William Lloyd Webber: Missa Brevis Princeps Pacis

At our Palm Sunday eucharist service (11am, 2 April) we will be singing the Missa Brevis ‘Princeps Pacis’ (Prince of Peace) by William Lloyd Webber (1914-1982).

William with the very famous surname is the father of Andrew, the composer of musicals, and Julian, the cellist, and himself an accomplished – though little recognized – composer. It is perhaps not well known that William’s father, and hence Andrew and Julian’s grandfather, was a humble plumber – with a love of organ music. William therefore became an organist, and his talent saw him win a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Vaughan Williams. He went on to become a professor there, and then director of the London College of Music.

William Lloyd Webber wrote the Missa Brevis Princeps Pacis in 1962 while organist at Methodist Central Hall. He wrote many other works during his long musical career, but his extremely reserved nature and avoidance of self-promotion may have contributed to his lack of recognition as a composer.

His son Julian reminisces about him:

‘He was strangely remote. He would come to my concerts and Andrew’s shows, but he wouldn’t say much afterwards. That kept us on our toes. There was always a sense that things had to be excellent, or else were a complete waste of time.’

The ‘Princeps Pacis’ mass is indeed an excellent composition, combining romantic harmonies, modest musical resources and yet great imagination and broad emotional range, as this recording of the work by the Westminster Singers demonstrates.

But life in the Lloyd Webber household wasn’t all cool English reserve, as the following anecdote from Julian makes clear:

‘Once Andrew and I as teenagers were listening to the Beach Boys, who were new and innovative at the time, and we heard an amazing chord in “When I Grow Up to Be a Man”. We were at the piano trying to work out what it was, but we just couldn’t get it. We went to our father as last resort, as he wasn’t a big pop fan, and found him mixing cocktails. He used to make unbelievably potent cocktails – sometimes people would ask for water, he’d pour it over the ice he’d used to mix the drinks, and they’d go reeling out. Anyway, he went to the piano, played the chord immediately, and told us exactly what it was.’

Sources: Jessica Duchen, 2014, The other Lloyd Webber: Andrew’s father William has always been overshadowed by his son’s musical blockbusters, The Independent, 15 January (including quotes); John France, 2014, William Lloyd Webber: An impressionistic view, musicweb-international.com.

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