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WILLIAM LLOYD WEBBER
AN IMPRESSIONISTIC VIEW
Just before starting to write this article I did a brief consultation with my musical friends. A simple question really: - What do you know about William Lloyd Webber?
Friend number one was evasive - I think I have heard you mention him before - is he related to Andrew and em, the cellist?
Friend number two was on the ball - 'Ah I remember playing a couple of his organ works - did not realise he wrote anything for orchestra, though.'
My third expert heard me wrong - or was not listening and was surprised to learn I was shewing interest in musicals.
I said - William, Carmel and not Andrew.
'Oh' - was the reply - 'I never knew that his father was musical.'
Perhaps there are very few people who have heard of William Lloyd Webber? At least I would imagine that within the context of this Web site few would expect me to muse on Starlight Express and Cats. It does not take much imagination to divine that he is related to the more famous bearers of this double-barrelled name.
So we must establish straightaway that he is a 'classical' composer as opposed to a composer of musicals.
We can take it as read that he is the father of the sons - Julian and Andrew.
One of the greatest traps we can fall into is imposing a football division style structure on composers. And the reason it is a trap is that on the face of it appears such a good idea. Let me try to explain.
All of us here would probably concede that the Premier Division of 19th/20th British composers would have to include Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Depending on preference we may or may not include Tippet, Delius and Peter Maxwell Davies. But I think we get the drift. Below this would be the first division - maybe names like Holst, Bax and perhaps Ireland. And so on down through the divisions.
Perhaps you may put William Alwyn in the fourth division and I may put him in the second. As a rule of thumb it works quite well - it gives us an impression of where 'our' composer fits into the musical world. But there is a snag. Composition is not competitive like football or rugby is. At least not in the same way. We can easily say that Arsenal is a better team than Rawtenstall Bible Class Eleven - simply by counting the goals scored or the points awarded and averaged out over the season. We cannot say that Elgar is a 'better' composer than Gurney. We can argue that the catalogue is longer, that work for work the structure and content is more or less intense, that it moves the soul or fails to do so. It does not account for the fact that Sir Edward Elgar wrote some poor works and Ivor Gurney wrote a few abiding masterpieces.
So it is with trepidation that I plump for the third division when I place William Lloyd Webber in the hierarchy. He is there with Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, George Dyson and perhaps Arnold Cooke.
At least it gives us a clue to his place within the Pantheon of composers. It says nothing about the quality or worth of his music. That is what the rest of this article will be about.
One of the benefits of writing or talking about music in the opening years of the 21st century is that the style-police do not inhibit what I want to say. If I had proposed an article or a lecture on William Lloyd Webber in the nineteen sixties or the seventies I would have been virtually ruled out of court. It would have been intellectual suicide to consider the life and works of a conservative [with a small 'c'] composer. For one thing he was not at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. The effrontery that here was a composer who wrote approachable music. A consideration of music that derives largely from Franck, Rachmaninov, and Delius rather than Stockhausen, Nono or Berio, Webern or Schoenberg would have ensured that my words passed virtually unheard.
There would have been some readers that would have responded politely; some who would have sneered at the naivety and not a few who would have been openly hostile. I would have been regarded as lacking 'taste' culture and musical understanding.
Yet the situation is different today. It is no longer necessary to describe Stanford as Brahmsian. We do not have to voice the platitude that Parry is as dry as dust. Elgar need no longer be ridiculed for jingoism. We do not accuse Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Moeran of writing music that reminds us of a cow leaning over a fence.
As with hairstyles, clothes and food - virtually anything goes. For the majority of listeners and musical critics there are no taboos. It is possible to enjoy the music of Hubert Parry, Humphrey Searle and Jimmy Macmillan.
We can get pleasure from what appeals to us; we can indulge in pops or in obscurities.
A composer can be considered objectively - perhaps more than at any other time in the last 200 years.
Perhaps at this stage it is appropriate to spend a few minutes looking at the composer's life and works.
When we look at the achievement of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his financial successes and his predilection to collect theatres and pre-Raphaelite art it is hard to realise that Andrew's grandfather and William's father was in fact a self employed plumber.
