The bombardment of the music-loving public by the great anniversaries of this year—the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi and the centenary of Benjamin Britten—is already well under way. To more refined minds these things seem like stunts and downright commercial opportunism. At a time when record companies are struggling, they provide a superb excuse to reissue, repackage and push out scores of old recordings, supported by a wave of publicity. That in itself is no bad thing. If the anniversaries provide a chance to open the minds of a new generation of people to three of the greatest composers in the history of the art form, that must only enhance what passes for our civilisation.
I want to deal, however, with another musical anniversary before any of these. On June 28, 1913, five months before Britten was born, George Lloyd came into the world in St Ives in Cornwall. St Ives was even then an artists' colony, and Lloyd's parents were well-to-do patrons of the arts. He soon exhibited a talent for music. His father ensured he had tuition, including lessons from the legendary violinist Albert Sammons. By his mid-teens Lloyd was writing music. By the time he was 20 he was writing an opera. By the outbreak of the war in 1939 he had had two operas performed at Covent Garden, and had written three symphonies. But the war changed everything.
Lloyd volunteered to join the Royal Marines. He was a bandsman, which meant working in the engine room when his ship was at sea. In 1942 he was on the arctic convoys. His ship, HMS Trinidad, managed to launch a missile at itself, and the engine room took a direct hit. Miraculously, Lloyd survived: but he was so badly shell-shocked his doctors told his wife he would have to spend the rest of his life in an institution. She refused to believe them. When the war ended, she took him to her native Switzerland to try to help him recuperate. Within a few months he was starting to write music. To start with he could only manage 15 minutes a day before the noises in his head became too much: but within a year he had written one of the greatest symphonies of modern times.
One evening in September 1981 I turned on Radio 3 and heard an astonishing piece of music. I knew it was English; it was obviously a symphony. It was epic in form. I had just missed the opening, I realised, and an hour later it was nearing a magnificent end and I was none the wiser. I knew, or thought I knew, all the great English symphonists, and I knew none had written this. The broadcast was a recording from that summer's Cheltenham Festival. The announcer said we had just heard the first performance of the Symphony No 4 by George Lloyd, who was coming to the stage to take a bow. The applause was ecstatic. I was amazed. Who was this man?