me that the manuscript survives.
There are rumours that he planned a piano concerto - but this never materialised. A Nocturne for Piano & orchestra was composed, but it was lost by the publisher. There is also a tantalising glimpse of an orchestral piece he was working on shortly before he died.
William Lloyd Webber was organist and choirmaster at the great Anglo-catholic shrine - All Saints, Margaret Street. He held this post from 1939 until 1948. Church music was to play an important part in his catalogue. Lloyd Webber could easily and quickly compose an anthem or introit for liturgical purposes: he was good at harmony and counterpoint and had an ear for a fine tune. In spite of this fluency his son Julian feels that his heart was not in writing ecclesiastical music.
There was a ten year gap in his church musical directorship duties between 1948 and 1958. In that latter year he took up the post of Director of Music at Methodist Central Hall: it was a long way theologically and liturgically from All Saints Margaret Street. Whilst working at Methodist Central Hall he composed two settings of the Latin Mass: the Princeps Pacis – ‘Prince of Peace’ (1962) and the Missa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae (1979), works that would not have been comfortably at home in that institution. The conclusion drawn is that the director’s job was an economic necessity and that he was largely indifferent to the type of churchmanship.
Other religious works composed over the years include an oratorio on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, The Divine Compassion for tenor, baritone, chorus and organ, two or three cantatas, thirteen or so anthems and three Christmas carols.
William Lloyd Webber’s organ works are a rather mixed bunch. They range from the technically complex to the relatively straightforward and from profound music to the ‘intermezzo’. Yet the entire corpus allows us to see the consummate skill of the composer. There is never a note too many. Lloyd Webber is reputed to have said to his pupils, 'Why write six pages of music, when six bars will do?' The organization and balance of these works are always satisfying. There are a number of pieces designed for practical purposes - the Nuptial March and the Solemn Procession. The Chorale, Cantilena and Finale is as good a concert piece for organ as one finds in the literature.
One of the glories of English Music in the twentieth century is the songs. Most listeners will know at least some of the fine numbers that have been composed by John Ireland, RVW, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney. Very often they are settings of poetry by English poets. William Lloyd Webber has contributed a small but perfectly proportioned corpus of songs. Most of them date from the 1950s and are written in what would then have been regarded as an old-fashioned style. He set a number of well-known poets and not a few unknowns. Lloyd Webber’s songs always reflect the mood of the words. In fact, they are a perfect blend of words and music.
Oddly, the only piece dedicated (but see Nocturne below) to Julian was a song - The Forest of Wild Thyme -it was composed c.1951 and warns of the dangers and hardships that a child may have to endure - perhaps a somewhat morbid idea - but also one that was exercising the mind of a proud father in the aftermath of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.
Having mentioned Julian it is worth noting two pieces that William Lloyd Webber wrote for the cello and piano or harp. The Nocturne was derived from his oratorio, St Francis of Assisi and is a lovely soliloquy for the cello. It is heart-warming to know that the composer gave this work to his younger son shortly before he died. There are also Three Pieces for Cello and Piano of which two have been recorded. These are ephemeral pieces - for younger players - they have titles like 'In the Half-light' and 'Slumber Song.'
It is unfortunate that William Lloyd Webber did not write a Cello Concerto. If he had, it would have joined those by Moeran, Finzi, Bridge and Elgar in the fairly limited (British) catalogue of that particularly gorgeous form. It would also have given his son a possible masterwork to present to the musical public at large.
It is important to understand the sense of disillusionment that entered the composer's soul in the early 1950's. This led him to give up composing and dedicate himself to musical education. Music had changed since the Second World War. Serialism had become the ‘accepted’ structural principle for composing music. New voices were being heard in Europe and from America. It appeared that music having any vestige of a tune was derogatorily regarded as being 'conservative' with a small 'c'. William Lloyd Webber felt that he could not compete with the new music: his works were being ignored and were not receiving performances. A composer writing music that was seen as ‘dated’ would not be the best guarantee of a steady income. When the two boys were born there was a need to have tis security. So he applied for, and got, a job at the Royal College of Music teaching harmony and counterpoint where he had a string of famous pupils including John Lill and Julian Bream. Lloyd Webber gave two lessons to Malcolm Arnold, deputising for Dr Gordon Jacob. Apparently, Sir Malcolm rated these two lectures higher than the rest of his time spent at the RCM!
Another character trait of William Lloyd Webber was his lack of ambition. He was not inclined to push his music into the forefront: he was not a self-publicist. Lloyd Webber would not try to arrange performances of his music – nor did he contact concert promoters or ring around editors of the musical press. So for a period of nearly 20 years his voice was virtually silent. He continued his directorship at Methodist Central Hall and was appointed as Director of the London College of Music in 1964. In his final years he had begun to compose again, most importantly the ‘Missa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae’. William Lloyd Webber died in London on 29th October 1982.
William Lloyd Webber was one of nature's romantics. One cannot imagine him writing neo-classical or serial music. He loved the moods and impressions prompted by the landscape. He had a city dweller’s view of the romance of the country. Yet it impressed him and he tried to recreate that mood in many of his works. There are a number of styles apparent in his works: - the Anglican Church organ loft, English Pastoralism, Delius and the ‘big’ romantics like Rachmaninov and Fauré. But he was no mere writer of pastiche. All these elements are obvious in his music, but he brought his own gifts: skilful structure, memorable tunes, delicious harmonies, sumptuous orchestration and an excellent understanding of his medium, whatever it was.
John France (2002/2014) © (With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay first appeared)