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George Lloyd’Symphony No. 7 “Proserpine”
A Musical Analysis by Karim Elmahmoudi
Of George Lloyd’s twelve symphonies, his Symphony No. 7 subtitled “Proserpine”, is unique in his oeuvre. It has arguably the widest dramatic and dynamic range of his rich output and uncharacteristically, has a darker tone than most of his works. Beneath this darkness, there is an undying lyricism and yearning. This is a work of great drama and bold moments full of fiery intensity and operatic flare. It ends pessimistically after what must be some of Lloyd’s most aggressive music.
At the time of composition, Lloyd was residing in Dorset recovering from shell shock while he worked as a mushroom gardener. Though his previous commission was from 1951 (the opera, John Socman), Lloyd continued composing epic symphonies with little hope for their performance. The Symphony No. 7 was composed between 1957 and 1959 in Ryewater, Dorset, but wasn’t orchestrated until the summer of 1974 in London.
The ambitious work is in three large movements lasting fifty minutes. The three movements are:
1. Vivo, ma leggiero
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglaise, 2 b flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 b flat trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussionists (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, wood block, cymbal, suspended cymbal, tambourine, snare drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel), harp, celesta, organ, and strings. Despite the expansive orchestra, the instrumentation is used with restraint. The organ is used extremely sparingly only once in the finale.
A common characteristic of Lloyd’s music is a deeply felt lyricism and this symphony is no exception. The first two movements are mysterious, but also breezy, light, and nimble. The third movement is turbulent and intense.
William Lloyd, the composer’s nephew, recalls George was usually reluctant to discuss his methods of composition, however they did discuss the Symphony No. 7 which George considered to be the most profound emotional experience of all his works saying he did not know where these emotions and ideas came from. He “lost himself” in the writing, and the music took him to places and emotional states he had never explored. William also recalls George saying Pervigilium Veneris (The Vigil of Venus) to be his most original and technically adventurous work, Lloyd was most proud of these two works.
First Movement (Vivo, ma leggiero)
Lloyd prefaces the first movement of this symphony with a quote from “A Classical Dictionary” by John Lempiere (printed 1788):
“Proserpine, a daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, was so beautiful that the father of the gods himself became enamored of her. She made Sicily the place of her residence and delighted herself with the views, the flowery meadows and limpid streams which surround the plains of Enna. In this solitary retreat as she amused herself with her female attendants in gathering flowers, Pluto carried her away into the infernal regions, of which she became the queen.”
Quiet tuned percussion and soft, delicate tremolo violins start with a repeated high C over the B minor (B, D, F#) in the low strings, creating a mysterious and ominous feel; there is a sense of impending dread with this soft discord. The 9th of the chord, C# is lowered a half step to C natural creating an immediately unsettled dissonance of the minor second between the B and C. Delicate winds reaffirm the low string melody, now in E flat major, while the tuned percussion ticking clock motif continues on C. A third modulation returns the theme to the low strings but now in E flat minor. Each time, the music grows more expansive – a story unfolding.
The music starts getting more animated and the harmony is unstable, shifting frequently yet remaining firmly tonal. There is a mist obscuring a sight but forms are visible in the distance and start to take shape as the music develops. At 1:40, the opening mystery gives way as xylophone and celesta’s incessant hammering grows louder. There is a lovely rising figure in the winds while the strings slowly descend. At 2:00, the music fades into a lovely A Major 7 (A, C#, E, G#) chord giving a feeling of joyful expectancy because the G# wants to resolve to the tonic of A, which it effortlessly does.
The first section fades and a vigorous second section starts that is much quicker marked Vivo, ma leggiero (light, but nimble). The music before this section could be considered an introduction or a prologue that sets up the atmosphere, and it is here that the first movement truly begins. Viola and celli have a descending motif that introduces the second subject. This music feels like a dance, in 3-4 meter. Even though the opening misty section was in the same meter, there that rhythm felt ambiguous where here it is clearly in 3 beats adding to that waltz feel. The instrumentation is light with airy winds playing frequent ascending runs and many shortened notes (staccato). This music could be in a ballet. There are frequent dramatic shifts that are full of small details showcasing Lloyd’s mastery of orchestration. For example, at rehearsal 6 (2:47), the upper strings and flutes rise chromatically while the lower strings descend similarly as the music diminishes to a lovely and noble transition in the divided string choir (B major to C major to D major).
The overall tone of this movement is of airy joyfulness and youthful vigor. The music is lush but light and expertly crafted. There is somewhat of a Baxian mystical quality with the rapid wind figures, bold themes and lush lyricism, plus extensive use of triadic harmonies and colorful percussion. The movement ends delicately as the music softly fades away with a warm summer glow.
Second Movement (Lento)
The second movement (Lento) is prefaced with: “Pale, beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with calm leaves, she stands
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands.”
This gentle and pastoral movement begins calmly in the middle register with clarinets, bassoons, and violas intoning a long and gentle pastoral. The music ebbs with lyricism and delicate touches. A solo clarinet sings a long melodic line with gentle sweeping strings then is followed by the cor anglais in dialog. A delicate horn solo continues the melody over bird calls. The music is lavish, beautiful and operatic. One can imagine this accompanying a love duet from the aria of an Italian opera. At tempo primo, the opening theme of this movement returns majestically though softly with string arpeggios accompanying. It is graceful and full of wistful sentiment. It reminds me of the night music from Respighi’s The Pines of Rome in how lyrical, delicate, and colorful it is, with masterful orchestration by Lloyd. The movement ends delicately with a long lyrical line in the cello section as high winds are heard as the strikingly lavish melodies fades into the distance. This is music of gracefulness, nobility, and delicacy.
