William Lloyd Webber: discover Andrew Lloyd Webber’s father and his music

His fame may have been eclipsed by his sons Andrew and Julian but William Lloyd Webber is a composer we should celebrate, says Andrew Green

Who is William Lloyd Webber, Andrew Lloyd Webber's father?

Imagine. You go to your father’s memorial service and are shocked to hear music you never knew he’d written. That was the experience of Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber at Central Hall, Westminster when they joined hundreds gathered to remember their father William Lloyd Webber, following his death in 1982.

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There were more surprises at the family home in South Kensington as their father’s study was explored. ‘My father would never talk about his work as a composer,’ says Julian Lloyd Webber, ‘so it was very difficult to find out what he’d written. Now we found lots of his music, but in disarray, stashed away in cupboards, interleaved with loads of other music. Lots of it unpublished.’

Who was interested in Lloyd Webber Sr then? Today, a substantial range of his music is in print, across the many genres that occupied him in the 1940s and ’50s, especially – from orchestral, organ and chamber music to songs and choral works. Various CDs demonstrate the craftsmanship of someone who was ‘essentially an outstanding miniaturist,’ as the pianist and long-term friend of the composer, John Lill, puts it. ‘He had a wonderful ability to embrace essence rather than excess, yet his music is full of interest and variety.’

Julian Lloyd Webber has laboured long ‘to help make my father’s music available for people to take up if they wish’. One childhood memory perhaps spurred him on. ‘I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of my father playing a recording of his symphonic poem, Aurora, and sobbing while he listened.’

Aurora is the great ‘what might have been’ work – a sensuous, richly scored hymn to the Roman goddess of the dawn. It stands virtually on its own in his output, yet is accomplished enough for conductor Lorin Maazel to have recorded it. He describes it as ‘a lovely piece, well crafted and showing great sensitivity’.

Record producer Andrew Keener, who has overseen two CDs-worth of Lloyd Webber’s music, sees Aurora as ‘hugely opulent in an almost Baxian way. Lovers of Tintagel will adore it.’ And legendary film director Ken Russell reportedly declared it ‘about the most sexual piece of music I’ve heard in my life.’

Why the weeping over Aurora in those early hours? It’s hard not to see the work as a touchstone for its composer’s deep sense of perceived failure as a composer, its status as a one-off work a rebuke, not least to the person he was. The Lloyd Webber family’s one-time lodger, Sir Tim Rice, sums up his former landlord’s predicament. ‘He was a very shy and withdrawn person who nonetheless showed through his music that he was a passionate man.’

This passionate man could do no other than express his feelings in a warm, romantic, even voluptuous style (flavoured by the likes of Puccini and Rachmaninov, Sibelius and Franck) which he could see was losing favour with the British musical elite – rapidly so, as avant-garde adventurism held sway in the post-war world. The ‘shy, withdrawn person’ who squirmed at the idea of promoting himself couldn’t bear the thought that the musical fruits of his sensitive nature would be ‘rubbished’, as Julian Lloyd Webber puts it, by fashion-minded critics.

Andrew Lloyd Webber – now Lord Lloyd Webber – has said he’s ‘101 per cent sure’ his father’s character was what stopped him being an achiever as a composer. William Lloyd Webber’s wife, Jean (a musician herself) pushed him to push himself, to no avail.

Who was William Lloyd Webber?

William Webber (the ‘Lloyd’ was added to differentiate himself from a musical namesake) was the son of a London plumber who lived for the sound of organ pipes. Dragged round the capital’s churches and cathedrals, the youngster didn’t stand a chance. By early teenage years his organ-playing skills and schedule of recitals had captured the attention of the BBC. ‘Absolutely faultless’ was how the late music writer Felix Aprahamian once described to me his playing at this time.

Lloyd Webber dazzled at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Vaughan Williams and made the transition from being a student to a musical theory teacher.

The 1930s were days of optimism for the young musician. Actor Peter Hughes, now in his 90s, sang in the 1930s as treble soloist in Lloyd Webber’s choir at St Cyprian’s Church in London. ‘He was tall, with dark wavy hair and dark eyebrows. His horn-rimmed glasses kept slipping down his nose. A genial man – never a cross word. His eyes always seemed “twinkly” with pleasure.’