William was born into a respectable but quite poor family in 11th March 1914 in London. But there was one big advantage - Lloyd Webber senior was an organ buff - it was his amusement and hobby to travel to all points of the compass looking at as many church and hall organs as he could afford to visit.
And it was son like father. Soon William was accompanying his dad on his visits.
The interest and even the obsession was to pass on.
He began a career as a teen prodigy. By the age of fourteen he was giving recitals at a number of prestigious venues throughout the United Kingdom. I understand he broadcast at that young age on the infant BBC.
It seems only natural that he won a scholarship to Mercers School and then continuing as a scholarship student at the Royal College of Music. It was here that he was fortunate enough to study composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Strangely the elder statesman'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 time that he began to compose music - his first surviving composition is the Fantasy Trio. Apparently his first performed work was a Violin Sonatina which is now presumed lost. We are lucky to have this attractive Trio - it was deemed to be 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.
Curiously it 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 and 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, though that it fulfils Cobbets criteria - a single movement work and under 12 minutes in length.
That be as it may, it is an attractive piece of music. It is actually quite advanced for its time. It is certainly not in the English Pastoral school as such. It is most certainly not Webern - rather more Frank Bridge. It is rhapsodic in content and feel. There is a will o' the wisp feel to this music - it is constantly changing. Perhaps that is its attractiveness?
However, it is fair to say that the general mood is reflective - even if there are some astringent harmonies and progressions here and there. It certainly seems to be well composed and lies well for the instruments. I feel that it is a moving piece and is one I would like to have close to me. Not a desert island disc, perhaps, but certainly a nice little number for the chamber music repertoire.
William Lloyd Webber was organist and choirmaster at that great Anglo-catholic shrine - All Saints Margaret Street. He held this post from 1939 until 1948. Now this is a very special church indeed. Many people know of it - it is just off Oxford Street near the BBC at Langham Place. It is a stunning building- although most people I have taken there either love it or despise it. It is regarded by many as William Butterfield, the architect's, masterpiece. It has been described as an 'exotic and mysterious cavern.' There is a long musical tradition at this church stretching back to its foundation in the 1850s.
There is the famous; if perhaps apocryphal story of how a visiting Anglican priest asked to use the Roman Missal. The vicar of the day, Father Tomkinson reputedly replied - the rule here is, music by Mozart, décor by Ninian Comper, choreography by Fortesque (a Roman Catholic liturgist) and libretto by Thomas Cranmer.
Unfortunately nowadays Cranmer has been kicked into touch and a newer more pedestrian order of mass is usually used.
However when William Lloyd Webber took up his position in 1939 all the above credits would have been in place. Cranmer reigned supreme!
Church music was to play a fairly important part in Lloyd Webber's catalogue. He could easily and quickly compose an anthem or introit for liturgical purposes. He had been an organist for most of his musical life. He was good at harmony and counterpoint - he had an ear for a good tune. In spite of this obvious fluency his son Julian felt that his heart was not in writing ecclesiastical music.
There was a gap in his church musical directorship duties between 1948 and 1958. In that later year he took up the post at Methodist Central Hall. Certainly a long way theologically and liturgically from All Saints Margaret Street.
I can only draw the conclusion that the job was in many ways an economic necessity and that he was to a certain extent indifferent to the type of churchmanship.
It is interesting that he went on to compose two settings of the Latin Mass whilst working at Methodist Central Hall. In the early sixties it is unlikely they would have been performed at that venerable institution, although there would be no problems in these current ecumenical times.
A brief look at the catalogue reveals two masses, an oratorio on the life of St.Francis of Assisi, two or three cantatas, thirteen or so anthems and three Christmas carols.
And then of course there is the organ music.
Lloyd Webber wrote two masses - one the Missa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae in 1979 and the other the Princeps Pacis - Prince of Peace in 1962. Both omit the credo.
Both works are beautiful examples of the genre and deserve to be performed in our cathedrals and great parish churches.
