Born into a poor London family in 1914 William Lloyd Webber was the son of a self-employed plumber but in those days all music was home made and, as his father was keen on organs, young William was able to accompany him all over London to hear the king of instruments in all its glory. It was a fine musical apprenticeship and by the age of just 14 William was proficient enough to give public recitals. As he grew older he spread his metaphorical wings and travelled all over the country playing in several large churches and cathedrals.
It was no surprise when he won an organ scholarship to Mercer's School, a prestigious seat of learning established in the 16th century by the premier Livery Company in the City of London but, like many similar ancient Metropolitan foundations, sadly closed its doors in 1959, dispersing its pupils outwards in the process. Next academic stop was a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition under no less a person than Ralph Vaughan Williams and, clearly a prodigy, gained his FRCO diploma at the age of only 19.
Parallel to his activities as an organist, he began composing, and several interesting works date from this early period including the Fantasy Trio of 1936. The Second World War, however, interrupted everything and although he continued as organist and choirmaster at All Saints, Margaret Street, writing music took a back seat. By the time hostilities ended, therefore, he was more than ready to re-embark on what became his most prolific period of composition. His wartime marriage to Jean Hermione Johnstone, a violinist and pianist, also produced arguably the finest musical dynasty of modern times with Andrew born in 1948 and Julian in 1951.
From 1945 to the mid-1950s William Lloyd Webber wrote music in many different forms: vocal and instrumental, choral and organ, chamber and orchestral. Works from this time include the oratorio St. Francis of Assisi, the orchestral tone poem Aurora (in which there are unmistakable traces of Delius), the Sonatinas for both viola and piano, and flute and piano, plus numerous songs, organ pieces and choral works.
His roots were firmly embedded in the romanticism of composers like Franck, Rachmaninov and Sibelius and because of this he became increasingly convinced his music was out of step with modern times. He was far from alone, however, and other fellow tuneful composers from this period fared just as badly. It is a national disgrace that such a thing was ever allowed to happen and one of the purposes of this series is to shed ever increasing light on an almost lost generation whose rich canon all but disappeared until rescued by a later generation who, with the benefit of hindsight, now recognise the musical emperors of the time were strutting around with no clothes on.
Rather than compromise his tuneful style, William immersed himself in teaching at the Royal College of Music. Then, in 1964, he accepted the position of Director of the London College of Music. Disillusioned with composition, he wrote almost nothing for around 20 years until shortly before his death in 1982, when a sudden flowering of creativity produced a number of works including the massMissa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae.
By nature William was a shy and introverted character. Like many fine musical practitioners he disliked self-promotion and eschewed the cut and thrust which he perceived necessary for the furtherance of his career. He wasted few words, both literally and in his music, and sometimes challenged his pupils about the need to state a theme clearly and concisely rather than pad it out with what others might regard as trivia.
He possessed a remarkable melodic gift which he frequently allied with surprisingly "purple" harmonies. He knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it. When Aurora was recorded in 1986 by Lorin Maazel and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it was a total revelation and the music critic Edward Greenfield said in The Guardian that it was "skilfully and sumptuously scored .... music as sensuous as any you will find from a British composer". Why then has his music remained virtually undiscovered for so long?
Happily, works that have lain unpublished and unperformed for many years have gradually come to light and it is to be hoped the 21st century will, at long last, fully reveal in all its glory, the great British legacy from the middle of the previous century. William Lloyd Webber is an integral part of this period and, thanks to the recorded art, we can listen again to his music as if it was composed only yesterday. Much the best way is to buy the Chandos CD Invocation with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox, CHAN 9595. Enjoy it!
This article, which has been adapted for JIM by the author, originally appeared in the magazine "This England" and is reproduced by kind permission. It appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’, issue 195, April 2013.