Lutyens, Elisabeth (1906–1983)

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Lutyens, Elisabeth (1906–1983)

Pioneer in 20th-century music who was recognized in her later years as one of Britain's most important modern composers. Name variations: Mrs. Edward Clarke; Dame Elisabeth Lutyens. Born Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens in London, England, on July 9, 1906; died in London on April 14, 1983; daughter of Edwin Lutyens (a preeminent British architect) and Mary (Galway) Lutyens; studied with governesses, at Worcester Park School at Westgate-on-Sea, at the Paris Conservatoire, and the Royal College of Music; married Ian Herbert Campbell Glennie, in 1933 (divorced 1940); married Edward Clarke (the conductor), in 1942; children: (first marriage) a son and twin daughters; (second marriage) a son Conrad.

Major symphonic works:

Fantasy for strings (1937); Five pieces (1939); Three pieces, op. 7 (1939); Wild Decembers (1939); Chamber concerto No. 2, op. 8 (1941); Three symphonic preludes (1942); Three salutes (1942); Bustle for the W.A.A.F. (1942); Divertissement (1944); Suite galoise (1944); Proud city(1945); Petite suite (1946); Concerto, op. 15 (1947); Chamber concerto No. 4, op. 8 (1947); Chamber concerto No. 5, op. 8 (1947); Lyric piece (1951); The English Seaside Suite (1951); The English Theater Suite (1951); Music for orchestra, op. 31 (1955); Chorale, op. 36 (Homage to Stravinsky, 1956); Symphonies, op. 46 (1961); Music for orchestra, op. 48 (1962); Music for orchestra, op. 56 (1963); Music for piano and orchestra, op. 59 (1964); Novenaria (1967); The Winter of the World, op. 98 (1974); Eos (1975); Rondel (1978); Suite I and II (1978); Six Bagatelles (1978); Echoi (1980). Wrote hundreds of others.

While in her 70s, Elisabeth Lutyens danced in a Greek taverna on the island of Corfu, wearing butterfly specs, patterned tights, and an electric-blue fake fur. Dressing up had long been her passion. In the 1920s, she had shocked her boarding-school teachers by appearing at a non-costume ball at term's end dressed as Peter Pan—neither the first, nor the last, time she would be reprimanded for "unladylike behavior." In the practice of her art, as well, eccentricity was the norm for this preeminent British composer.

She was born the fourth daughter in a family of five children. Her mother Mary Galway Lutyens , the fifth of seven children of the earl of Lytton, gave the following account of her daughter's memorable first day:

Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens born July 9th 1906 at 8:30 a.m. She weighed 9 lbs 6 oz. She was so fat—with bracelets round her wrists and such a fat face. She had masses of black soft hair—like a gollywog—about 2½ inches long and such long eyelashes. She is the image of [her father]…. Last night there were bur glars in the house and [the infant] frightened them away by screaming so when she came in to me for food at 2 [o'clock]. They were next door in Father's room and must have made off when they heard baby cry. But for her we should have lost all our silver.

Elisabeth's father was Edwin Landseer Lutyens (the 11th of 14 children of Charles and Mary Lutyens ). During Elisabeth's childhood, Edwin Lutyens became the foremost architect of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Now considered as important in British architecture as Christopher Wren, he designed some public buildings but was particularly known for his country houses.

Called Betty, Elisabeth Lutyens received the upbringing typical of a British upperclass family. With her oldest siblings, Barbara and Robert, away at school, Betty, Ursula , and Mary inhabited the nursery ruled over by Nannie Sleath, while their parents, whom Betty adored, were often kept preoccupied by other duties. Her father's architecture had by then achieved some recognition, and her mother was immersed in the study of the then-fashionable Theosophy. (The children grew accustomed to the scent of incense wafting through the house, along with the chant, "I am a link in a golden chain of love which stretches round the world.") In the nursery, the children learned their lessons from governesses, and family holidays were spent at Knebworth House, in Herfortshire, with a large extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts.

Elisabeth's favorite relative was her "Aunt Con," Constance Lytton , a suffragist active in British demonstrations. After her arrest for breaking windows, Constance Lytton went on a hunger strike and was force-fed, enduring rough treatment that resulted in her suffering a heart attack and stroke. Elisabeth idolized her and was determined, eventually, to be as radical in music as her aunt had been in politics. In Herfortshire, the two formed a special bond; Aunt Con seemed to understand her better than anyone else. Of her four-year-old niece, Constance Lytton wrote:

Now I'm coming to my special lady. I'm so in love with her I'm really bad with it at times. Sister Agnes of course, I mean. And she flirts back with me quite rewardfully. I do think her such a tremendous personality.