The organ works are a rather mixed bunch really. They range from the technically complex to the relatively straightforward and from fairly profound music to the intermezzo. Yet it is a corpus that allows us to see the consummate skill of the composer. There is never a note too many. The composer is reputed to have said to his pupils, 'Why wrote six pages of music, when six bars will do?'
The structure and balance of the pieces are always satisfying. There are of course a number of pieces designed for practical purposes - the Nuptial March and the Solemn Procession. However, the Chorale, Cantilena and Finale is as good a concert piece for organ as one finds in the literature.
On of the glories of English Music in the twentieth century are the songs - or perhaps I should say the Lieder. Most of us will know at least some of the masterpieces that have been composed by Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney. Very often they are settings of poetry by English poets.
Lloyd Webber has contributed a small but, as they say, perfectly proportioned corpus of English Lieder. Most of the songs date from the 1950s and are written in what would have been regarded as an old fashioned style. But that is not a problem for us nowadays - we can accept that he was not at the cutting edge of vocal experimentation and we can enjoy the songs at their face value.
I think I can safely say that each of the Lloyd Webber songs I have heard are perfectly proportioned - they reflect the tone of the words. In fact they are a perfect fusion of words and music.
He sets a number of well-known poets and not a few unknowns. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.H Davies and James Thomson are represented.
One of Lloyd Webber's predilections was to equate love with nature.
'I looked out into the morning,
I looked out into the west,
The soft blue eye of the quiet sky
Still drooped in dreamy rest.
I looked out into the morning,
Looked east, looked west with glee,
Oh richest day of happy May,
My love will spend with me.
Strangely, the only piece dedicated to Julian was a song - it was composed in 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 perhaps 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 the two pieces that William Lloyd Webber wrote for the cello and piano or harp.
The Nocturne was lifted from his oratorio, St Francis of Assisi and is in fact a lovely soliloquy for the instrument. 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. However, they do appear to be ephemeral pieces - perhaps 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 catalogue of that particularly gorgeous form. It would also have given his son a probably masterwork to present to the musical public at large.
As this is a kind of impressionistic overview of the life and works of William Lloyd Webber it is not necessary to give a detailed account of his career as such.
However it is important to understand the sense of disillusionment that entered the composer's soul in the early 1950's. This led him to virtually give up composing and dedicate himself to musical education.
Now the reason for this loss of confidence is not hard to find. Music had changed since the Second World War. Serialism was beginning to become the accepted structural principle for composing music. New voices were being heard in Europe and from America. It seemed at that time that any music that had any vestige of a tune was regarded as being 'conservative' with a small 'c'
And as such was seen as being below contempt. Of course this is the position that I referred to earlier and from which we appear to have moved forward. Today there are composers writing music in virtually every genre possible. From light music to integral serialist works. And some composers write in a variety of unrelated styles. This I believe is all to the good.
When the two boys were born there was a need to make money -or at least a regular income. A composer writing music that was seen as dated would not be the best guarantee of a steady income. So he applied for, and got a job at the Royal College of Music teaching harmony and counterpoint. He had a string of famous pupils - well at least pupils who became famous later in life! John Lill and Julian Bream to name but two. He gave two lessons to Malcolm Arnold as well, deputising for Dr Gordon Jacob. Apparently Sir Malcolm rated these two lectures higher than the rest of his time at the RCM!
Another character trait of William Lloyd Webber was his lack of ambition. By this I mean that he was never one to push his music into the forefront. He was not a self-publicist. He would not try to arrange performances of his music - he did not badger concert promoters or ring around editors of the musical press.
So for a period of nearly 20 years his pen was virtually silent. He continued his directorship at Methodist Central Hall and was appointed as a director of the London College of Music in 1964.
William Lloyd Webber died in London on 29th October 1982.
It is a fact of history that we have this lacuna in his output. There is the odd occasional piece, however the fact remains that his main contribution to the musical world was composed before 1955.
The Serenade for Strings is to my ears one of the loveliest works in the string orchestra repertoire. To me it is on a par with Elgar's and Lennox Berkeleys works of the same name. Lloyd Webber's work has a slightly more complex history, perhaps than these other two works. The movements, of which there are three, were composed nearly thirty years apart. It was begun in 1951 and completed in 1980! Yet it is a work that is unified. When we listen to it we are not conscious that this is composite. There are three movements - Barcarole, Romance and Elegy - all of which are romantic without being overbearingly sentimental.
