(1907-1994)Click to play Click to read
A composer of great versatility, Dame Elizabeth Violet Maconchy was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1907, in an era that seldom encouraged women to pursue musical composition. In fact, growing up, she had little exposure to the art form. Her home had neither a radio nor a record player, and she was in her mid-teens before she heard her first symphony orchestra. Nonetheless, from the age of six, she began playing the piano and composing pieces, declaring that this was to be her life’s work.
The family moved to Ireland, where Mr. Maconchy, a lawyer, took a job in Dublin. After his death, in 1922, Elizabeth was accepted at the Royal College of Music in London, where, in spite of impressing several Professors, the Director of the college refused to grant her the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship, explaining (according to the Times of London) “If we give you the scholarship you will only get married and never write another note.”
Luckily for Elizabeth, a member of the school’s composition faculty, (and the leading English composer of the time), Ralph Vaughan Williams, recognized her ambition, and steered her toward focusing her studies on composition. He remained a life-long friend, writing in her final college evaluation “I am sorry to lose her, but I can teach her no more, she will work for her own salvation and will go far.”
And, indeed, she did. Her music attracted the attention of many of the most distinguished musicians of the time, including Sir Henry Wood, Sir Donald Tovey and Gustav Holst.
As a composer, however, Maconchy was less attracted by the music of Vaughan Williams and the English pastoralists than by the central European modernism of Bartók, Berg and Janácek. Traveling to Prague, she studied with the Czech composer Karel Jirak, expanding her knowledge of this form of modernism and being particularly influenced by Bartók’s use of counterpoint. In 1930, on her 23rd birthday, her piano concerto was premiered in Prague. The same year, her orchestral suite, The Land, was included by Sir Henry Wood in one of his popular summer Promenade Concerts. The Daily Telegraph headlined its review of the work “Girl Composer’s Triumph”! To round off the year 1930, Elizabeth married medical historian, William LeFanu, a marriage that lasted over 60 years.
In 1932, Elizabeth Maconchy’s musical career was curtailed when she contracted tuberculosis. At the time the disease was untreatable and often fatal. Elizabeth, however, remained determined to get better, living alone on England’s southeast coast, and eventually recovering completely.
Maconchy quickly went back to work.
In 1933, her String Quartet No. 1 was performed at London’s Macnaghten Concert Series. This particular musical form was to become her lasting legacy. Over the next fifty years, she composed a total of 13 string quartets, believing that the form “combines intellectual accomplishment with the representation of strong dialogue among individuals.”
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Maconchy turned to vocal works, producing three one-act operas, and several song cycles for solo voice and piano. Over her long life, there are few areas of concert hall repertoire that have not been enhanced by her music. She has been described as “one of the most substantial composers Britain has yet produced.” She received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1977, and was honored with Dame Commander of the British Empire ten years later.
Dame Elizabeth Maconchy died in Norwich, England on November 11, 1994, at the age of 87.
Encylopedia of World Biography,, online site www.notablebiographies.com
Chester Novello, online site www.chesternovello.com
Wikipedia, online site
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth and Vernon Handley courtesy of Lyrita Recorded Edition (www.lyrita.co.uk). Elizabeth Maconchy, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth, Lyrita Records 2007
Music for Strings: scherzo (90 seconds)
Symphony for Double String Orchestra: allegro scherzando (20 seconds)
Okeanos courtesy of Metier Records (www.divine-art.com/).
Reflections: Music by Elizabeth Maconchy and Nicola Lefanu, Metier Records 2005
Reflections: iv con allegrezza (59 seconds)
Lontano & Odaline de la Martinez courtesy of Lorelt Records (www.lorelt.uk)
British Women Composers, Vol. I, Lorelt Records, 1992
My Dark Heart: comodo, flessible (30 seconds)
Bingham String Quartet courtesy of Unicorn Records (www.unicornrecords.com/)
The Complete String Quartets Vol. 2
String Quartet No. 6: allegro scherzando (30 seconds)
BBC Singers & Odaline de la Martinez courtesy of Lorelt Records (www.lorelt.uk)
Elizabeth Maconchy: Music for Voices, Lorelt Records 2007
The Voice of the City (40 seconds)
This Day (30 seconds)