Early in life, Elisabeth became aware of the differences between herself and her siblings and cousins. Her eccentricities, however, were generally cherished among the family members, allowing her to develop in her own way.

The Lutyenses were not a musical family, but Elisabeth began to compose pieces as soon as she started taking music lessons. Constance in particular encouraged her to continue to compose. At age nine, Elisabeth was sent to Worcester Park School at Westgate-on-Sea. Popular and well liked, she excelled in sports, especially hockey. Vacations at home were happy, and she would later remember the construction of the famous Queen Mary's Dolls' House, a miniature designed and executed by her father, during this time, according to Her Majesty's explicit instructions. Elisabeth never forgot the visits Queen Mary of Teck made to their home to see this marvel under construction.

Lutyens' absorption with music increased when she began to study the violin. "Oh, Mummy darling I'm so happy in my music," she wrote her mother. "I feel that at last I've found happiness in myself, that whether I live here or there with this person or that I shall be happy." At 16, she was determined to study in Paris ("the beginning of my own life in my own world") and attended the Paris Conservatoire, where her talent for composition became increasingly evident.

In 1924, Lutyens traveled with her family to India to see, among other things, the monumental Viceroy's House in New Delhi, which had been designed by her father and was then under construction. Talk with her father during the trip about creative work led her to see that the two shared much in common, and it was from him that Lutyens learned how to dedicate herself entirely to her work.

At 21, she was back in London, attending the Royal College of Music where she studied with Harold Darke. Elizabeth Maconchy , who would also become well known as a composer, was a fellow student. Immersed in London's musical world, Lutyens met Dame Ethel Smyth , the legendary British composer, who had all but lost her hearing at the time, and they became friends. In 1931, Lutyens and her friends, Maconchy, Anne Macnaghten , the violinist, and Iris Lemare founded the Macnaghten-Lemare concerts at the Mercury Theater, Notting Hill Gate, for the performance of works by modern composers.

Although she had decided that music was incompatible with marriage, Lutyens fell in love several times. Eventually she changed her position on the subject and married Ian Herbert Campbell Glennie, a fellow student at the Royal College of Music, on February 11, 1933. Despite the fact that she became a wife, then a mother, she remained adamant about continuing her work. A son was born first, followed in quick succession by twin daughters, during whose birth Lutyens screamed at the midwife, "But I still want to compose!"

In the 1930s, the profound economic effects of a worldwide depression were being deeply felt in Great Britain, at the same time that Adolf Hitler's Third Reich was growing stronger and the clouds of war were beginning to loom over Europe. Lutyens, caught up in a whirlwind of composing and living a bohemian lifestyle among her family and friends, allowed much of these events to go unnoticed. During this time, she met Edward Clarke, an influential conductor in modern British musical circles. At one of the gatherings where they frequently met, Clarke suggested, "Let's go out and get drunk!," an occasion which commenced a new chapter in Lutyens' life. She fell increasingly in love with Clarke, who was 18 years her senior, and the discovery that he had few if any financial resources did not cool her passion. In 1940, Lutyens divorced Ian and, two years later, married Edward, with whom she had a son, Conrad.

Rarely a lucrative enterprise, music composition was even less lucrative for modernists like Lutyens. By 1944, acknowledging her husband's lack of earning power and the need to support her family, she began composing for film. Through the years, despite her commitment to composing modern, atonal music, she would compose over 200 orchestrations for films and documentaries. This work required great professionalism, but Lutyens learned the tricks of the trade. As soon as a score was commissioned, she booked a music copyist because the good ones were rare; then she immediately found a band so as to know exactly which instruments she could compose for. Because film music often requires writing timed specifically for a series of scenes, the composer has to keep set time-frames constantly in mind. Lutyens wrote for many film genres but became particularly adept at producing film scores for horror movies. Although it was not the kind of classical composing she preferred, she was proud of her ability to compose scores, a talent which eventually enabled her to earn a good living.

