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Julian Lloyd Webber: ‘The longest relationship I’ve had is with my cello’

In Julian Lloyd Webber’s Letter to his Younger Self, he reflects on retiring from music after a 30-year career travelling the world.

Celebrated cellist Julian Lloyd Webber grew up in Kensington, London with a composer father, piano teacher mother and older brother, Andrew. You may have heard of him.

After attending the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, he went on to have a 40-year career as Britain’s best-known cello virtuoso, playing with the world’s leading orchestras including the BRIT Award-winning Elgar concerto conducted by Yehudi Menuhin.

In 2014, he announced his retirement from public performance after suffering a herniated disc in his neck. His final public performance was on May 2 2014 at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Now, aged 70, he details in his Letter To My Younger Self how insecurity and worry drove him to success and how he fell in love with Leyton Orient.

The favourite time of my life was when I was 16. When I was 13 or 14 I decided I wanted to be a solo musician so I stopped doing schoolwork and would go home and just sit and practise the cello. Then when I got to 16 I left school. I was so happy then. You believe that you can do everything at that age.

At 16 I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. The fear was something that came to me later. For example, the nervousness of playing in public. But at that time I didn’t feel that at all. I won scholarships to both the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music and I felt on top of the world.

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Both my parents were musicians. They were supportive, but it was a slightly different age. Looking back, particularly my father, who was a very fine musician, was quite distant. He didn’t ever give any advice for the future. They weren’t particularly hands on parents. I remember being allowed to roam around London on my own. At 9, 10 and 11 I had a thing about the London Underground where I wanted to go and visit every single station. So I did. Most of the time I was alone. I don’t think you would do that now.

My parents influenced how I approached parenthood. I have two children, a boy who’s coming up to 30 and a nine-year-old daughter. In the case of my son, I tried to be very close to him, and I still am extremely close to him and, of course, my daughter. We’re much more like friends and have a relationship where I think we could talk about anything, which I didn’t feel was the case with my father.

I’m a worrier. When I was in my last year at the Royal College of Music, I started becoming very worried about earning a living. I couldn’t see how this was going to happen and I didn’t want to stay living at home all the time. I started doing concerts before I’d left and so had begun to build a reputation. I would tell my younger self that was a good thing because that insecurity led me to work really hard to do that. Some of these things that afflict people, like insecurity and worry, they’re not always bad because it makes you do something.

By the time I was about 25, it looked as if I was going to have enough concerts in the diary to be OK, but I would never say at that point that I felt secure. I always felt that I had to keep working and working and getting better. If it was not an insecurity about money then it would be an insecurity about standards. I always wanted to be getting better. I don’t think you should ever feel like: I know this now. There is always more you can learn and you should be learning all the time. The moment you start to think I can do this, things start to go downhill.

I’m not the best person to give advice on marriage [Lloyd Webber has been married four times]. All I can say about it is, I always went into the marriage thinking it was for good. I’m finally married now to a musician [fellow cellist Jiaxin Cheng]. And I think that’s a very good thing. Although people will tell you as a solo musician that you should marry another musician, you can’t tell people how to feel or what to do. Basically I married women I loved and I don’t think you can fight that. I don’t think I could have changed what happened. I had to marry those people.

The longest relationship I’ve had is with my cello. I got it in 1983, I stopped playing in 2014. Over 30 years I was with that cello, that one instrument playing incredible concerts all over the world with some incredible musicians, and it was like a unit. I knew how it was going to play. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a pianist and to turn up at a concert hall, every time a different instrument. The instrument made me feel secure and I think we both knew what each other wanted.

I would tell my younger self about the most extraordinary concert. I performed at the changeover in Hong Kong, the night before the old regime moved out [in 1997]. All the politicians were there from both sides. The first half of the concert was British music and I closed with the Elgar Cello Concerto. The second half was all Chinese music, a Chinese orchestra and a new Chinese composition. I knew it was going to be a big event. I wasn’t ready for the atmosphere. It really felt like the end of an era. The Elgar Cello Concerto is emotional and has this nostalgia about it anyway, that night it felt extraordinary. You could feel it in the hall. A fear of the change. I’ve rarely felt that kind of tension. I’ll never forget that.

The moment you start to think I can do this, things start to go downhill.

My mother had a great friend who lived in Leyton. On Saturday afternoons my mother would gossip around and I was bored. I would have been about 11 then and I thought, what’s all this crowd going up and down the road? Leyton Orient were in the old first division at that time – that was their one season in the ‘premier’ league [1962/63] – and I went off to watch the Orient. And I never turned back.

I have taken my daughter to a game. [Lloyd Webber’s youngest child, Jasmine Orienta, is named after his team] I think I probably took her too young, four or five. We were 3-0 down at half-time away at Crewe. I said to her, “Look, I want to go now I can’t bear this”, and she said “No, we’ve got to stay to the end”. She’s strange with football.

If I was to have a last conversation with anybody I think it would be my father [organist William Lloyd Webber]. There are a lot of questions I have for him. He was a fine composer who stopped composing because the kind of music he was writing was out of fashion. It was only after he died that I was able to find out how much he wrote, and how much music there was all hidden away or lost. There’s a mystery there to me. He was 68 when he died [in 1982]. He’d seen both [my brother] Andrew and me become very successful. Which I think was a problem for him. He was a distinguished musician but what he really wanted to be was a composer and he felt, I think, unfulfilled in that way.

If I was a young musician now I would very much be worried. When I came out of college I had a lot of opportunities and over the last year those have been completely taken away from these wonderful young musicians. It’s going to take a long time before everything is back to normal and during that time, I think there’s a danger that concert promoters will play very safe and may not take chances on some of the young musicians. But the ones who have the resilience to come through this period will be incredibly well placed to exist in the music profession.

The Singing Strad, a three-CD collection of Julian Lloyd Webber’s best performances to celebrate his 70th birthday, is out now (Decca Classics, £20.99)

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