Lloyd Webber was to move on to prestigious London organist posts at All Saints, Margaret Street (1939) and the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster (1958), attracted by the organs at which he could thunder away. ‘It was magic,’ his friend and colleague John Chapman once said of his improvisation skills. ‘The organ was an extension of his body and personality. We sat on the edges of our seats wondering what magnificent chord was coming.’

As a teacher at the Royal College of Music (one of the best music colleges and conservatoires in the world), he was more shy and reserved than charismatic, but Lloyd Webber cared for his students. Composer Hugh Wood was one such pupil. Despite being an apparent musical opposite, he insists that ‘I couldn’t have done what I went on to do without him. He taught me things I’ve never ceased to believe in.’

Yet this was of lesser import to Lloyd Webber than one central ambition. ‘First and foremost he saw himself as a composer,’ says Julian. And from the early 1930s into the 1950s, the emergence of his music developed into a steady stream, from the likes of the oratorio St Francis of Assisi and piano pieces commissioned by the BBC, to the Sonatina for viola and piano, Aurora and a string of songs, including a personal favourite, the ravishing I Looked Out into the Morning.

Yet Lloyd Webber was aware that he was swimming against tides of fashion, and acquiring two sons either side of 1950 brought new financial responsibilities. Barring the occasional work, he gave up composing. By 1964 he was the (non-teaching) director of a down-at-heel London College of Music, which he restored to health, perhaps at the expense of his own. He was one of life’s worriers.

‘There was a sense in the family of this unspoken tragedy and sorrow that my father hadn’t done what he wanted with his life,’ says Julian Lloyd Webber. ‘The careers Andrew and I have enjoyed left him feeling ambivalent. He was delighted with Andrew’s success, but got fed up with people saying “Aren’t you proud of Andrew?”. Then it was “Aren’t you proud of your sons?” It reinforced the belief that he hadn’t achieved what he should have done.’

Pianist John Lill saw two sides to ‘Billy’ Lloyd Webber. ‘He had a great and very individual sense of humour… And there was the great delight taken in family pets – not just cats, but a monkey at one time. But I also saw Billy very depressed, very tearful. I could tell he was getting more introverted as he got older.’

And yet, in Lloyd Webber’s final years he was inspired to write from the heart again by a young student soprano, Justine Bax. In a BBC interview she insisted there was never an affair: rather, they were ‘soul mates, kindred spirits. I was his muse’. Bax’s name appears over the score of a Romance for organ. The late song A Rent for Love with its first line ‘If she meets me I will make/Hymns in praise of stolen kisses’ surely bespeaks the muse.

The old flame was rekindled in a number of late works, only to be snuffed out by the composer’s relatively early death, apparently from a blood clot, after a prostate operation. ‘He phoned from the hospital to say he was having a bath before coming home,’ Julian recalls. ‘Ten minutes later we were rung to say what had happened.’

What might a more bold and confident William Lloyd Webber have achieved? Andrew Lloyd Webber once told me his father’s romanticism, combined with his craftsmanship, could have made him a brilliant composer for films or theatre. Julian disagrees. ‘Some say that Aurora is light music, but I don’t hear that. It’s a classical piece, and ultimately I think my father wanted to be accepted in the classical music world. Late works like the Missa sanctae Mariae Magdalenae suggest this was where his heart lay.’

As things stand, is the Lloyd Webber corpus worth exploring? ‘Of course it is,’ says Keener. ‘We’ve been through that period when the dogma was that music must of necessity be progressive and edgy. Now, anything of quality can be seen to deserve respect.’

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But unnecessarily, William Lloyd Webber suffered his neglect and ‘failure’ in silent solitude. Except once. He happened to slip into an orchestral rehearsal at the London College of Music. Suddenly he interrupted, shouting that the student playing was a disgrace – the worst he’d ever heard. And stormed out. The work he felt so strongly about? Aurora.