Throughout two marriages, the birth of four children, the bombing of London, and the intervention of the World War II, Lutyens continued to compose, sharing with her husband a devotion to the composition and performance of modern music. Through occasional jobs with Britain's famous broadcasting arm, the BBC, Edward Clarke introduced the listening public to the music of some of the greatest modern composers, including Bartók, Berg, Webern, and Kodály. Meanwhile, Lutyens continued to struggle against the musical establishment's general rejection of 12-tone music, which, with her husband's support, she refused to abandon.

Lutyens' life, while intense and exciting, was not always stable. From the beginning, alcohol had formed an important part of her second marriage, and by the mid-1940s she was a functioning alcoholic. In 1946, at age 40, she discovered she was pregnant with a fifth child, a situation which presented her with a dilemma. "Now I was faced with the necessity of committing an act of life-destroying blasphemy—to me—or coming up with an economic solution," she wrote. "I had no choice." The main family breadwinner, Lutyens had an abortion, which caused her great grief.

Her family was sometimes critical of her lifestyle, and Lutyens realized that she was a less than perfect parent. She lashed out uncharacteristically when writing to her mother in the mid-1940s: "For years you've all given me the pit and pendulum—your children or your music—It's been a nightmare and even my strong shoulders are not carrying this burden longer." Eventually the years of drinking, efforts at being a good parent, and unprofitable work took their toll, and Lutyens had a nervous breakdown. Her mother, ever supportive, sent her for a psychiatric rest cure which seemed to help. During her stay in the hospital, Elisabeth continued to compose. When she emerged, she resisted family pressure to leave her husband in order to escape his alcoholic influence. Refusing to address the problem, she became friends with the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin Thomas , whose drinking and marital problems were legendary. She often stayed with the Thomases in Wales where alcohol was as plentiful as funds were deficient. Eventually Lutyens decided she had to stop drinking and separated temporarily from Edward. Dylan Thomas meanwhile proceeded to drink himself to death, a loss she felt keenly. His death inspired her piece Valediction (Dylan Thomas 1953).

If one can see a world in a grain of sand, that grain of sand for me is music.

—Elisabeth Lutyens

Edward Clarke remained the love of Lutyens' life, and in time the two reconciled. No sooner had she finally won her battle with alcohol than did the tuberculosis she had fought off in the 1930s return. To recover, she went on a regimen which included three pints of milk a day, antibiotics, and bed rest—while continuing to compose. Acceptance of her work was growing. When Lutyens was 56, Edward died suddenly of a stroke. Although he was almost two decades older than she, his death came as a shock, and she missed him greatly.

Lutyens, however, was a survivor. She continued to write 12-tone music, though it never became greatly loved by the public at large, and she increasingly became a respected figure in the musical world. Her total work eventually comprised some 2,000 pieces, a fact the public could no longer ignore. In 1969, she was honored with the title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her contribution to music. That same year, she wrote a lyric drama, Isis and Osiris, which was followed in 1972 by an opera Time Off? Not the Ghost of a Chance. Growing acceptance did not change her outspoken and individualistic behavior. Once before an interview on England's Radio Four, she warned Russell Harty that if he "so much as mouthed the phrase 'lady composer'" she would call him a "homo-sexual interviewer." In their ensuing dialogue, the gender issue was not broached.

When Lutyens died in 1983, the musical public realized her importance. Willing to finance her creative work with the skillful crafting of commercial scores, she laid new groundwork for future serious composers and led music lovers worldwide into hitherto unknown territories of sound.


Barron, Janet. "Shocking Talents," in New Statesman and Society. Vol. 2, no. 81. December 22–29, 1989, p. 45.

Craig, Robert M. "Lutyens, Edwin" in International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture. Vol. 1. Ed. by Randall J. van Vynckt. London: St. James Press, 1993, pp. 536–539.

"Elisabeth Lutyens," in Sunday Times [London]. April 17, 1983, p. 41.

Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. A Pilgrim Soul: The Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens. London: Michael Joseph, 1989.

Kemp, Jeffery. "Write What the Film Needs: An Interview with Elisabeth Lutyens," in Sight and Sound. Vol. 43, no. 4. Autumn 1974, pp. 203–205, 248.

Lutyens, Dame Elisabeth. A Goldfish Bowl. London: Cassell, 1972.

"Miss Elisabeth Lutyens," in The Times [London]. April 15, 1983, p. 12.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia