Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) described in 2001 as ‘one of the most substantial composers these islands have ever produced.’ Looking at her musical rap sheet alone is impressive, you name it she’s written for it - symphonies, concertos, ballet, opera, chamber music, the lot.
So who was Elizabeth Maconchy?
Elizabeth Maconchy was born in 1907 in a village in Hertfordshire and spent her teenage years in Ireland. She started playing the piano when she was six and at just 16 years old she got accepted to the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition. At RCM she made a lifelong friendship with fellow composer Grace Williams and studied under Vaughan Williams who also became an important mentor and friend.
In 1930 Maconchy caught a big break when Henry Wood premiered her orchestral suite The Land at the Proms. It was the start of an amazing career. She received commissions from everyone from major orchestras including BBC Symphony and CBSO to individual musicians such as clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and singer Janet Craxton. Maconchy went on to become Chairman of the Composers Guild. She also chaired the Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and helped develop the British Music Information Centre (BMIC), now both part of Sound and Music. Maconchy was made a CBE in 1977 and then became a Dame in 1987.
Maconchy was friends with her contemporaries Grace Williams, Ina Boyle and Britten, later on she also inspired and befriended a new generation of composers including Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett.
RCM launched her phenomenal talent into the world but like many women Maconchy dealt with her fair share of misogyny and sexism. She was denied the Mendelssohn Prize enabling overseas study by the college director Sir Hugh Allen because she ‘will only get married and never write another note.’
Maybe Maconchy thought she’d be compared unfavourably to other composers because of her gender if she allied herself to a particular school of composition. Whatever the reason Maconchy forged her own path, composing in a unique musical language and not getting bogged down in the various schools and isms going on the rest of the musical landscape of the time. She rejected the English pastoralism of her mentor Vaughan Williams, if anything she was inspired by East European modernism from Bartok and Berg, although her later work moves on from that to create her own distinctive style.
Her fiercely independent voice means Maconchy’s music is more accessible, there’s something for everyone. You have the masterwork of power and strength in her Symphony for Double String Orchestra, delightly cheeky comic opera The Sofa, uplifting jubilation in her song This Day to the patriotic Proud Thames. Maconchy’s body of work explores the whole range of the human experience. Maconchy was continually innovating, constantly challenging herself and doing the unexpected whilst still having a clear sense of her music and style.
So, Maconchy wrote tons of music for different ensembles but she kept coming back to the string quartet. She wrote 13 string quartets over a 50 year period. They act almost as benchmarks to the whole of the mid 20th century, from the 1st in 1932 to the last in 1984.
String quartet no 3 is her shortest quartet but it packs in the drama. Written in 1938 No 3 sees Maconchy really getting into the nitty gritty of complicated family relationships. The piece is a 10 minute psychological thriller, seeing the four instruments engaging in a tense disagreement.
The only recording of this so far breaks the piece into 5 broad sections. The first section is a Lento, slow and full of unspoken tension, expertly paced and drawn out to heighten the drama. This leads into a Presto - frenetic and passionate. There’s a brief respite with a seductive Andante, sweet and manipulative before moving into another anguished Presto. This is succeeded by a calmer Poco Largamente which brings the piece to a close.
The interactions between the strings really seem like a story unfolding, the chords come together but never quite resolve themselves, just bouncing off onto another phrase, another sentence.
The four voices are constantly intertwining, breaking into canons then merging again only to separate completely once more going all the way through until coming to a final uneasy conclusion.
To hear this fascinating work performed come along to Illuminate at RCM on 16th February 2019!
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy is such an inspiration, her musical integrity, individual sound and breadth of composition continue to delight audiences. More recordings of her music are appearing and her work is regularly performed around the world.
Here’s to Dame Elizabeth!
Written by Elizabeth de Brito
You can now support Illuminate Women's Music 2019 season I and II!
Dr Helen Thomas