Elizabeth Maconchy

Elizabeth Maconchy

In a recent publication, the musicologists Christa Brüstle and Danielle Sofer pay tribute to an outstanding British composer of the 20th Century, Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). The book provides insight into Maconchy’s struggle in the beginning of her career in the male-dominated world of classical music, her musical connection to Béla Bartok, and into her biography, told by Maconchy’s two daughters. 

We present excerpts from the book including a text by the composer herself, where she describes the situation for an emerging composer in the 1920s and in the 1970s. 

Theater Magdeburg embeds Maconchy’s Symphony for double string orchestra in a new ballet production by Gonzalo Galguera, premiering in April 2019. 

Facsimile of The Land

View more facsimiles including manuscripts by Maconchy

Elizabeth Maconchy – Music as Impassioned Argument

Initially a student of Vaughan Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) became fascinated early on - during the 1920s - by Bartok's music, which set her on a Continental track distinctly from many of her colleagues, who at the time cultivated the splendid isolation of their Englishness. Maconchy's music gained strong resonances on the continent; by 1936 her works had been played in Eastern Europe, France, Germany, but also the US and Australia. […]

Maconchy showed great promise in music from a young age, and in 1923 her mother moved her from Dublin to London in order to study at the Royal College of Music. There she studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, an influential figure in the British musical "renaissance" at the time. As well regarded as she was at the College, it was not until she was awarded the Octavia scholarship for travel abroad in 1929 that she truly gained momentum. Vaughan Williams encouraged her to go to Vienna, which he felt encapsulated the prestige of European music. However, ensuring her studies, Maconchy was keener on Prague - the musical epicentre of the day _ ensuring that she would keep ahead of the musical current. […] Upon her return to London that year, she was honoured with a premiere other orchestral work The Land at the Proms. Despite a small setback with Tuberculosis, the '30s proved to be extremely productive for Maconchy. […]

It was in 1959 that Elizabeth Maconchy became the Chair of the prestigious Composers' Guild of Great Britain, having thus proved herself an important and capable colleague to assume the great responsibilities of the position. A remarkably productive composer, this accomplishment only marks the halfway point of a nearly sixty-year career, the height of which came in 1987 when she was named Dame of the British Empire in the Honours List at age 80, joining Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), the only British woman to gain the title before that time.

Elizabeth Maconchy: A Composer Speaks (1971)

[…] It is usual for the middle-aged or elderly to deplore the conditions of the present day, and to hark back with nostalgia to the good old days of one's youth: but not if one is a composer. They were not good old days - particularly for a young composer. 

I came to the Royal College of Music from Ireland when I was sixteen - which is nearly half a century ago. I had been writing music since I was six, but knew very little other music except what I could play on the piano, and I had only once heard an orchestra. So coming to London as a music student was a first plunge into life, and once I had found my feet I enjoyed my time at the R.C.M. immensely. I was lucky enough to win prizes and scholarships and even had a work played by the college orchestra, which was a rare event in those days. But what did one do next, particularly if one were a girl? Sir Hugh Allen said, "If we give you the Mendelssohn Scholarship you will only get married and never write another note." 

Publishers would not consider seriously publishing anything by a young woman - except possibly some little songs. In London in the 1920's no-one had given a thought to helping a composer to establish himself - still less herself - or even to learn the craft of composition by hearing his work performed. There was no S.P.N.M., no B.B.C. concerts of contemporary music or 'Music in our Time' series, no Park Lane Group concerts, no Arts Council grants or commissions, no p1atform for new composers at local festivals, and very little interest in new music at the universities. In 1931 three girl students got together to start a self-help venture, - the Macnaghten Lemare Concerts, in order to play new works by young British composers. At these concerts a group of composers which included Benjamin Britten, Alan Rawsthorne, Grace Williams, Gerald Finzi, Elisabeth Lutyens, myself and a number of others had our first works played - and so have young composers ever since, and still do at the present day. It was probably the best thing that ever happened for young composers here, and it was the only thing that happened for a long time. […]

My first public performance was in Prague, where I had gone with a travelling scholarship: the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra gave my first piano concerto in the Smetana Hall - but no-one repeated the work here until years later. When I returned from Prague I did the only thing then open to a young composer - sent a score to Sir Henry Wood. I was fortunate - and he played my suite, The Land, at the Proms the same season. It received, though I say it, staggeringly good press notices - but that was all. No-one gave me a commission, or a grant, or a chatty interview, or another performance. […]

It did not even seem strange at the time: it appeared that this was the composer's lot, and that writing music must be its own reward. It would have been another story now - and everyone applauds and welcomes the changes that have taken place. A composer can now claim to be regarded as a useful member of society. There is felt to be a place for his or her work - even a need for it, which is actually expressed in hard cash by giving commissions and grants and so forth. This is something for which we are all genuinely grateful - even when the remuneration still bears little relation to the amount of work involved: grateful above all perhaps to feel that one's work is wanted. 

But the biggest change has been in the Establishment attitude to the young composer - the welcome instead of the cold shoulder; the opportunity to try out his or her new ideas by actually hearing them; the eager, if uninformed, interest in his latest unfinished piece. It is all so different and so much better than it used to be. 
But in the long run - is it really so much better? The people who run our musical life - many of them non-musicians - have the best intentions towards the young composer, but unluckily they all go for the same one, the one who happens to be newest on the scene. He is offered so many commissions that he can only fulfil them if he writes at great speed and without the luxury of self-criticism. (It is not easy or politic for a composer at the beginning of his career to 'turn down commissions.) The inevitable and foreseeable result is that his work deteriorates, and the word goes round that so and so is not doing so well as we hoped. He is quickly dropped in favour of the next new young man, who in his turn will be killed with kindness in much the same way. 

Is it better to be taken up and plunged too early into the limelight only to be dropped again; or never to be taken up at all? - which means few or no performances, and a composer can only learn through hearing his work performed. 

—Elizabeth Maconchy: Music as Impassioned Argument, ed. C. Brüstle and D. Sofer (Universal Edition AG: Vienna), 2018. Maconchy’s article first appeared in the journal Composers 42 (1971), pp. 125-29. Published with the kind permission of Christa Brüstle, Kunstuni Graz, Nicola LeFanu, BASCA, Universal Edition and BBC. 
Photo: Suzie Maeder