Three Spring Miniatures were originally composed for the piano in 1952. In many ways they are light music. As Malcolm Hayes has pointed out -they give little hint that their composer was capable of writing the profoundly moving tone poem Aurora.
Yet in many ways these three small tone pictures are masterpieces in their own right. They are full of fun and poetry and lightness. They have naïve titles that do not do express the consummate artistry of their design - Gossamer, Willows and Treetops.
I feel that they are the images of the countryside imagined by a townie.
Perhaps William Lloyd Webber's masterpiece is his tone poem Aurora.
It is the only work that the composer would talk about; the only one that he seemed enthusiastic about. It is quite definitely a love poem - Julian Lloyd Webber admits this in his interview with Rob Barnett from Musicweb Internet site. Yet it was a love poem written in the abstract. It was not seemingly inspired by any individual - although tantalisingly Julian states that he cannot be sure of this!
Whatever the antecedents and inspiration of this work it is a masterpieces. We have to put to one side any feelings of derivation. It is true that we can hear echoes of Rachmaninov, Delius and Sibelius. The opening of the piece has been described as being like Bartok smoothed over by Vaughan Williams. And certainly there are echoes of RVW here. But it really does not matter. We have already conceded that William was not a trend-setter; he did not intend to break new ground. He used vocabulary that was already available and that appealed to his emotion. But then so did J.S. Bach.
This is a skilfully composed piece of music - by structure, harmonies and most certainly orchestral colouring. It could be described as being sumptuous. It is also quite sentimental. Without being in any way mawkish. It is perhaps instructive to quote some of the composer's own words here -
'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 nature.'
If this were the only piece of music written by William Lloyd Webber it would be an achievement.
There is a limited catalogue of music by Lloyd Webber. If you are anything like me you will wish for more. It may be that the odd piece will turn up - just like the Fantasy we heard earlier was found by serendipity. And there is a youthful symphony that was composed for an examination. I asked Julian if it still exists and he assures that the manuscript survive.
There are rumours that he planned a piano concerto - but this never materialised. There existed a Nocturne for Piano & orchestra, but this was lost by the publisher.
There is a tantalising glimpse of a 'piece he was working on before he died.'
So what are our conclusions about this composer.
There is an old story told by Felix Mendellsohn's father. He used to say that when he was a boy he was known as Herr Mendellsohn's son. Now that he is elderly he is known as Felix Mendellsohns father!
And perhaps this is important in relation to William Lloyd Webber.
All of us know Julian the cellist - whether we personally rate him as we rate Rostrapovitch, Dupre or Tim Hugh. We know him to be a fine player and something of a promoter of interesting and little known cello music.
None of us can be unaware of Andrew. Even if 'that' sort of music is not our cup of Earl Gray.
Most of us thank God for his ongoing efforts to keep West End theatre life alive.
All of us know that his musicals are stunningly successful and popular.
Most of us are probably glad he collects fine pre-Raphaelite and Victorian painting.
We must realise that their musical culture arose from their upbringing. Both mother and father were musical. Both encouraged their sons in their chosen profession.
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 perhaps had a townies 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 organ loft, English Pastoralism and of course the big romantics like Rachmaninov. But he was no mere writer of pastiche. All these elements are obvious in his music, but he brought his own gifts:
Skilful structure; sumptuous orchestration and excellent understanding of his medium, whatever it was; memorable tunes and delicious harmonies.
It is of interest that there are some 75% of the William Lloyd Webber's published works available on CD. So it is possible to come to an educated understanding of his style and his achievement.
So lets revisit that awkward question posed at the beginning of the article.
Where then does William Lloyd Webber sit in the hypothetical division table?
It is difficult to say, really. I originally suggested the third! But he is certainly due for promotion.
He will never challenge the big boys - the Elgars and the Brittens.
But if the definition of a great composer is superbly written music that moves and inspires, well, he is up there with the very best.
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