There are few clues of the torment to follow.
Third Movement (Agitato)
The third movement is prefaced with this excerpt from the English poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s The Garden of Proserpine:
“…And all dead years draw thither,
And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
Red strays of ruined springs.”
-Algernon Charles Swinburne
The third movement, marked Agitato, begins vigorously with rapid pulsations in the strings punctuated by brass and percussion stabs. A forceful theme, full of large interval leaps, triplets, and tremolo strings heard in the low register with bassoons, bass clarinet, celli, and bass, is first heard in F# minor and Ab minor. The theme is repeated in mid-register instruments (violas, oboes), and concludes with the agitated rising theme that opened the movement. The secondary theme is a passionately intense version of the Proserpine romance theme from the lyrical first movement spread across four octaves of strings. This time rather than highlighting the lyricism of this theme as heard in the first movement, the melody is now full of forceful blows from the staccato brass and winds adding a sense of doom and urgency.
Additional tension is added by the frequent use of minor second tremolos in the high winds. This emphasis on discordant intervals is heard during a brutal version of the original F# minor theme heard in the low winds and low strings at the start of the movement, now heard in fortissimo brass. The energy dissipates as we hear the first movement romance theme by the strings and falling staccato figures in the winds. Juxtaposing the doom-laden theme with the Proserpine love theme emphasizes the tragic descent she experiences as she is doomed to be queen of the underworld.
The music slows but the sense of darkness and agitated doom is substantial. Lloyd does something interesting with the strings in this calmer section. He divides the high violins into four parts, giving them a choral sense, then repeats this approach by dividing the celli section in three-part triadic harmony. The change in timbre is noticeable and richly layered. A more obvious choice would be to use the string section as a string choir and split the triadic amongst all the strings but here, he is placing more emphasis on each section’s unique qualities and contrasting sound. This also adds a quasi-religioso quality to the music as the tempo gradually increases and the texture thickens.
The bursting intensity gradually builds back up in a way reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in his own version of lovers in the underworld, Francesca da Rimini. There are three general themes interspersed throughout this movement. The doom-laden theme of the final movement, the lyrical romance theme of the opening movement, and the first movement’s breezy, almost ballet-like music, but due to staccato and marcato accompaniment all take on a swirling and frenzied hue in the last movement. Lloyd even has these various themes in counterpoint to each other, sometimes changing the character of the movement suddenly but never at the risk of losing continuity. One of Lloyd’s great skills is in building and dissipating energy in the music but also transitioning (sometimes suddenly) without losing focus of the musical ideas. How one idea bridges to the next is always very clear though sometimes in an unanticipated way.
The work reaches its thunderous climax with a slower tempo version of the opening theme now, transposed from F# minor to B flat minor. The orchestra has reached a frenzy of tumult. The first appearance of the organ is doubling the trombones, tuba, and contrabass on page 213, spanning 21 measures and lasting about 12 seconds. During this same sequence the orchestral clamor is at its greatest and most dramatic peak. After this, the fury gradually subsides. I love this sparing use of the organ and completely understand it from a composer’s point of view that sometimes we will enlist impractical instruments knowing they’ll almost never be used in the performance of our works, but it is how we “hear it”. Even if the instrument isn’t used in a performance, it informs the conductor of how we intend that moment to sound. Some of the writing has a debt to William Walton in his judgement-laden Belshazzar’s Feast, with its rapid frenzy of percussion and 16th notes through the whirlwind of strings.
The music begins a gradual decline reprising the first movement’s wistful theme of a gorgeous aria as Queen Proserpine and Pluto descend to their underworld lair. The coda darkens as the opening theme of the symphony is heard under unsettled strings gradually reducing their register and tempo. The music fades into the abyss with a ticking xylophone first heard in the symphony’s opening as it played a repeated “C”, now dying away in the underworld dropped down a minor third to an “A”. The work concludes as mysteriously as it began.
George Lloyd’s Symphony No. 7 shows what makes this composer great. It is an uncompromising masterpiece that explores mystery, joyfulness, love, poetry, darkness, and intensity. The drama unfolds naturally with his Lloyd’s characteristic craftsmanship and orchestrational flair.
All of Lloyd’s Symphonies have beautiful themes, lyricism, charm, drama but few have such a range of mood as this one. The core of Lloyd’s output are his symphonies and as exemplified here, his is one of the great symphonic outputs of the 20th century. Available recordings:
There are two commercial recordings easily available and both are excellent with fine performances, interpretations, and audio quality. The timings in this document are based on the Lyrita under Sir Edward Downes, however I own both recordings and consider them excellent in their own way. Albany Records conducted by the composer features a finer orchestra, digital recording, and excellent authoritative interpretations. I find it more atmospheric in the first two movements than the Lyrita, but the Lyrita has a rawer edge in the third movement whereas the Albany recording is slightly more restrained yet still intense. In the climax through to the ending of the third movement I prefer the Albany Records recording as the climax and coda are just a bit more thrilling and doomed as the music fades away. Both are excellent recordings.
LYRITA REAM1135: BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Downes [50:18]
rec. 5 September, 1979 (review ~ review)
ALBANY RECORDS 57: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/George Lloyd [48:48]
rel. 13 August, 1993