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Composers

Elizabeth Maconchy

(1907- 1994)

Elizabeth Maconchy was born in Hertfordshire, England, but raised near Dublin, Ireland, before moving to London aged sixteen to study at the Royal College of Music. Maconchy was among the most gifted and determined of the group of RCM composers in the late 1920s, including Lutyens, Grace Williams, Dorothy Gow, Imogen Holst and Ina Boyle.

Maconchy’s composition was greatly encouraged by her teachers Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Tragically, the Director Hugh Allen withheld the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize for Composition from her, arguing that there was no point, since she would only get married and ‘never write another note’. However, the award of the Octavia Travelling Scholarship in her final year at RCM allowed her to study in Europe. Her chamber music was soon regularly performed and broadcast internationally. She experienced another setback when she contracted tuberculosis and was forced to move to the country, cutting her off from London.

During World War II, Maconchy lived with her family in Shropshire. However, after the war the family moved to Essex with easier access to professional opportunities and contacts. There were still considerable barriers, but she composed steadily, including three chamber operas, The Sofa, The Three Strangers and The Departure. Recognition gradually followed: in 1959, she was the first female head of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, and in 1976, following Britten’s death, she led the Society for the Promotion of New Music. In 1977, she was made a Commander, and ten years later, a Dame of the British Empire. She died in Norwich in 1994.

Maconchy composed in all genres with single-minded ferocity, undaunted by the relentless sexism which surrounded her, and arguing that the ‘great thing is for the composer to keep his head and allow nothing to distract him’. This attitude reflects both her personal mission and the wider modernist musical landscape in the 1950s, which encouraged a turning away from the world in favour of ever more esoteric musical languages. She deserves a significant position within British music, not least for her thirteen string quartets (1933-84).

While Maconchy favoured traditional classical forms, her melodies are often angular, her textures highly wrought and her harmony – although essentially tonal – richly complex. Her music for solo voice includes works with orchestra such as the dramatic monologue for soprano Ariadne (1970/1, unrecorded), the beautifully coloured My Dark Heart (1981) for soprano, wind and strings, and over forty songs for voice and piano, many still unknown.

Her vocal writing is demanding but highly expressive. Early songs like the folklike, lilting ‘Meditation for his Mistress’ (1928) and ‘Have You Seen but a Bright Lily Grow’ (1929) have instant appeal. Later songs are dramatic and compelling, such as the Four Shakespeare Songs (1956, 1965); ‘Take, o Take Those Lips Away’ is especially magical. The three late settings of Donne are a profound meditation on the passing of time, (‘I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun/ My last thread, I shall perish on the shore’). Her taste in poetry is typical of its time, including many anonymous folk-verses, cycles of Shakespeare and Donne, and individual settings of Herrick, Rossetti, Emily Brontë, Marlowe, Shelley and Auden.

Useful sources include Rhiannon Mathias’s study Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music. A Blest Trio of Sirens (2012). Maconchy’s music is published by Chester, Chappell, Boosey & Hawkes, Faber, Lengnick and Oxford University Press. Her archive is held by St Hilda’s College, Oxford, as well as by her daughter, the composer Nicola LeFanu. Currently, there is no dedicated biography of her.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts

'The Sun Rising', performed by James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson.


Listen here to Dr Natasha Loges discuss the life and work of composer and RCM alumna Elizabeth Maconchy.