Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

The greatest British symphonist you’ve never heard of

If we tell Radio 3 George Lloyd was really a woman, perhaps they’ll finally give him the airtime he deserves

Grade: A

Rejoice! A glorious symphonic cycle by a British composer has been issued as a set for the first time. George Lloyd (1913-98) was treated with lofty condescension by the musical establishment because his twelve symphonies contain barely a single dissonance. They’re sprinkled with jaunty tunes that have the feel of an Ealing Comedy – heresy! Also, it didn’t help that for decades Lloyd made his living as a mushroom farmer in the West Country.

But he was no amateur: he could write perfect fugues as a teenager and by his early twenties had a fine opera under his belt. Then in 1942, the ship on which he was serving as radio engineer was hit by a torpedo. Lloyd nearly drowned in oil; shell shock ruined his health and he and his wife retreated to their smallholding. He continued to write symphonies, but they waited decades for a premiere.

His masterpiece, the Fourth, was written in 1946 and first performed in 1981. Icy glissandos depict the seas in which he nearly died – ‘a world of darkness, storm, strange colours and far-away peacefulness’. There are violent outbursts but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.

In these two boxed sets, Lyrita has reissued all the symphonies in splendid performances by the BBC Philharmonic and Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. Paul Conway’s excellent notes steer clear of exaggerated claims. A quirky bonus booklet gives us 24 photos of Lloyd. In old age he looked a bit like Dame Margaret Rutherford. If we tell Radio 3 he was really a woman, perhaps they’ll finally give him the airtime he deserves.