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Our finest lost composer

Now performances of her work are taking place across the country, has the time come to recognise Elizabeth Maconchy as Britain's first great female composer?

By Martin Anderson

The Independent, 13 April 2001

The news that Diana Ambache's ensemble The Ambache is touring the country with a series of performances of Elizabeth Maconchy's Oboe Quintet and Theme and Variations for strings brings a salutary reminder that we have been mindlessly neglecting one of the most substantial composers these islands have yet produced. Maconchy's music combines a lyrical English pastoralism with a tough, no-nonsense, Central European astringency, the whole infused with a charge of free-wheeling energy. And we never hear a note of it.

Maconchy ­ "Betty" to all who knew her ­ was born, in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, on 19 March 1907, to Irish parents who took the family back to the "ould sod" after the First World War. There she grew up, far from the musical establishment: when, as a shy 16-year-old, she came to London to study with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, she had heard an orchestra only once, in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

At the college, under VW's admiring tutelage, she shifted the focus of her attention from the piano to composition (she had been writing music since she was six) and soon scooped up a series of awards ­ though not the Mendelssohn Prize, which enabled study overseas, because, as the college's director glibly told her, "you will only get married and never write another note". Vaughan Williams was less patronising and more perceptive: in his final report he wrote that he was "very sorry to lose her ­ but I can teach her no more ­ she will work for her own salvation and will go far".

Acclaim was not long in coming. In 1929-30 she studied with Karel Jirek (another unfairly neglected composer) in Prague, where on her 23rd birthday her Piano Concerto was performed by no less a soloist than Erwin Schulhoff, who was to be murdered by the Nazis 13 years later. The big break came in 1930, in the week Maconchy married the medical historian William LeFanu (the composer Nicola LeFanu is their daughter). On the off-chance, she had sent the score of her orchestral suite The Land to Sir Henry Wood, and when he conducted it at the Proms to rapturous applause, her career was launched.

But it almost stopped as soon as it started: in 1932 she contracted tuberculosis, which had killed her father and was later to carry off her younger sister. There were no drugs to tackle it in those days; instead, Maconchy took herself off to the coast and seems almost to have willed herself better. Her energy seemed unquenchable: now with a family to raise, she threw herself into music administration, first as an indispens-able ally of Anne Macnaghten, founder of the Macnaghten-Lemare concerts, then, in 1959, becoming the first chairwoman of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and succeeding Britten as president of the Society for the Promotion of New Music.

Maconchy at 80 All the while, she was composing assiduously, earning admiring reviews abroad: works of hers were performed at the festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague (1935), Paris (1937) and Copenhagen (1947). But at home she often encountered prejudice: the genteel critical fraternity of mid-century Britain found the unabashed, almost ferocious intellectual passion of her music too much to take ­ "aggressive", sniffed Eric Blom, unnerved that a woman could demonstrate such wanton muscularity. The dynamism of Mac-onchy's style is seen at its most direct in the series of 14 string quart- ets that occupied her between 1933 and 1984 ­ alongside the 15 of Robert Simpson, the most important quartet cycle by any British composer, and an achievement no other woman composer has come near.

She had discovered the quartets of Bartok while still a student and was bowled over by their freshness and disregard of convention. And as a first-rate contrapuntist, she felt entirely at home in the medium of the quartet. "The very limitations of writing for a quartet are a stimulus and a challenge," she later wrote. Without the power and contrasts of colour possible in the orchestra, effects are obtained in a different but equally telling way ­ by the creation of dramatic tension between the four voices. For the sake of analogy, we may regard the four players as four characters engaged in an impassioned debate, an argument to which all four are totally committed.

Since Maconchy never took the easy way out, the result was music of searing honesty, as much in her larger-scale works as in the smaller forms of chamber music. There's a symphony (1945-48) that was premiered by Sir Adrian Boult, another for double string orchestra (1952-53), a Sinfonietta (1975-76) and other orchestral pieces, concertos and concertante works for piano, violin, viola, cello, oboe, clarinet, bassoon; seven operas (the first, The Sofa, written in 1957 to a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the widow of her former teacher); three ballets, music for all manner of chamber-musical combination and a startling quantity of vocal and choral music.

The Ambache's welcome efforts reveal only the very tip of a scandalously neglected iceberg. And audiences would respond to her music immediately if they got a chance to hear it. Although she gradually moved away from tonality (Berg had been another early influence), she never entirely abandoned a sense of key. Her music is often fiercely dissonant but never gratuitously so, always as a result of motivic argument. Her acute sense of rhythm can produce an electrifying tingle in the nape of the neck. Her use of instrumental colour is piquant, tart, fresh. And her structures are never static: they bowl along with a long-legged vigour that is inordinately exciting. Yet her music had begun to gather dust long before her death in 1994. It's high time we blew it off.

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