Soapbox: Elizabeth Maconchy
In his article ‘England and the Folk-Art Problem', published in the magazine ‘Modern Music' in 1941, Benjamin Britten defined two major schools of British composers – one with Parry as its figurehead, which “stressed the amateur idea and encouraged folk-art, its collecting and teaching”, while the other one with Elgar represented “the professional point of view, which emphasizes the importance of technical efficiency and welcomes any foreign influences that can be possibly assimilated”. Pointing out that the influence of Parry had largely vanished by 1930, and the Elgarian approach had asserted itself, Britten went on to list several composers as the prime examples of the latter tendency.
One of these was Elizabeth Maconchy, whose music Britten described as “[owing] much to the strong rhythms and acidulous harmonies of Bartók”. Although in some of his early letters Britten expressed his dislike of some of Maconchy's music, nevertheless his public observation in an American music magazine can be seen as an act of appreciation of Maconchy's music and his willingness to bring it to a wider audience.
When I was a student at Imperial College , I often attended the lunch-time concerts held on campus. On one such occasion I heard a string quartet (No. 4 to be exact) by Maconchy, a composer unknown to me at the time. The performance made a lasting impression. In this piece, and in her other works that I continued to discover over the following years, there was a constant display of profound emotion and dramatic interest, and yet the expression employed was always economical - every note was essential to the fabric of the music.
Born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, on 19 March 1907 , to Irish parents, Elizabeth Maconchy went to study piano with Arthur Alexander and composition with Charles Wood at the Royal College of Music in 1922. Later on she became a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom she cited as one of the two major influences on her music. A travelling scholarship enabled Maconchy to study for several months in 1928 with Karel Boleslav Jirák (1891-1972) in Prague . It was at this time that she completed her first major work, Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1928) , which received its first performance in Prague in 1930 with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jirák, and the composer Erwin Schulhoff as soloist. Although in parts the influence of Vaughan Williams can be detected - most evidently in the second and third movements - it was clear from the outset that Maconchy's melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and structural thinking were leaning towards Berg and Central European modernism, notably Janácek and Bartók; in fact, it was the latter that Maconchy cited as the other major influence on her after discovering some of his piano music.
Maconchy's music began to capture public attention when Henry Wood gave the premiere of her orchestral suite The Land (1929), named after an eponymous poem by Vita Sackville-West, in August 1930 at the Proms. Just a week before the premiere of The Land , Maconchy married William LeFanu, a historian and scholar from a well known Irish literary family, and settled in London . However, only a year or so later, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Although she refused to take up the doctors' advice and move to Switzerland , the family moved to the country – first to Brighton , then to Kent . It was around this time that Maconchy wrote the first of her remarkable series of string quartets.
It is impossible not to acknowledge the importance of Maconchy's thirteen string quartets - from No. 1 (1933) to No. 13 Quartetto Corto (1984) - in any discussion of her music; they remain her best-known works. Like Beethoven, Bartók, Shostakovich, Bacewicz, and Carter, string quartet is the genre to which Maconchy kept returning at crucial moments of her creative life. The cycle offers a crystallised essence of her entire output; they are doubtless some of the finest in the repertoire, and the most remarkable set to have come from the pen of an English composer. In an article on quartet writing, Maconchy wrote: ‘Music means different things to different people: but for those to whom music is an intellectual art, a balanced and reasoned statement of ideas, an impassioned argument, an intense but disciplined expression of emotion - the string quartet is perhaps the most satisfying medium of all.'
No matter what structural format and instrumental characters Maconchy chose to use, her mastery in contrapuntal writing is most evident in all her string quartets. Comparing, for example, the early, one-movement No. 3 (1938), the dramatic No. 8 (1966, which has an early instance of Maconchy's use of aleatoric writing in the third movement - see fig 1.) and the compact and rhapsodic No. 11 (1977) makes a fascinating study which reflects Maconchy's constant search for new means of expression while maintaining a strong personal voice.
Maconchy's fondness for strings was not limited to the quartet medium; all through her career, she produced works which featured strings, either alone - Theme and Variations (1942), Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953), Music for Strings (1983) and Life Story (1985), or in an accompanying role to soloist(s) - a string of concertinos for clarinet (1945), piano (1949), oboe and bassoon (1949) and bassoon (1952) respectively, the lyrical Variazione Concertante (1965) for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings and the dark Epyllion (1975) for cello; they show the composer's understanding of string instruments and her ability to constantly re-invent the sound of a body of strings just as remarkable as Britten, Tippett and Walton. Even in an orchestral context, such as the Serenata Concertante (1962), Sinfonietta (1976) and the now withdrawn Three Cloudscapes (1968) - see fig. 2, the strings gives the overall orchestration a luminous sheen that is unique to Maconchy's music.
While string quartets and other instrumental music continued to appear at regular intervals right up to the mid-1980s, following the completion of a triptych of one-act operas - The Sofa (1957), The Departure (1961) and The Three Strangers (1967) - Maconchy's output made a gradual shift towards vocal music - Ariadne (1970) for soprano and orchestra, the dramatic cantata Héloïse and Abelard (1978), several song cycles including Sun, Moon and Stars (1978), My Dark Heart (1982), and a handful of highly original choral pieces with unusual instrumental accompaniments - And Death Shall Have No Dominion (1969, with brass octet), Two Settings of Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1976, with brass septet), O time Turn Back (1984, with wind quintet and cello) and one of Maconchy's masterpieces, the exquisite The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1978, with flute, viola and harp). - see fig. 3
Lutoslawski, a composer who shared Maconchy's passion for the music of Bartók and who died in the same year as Maconchy, once described composition as a search for listeners who think and feel the same way he did. In that sense, Maconchy's music will continue to find its audience, just as her String Quartet No. 4 opened up a door for me to the discovery of the music of a remarkable composer.
Acknowledgements: the author would like to thank Dr Nicola Lefanu for her assistance and permissions, John Fallas for proofing and useful suggestions, and Malcolm Crowther for the rarely seen photograph of Maconchy.
Her complete string quartets and a selection of orchestral music are available on Forum and Lyrita respectively. New recordings of her choral music, by the BBC Singers conducted by Odaline de la Martinez (who also recorded The Dark Heart), was released in 2007 on Lorelt Records Ltd (LNT 127). A disc of Maconchy's orchestral music, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez is also scheduled to be recorded and released in 2009/10.
There will be a rare chance to hear Maconchy's dramatic cantata Héloïse and Abelard at LSO St Luke's on the 9th of November.
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