Books: The book that changed me - julian lloyd webber

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The Hill of Dreams

by Arthur Machen

When did you first read it?

I came across it in 1976. The composer John Ireland was heavily influenced by Machen and at the time I was recording his piano trios. Turning pages was a guy called Christopher Palmer, a great orchestrator and arranger. He was a real John Ireland enthusiast, and read a lot. He told me I had to read .

Why did it strike you so much?

It is almost certainly Machen's finest book, his masterpiece. It's obviously autobiographical. The hero is a young boy, Lucien Taylor. He grows up in Wales, as did Machen. Basically, things happen in the book that I can relate to very strongly. Firstly, he loves the countryside, as do I. The descriptions of places, places that are still unchanged today, are some of the finest descriptions of the countryside that I have ever read.

Then Lucien meets this girl and they have an affair, and it's so beautifully written. He finally comes to London and tries to make it as a writer. A very important theme in the book is that soon after that he hears that this girl has married somebody else. Yet he protects his image of her, whatever else she has done; it's how he remembers her. He doesn't want to let it go. I can relate to a lot of that.

The occult is not as big a feature here as it is in Machen's other works, but you get a very strong sense that the girl has almost been sent to him by this old, witchlike woman who lives in a cottage. In the end, Lucien dies a very sad death through drugs and despair. Despite that, I could identify with many of the ways he thought about things. But this character gave up, and I don't think I would.

The book has even had an effect on me musically. There is one major work for cello by John Ireland and he actually said, unless people have read Machen, they won't understand my music. I think it was an overstatement, but certainly it influenced the way I play that piece.

Have you re-read it?

It's not a book I personally would re-read very often because it's quite depressing.

Do you recommend it or is it a private passion?

I'm not sure if it's in print. Christopher Palmer did a complete edition of Machen for Oxford and that might still be available. I have got some copies and I do hand them out, but it's difficult to recommend it because people's reactions vary enormously. My mother hated it; but even she could see it was beautifully written. I think she disliked it because there was a lot of my father in Lucien; but I never discussed that with her.

'Cello Moods' (Philips) is released on 26 April