Maconchy, Elizabeth (1907—)

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Maconchy, Elizabeth (1907—)

Irish-born composer of works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, opera and voice, whose unique style, combining the best in modern and classical techniques, has been a great influence on modern music both in Great Britain and internationally . Name variations: Dame Elizabeth Maconchy. Born Elizabeth Maconchy in Boxbourne, Hertfortshire, England, on March 19, 1907; attended the Royal College of Music in London, 1923–29; married William Lefanu, in 1930; children: two daughters, one of whom is the composer Nicola Lefanu (b. 1947).

Was a star pupil at the Royal College of Music (1923); won the Blumenthal and Sullivan scholarships, and the Octavia Traveling Scholarship (1929); by her mid-20s, major orchestras in England and Europe had performed her work; withdrew from the London musical scene to recover from tuberculosis (1932); lived in Essex, continuing to compose after birth of her daughters and throughout WWII; won the Edwin Evans Prize (1948); won the GEDOK International prize (1961); received the Radcliffe award (1969); became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE, 1977); became a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for her contributions to music (1987); composed hundreds of works, increasingly performed and recorded.

Selected works—orchestral:

"Concerto" (1928); "Christmas music" (1928); "Concertino" (1928); The Land Suite (1929); "Suite" (1930); "Dialogue" (1940); "Theme and Variations" (1942); "Variations on a well-known theme" (1942); "Concertino" (1945); "Symphony" (1948); "Concertino" (1951); "Nocturne" (1951); "Symphony for double string orchestra" (1952); Proud Thames (1953); "Sinfonietta" (1953); "Double concerto" (1957); "Serenata concertante" (1962); An Essex Overture (1966); Three Cloudscapes (1968); Two Dances from Puck Fair (1968); and half a dozen operas, many vocal and string quartet compositions.

With the dawning of the 20th century, when the musical world was dominated by the richly beautiful works of composers like Johannes Brahms, a rebellion arose among young British composers who referred to such music of the lyrical tradition as the "cowpat school." This rude but expressive term, referring to the many pastoral music works set in the green and cowfilled English countryside, gave vent to the musical aspect of the new century's struggle to find its own aesthetic. Composers like Schönberg, Webern, and Berg wrote atonal music that many found to be an assault on the ears just as Picasso, Dubuffett, and Pollack were assaulting the eyes in the visual arts. Lines were drawn between groups of artists who felt that modern was synonymous with ugly and those who believed that creative individuals must be freed from the past. As the 20th century progressed, one musician who managed to combine the best aspects of the older classical styles with the exciting elements of the new was Elizabeth Maconchy.

Of Irish ancestry, Maconchy was born in Boxbourne, Hertfortshire, on March 19, 1907, and lived in Britain until her family moved to Dublin shortly after World War I, when she was 12. Her father was mildly musical; her mother not at all. She had one sister who was tone deaf and another who was bored by music. There was no radio or phonograph in the family home, so her father's piano-playing was the only music she heard. But once she began piano lessons at age six, Elizabeth immediately began composing as well. She was 15 when she first heard a symphony orchestra in concert, when the Hallé Orchestra played in Dublin. Her father died of tuberculosis that same year, and the family returned to Britain. Elizabeth's obvious musicianship was by then well recognized, and at age 16 she entered the Royal College of Music in London. The girl who had heard only a single symphony concert, a performance of Carmen, and a piano recital by Myra Hess was soon studying under Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughn Williams, two composers whose influence on 20th-century British music was profound.

[Maconchy] is a born composer and has never been anything but a composer.

—Frank Howes

The composer Elisabeth Lutyens , a fellow student at the Royal College, described Maconchy in her autobiography as "the star pupil of those College days." During her years of study from 1923 to 1929, Maconchy won both the Blumenthal and Sullivan scholarships. She was denied the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship because, as Sir Hugh Allen explained, "if we give you the scholarship, you will only get married and never write another note." In 1929, she won the Octavia Traveling Scholarship, which gave her the opportunity to visit Vienna and Prague. She spent two months studying with Karl Jirák in Prague, and returned there in 1930 to attend the premiere of a piano concerto she had written. That same year, in a remarkable coup for a composer not yet in her mid-20s, another of Maconchy's works was produced at one of London's famous Promenade Concerts ("Proms"). The Land, a suite of four numbers written for a large orchestra, depicted the seasons through the poetic vision of Vita Sackville-West , and was highly praised for its imaginative and original style.

Because there were few places where the works of young composers could be performed, Maconchy, with Elizabeth Lutyens, Anne Macnaghten , and Iris Lemare , founded the Macnaghten-Lemare concerts, which strongly favored women composers. Held at the tiny Mercury Theater in London's Notting Hill Gate, these musical events also offered a means for upand-coming composers to make contact with each other. In speaking of the series, which exists to this day, Maconchy commented, "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."

Maconchy married William Lefanu, with whom she would have two daughters (their second daughter, Nicola Lefanu , would later establish her own reputation as a composer), in 1930. Two years later, when she was 25, she contracted tuberculosis, the disease that had killed her father. The clear mountain air of Switzerland was considered the only cure for the disease in this era before antibiotics, but Maconchy moved to Kent instead, to breathe the fresh air in her own country. Although she had withdrawn from London's hectic music scene in her determination to restore her health, she continued to compose, and her husband encouraged her to combat this interruption to her career. Speaking of his support, she later said, "It certainly helped to be married to a man sympathetic to my work. For the 30 years we have lived in Essex, two thick walls divide his study from the room where I work at my piano composing. He maintains a keen interest in everything I write."

Beginning in 1933, Maconchy concentrated increasingly on the composition of string quartets, writing 13 of them within the next five decades and becoming the English composer most associated with the form. Although she continued to write larger orchestral works in the late 1930s and after, she considered the string quartet the perfect vehicle for dramatic musical expression, with the four instruments, like four characters, engaged in statement and comment. Maconchy said she that she composed to display the various abilities of the instruments, or "The clash of their ideas and the way in which they react upon each other." Early quartets featured a classic multimovement format, but with the passage of time her compositions in this form became more compact, often with only one continuous movement and very economical use of material.

Despite Maconchy's self-imposed distance from the London musical world, between 1932 and 1936 pieces of hers were featured at the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, helping to keep both her name and her music before the public. She was invited twice by Donald Tovey for performances of her work in Edinburgh, and Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade Concerts, presented several of her works to London audiences. Maconchy's music was also played at the I.S.C.M. Festivals, held in Prague in 1935 and in Paris in 1937, and would be performed at various concerts in Warsaw in 1939. In 1938, she returned to London for a concert at the London Contemporary Music Center featuring her work along with that of Elisabeth Lutyens, Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley, and Walter Leigh. Maconchy's photo appeared in the advance publicity for the concert, and she joined those who trooped off afterwards to a party given by Elisabeth Lutyens at her flat. Parties of the period were lively affairs, with drinks at the ready, where the musicians' conversation was likely to center on the difficulty faced by living artists who were trying to compete with "the towering dead and their nightingales and psalms" for the attention of concertgoers who rarely ventured into modern music.

Maconchy continued to compose after the birth of her first child in 1939 and the advent of World War II. One of the major influences on her unique style was the music of the modern Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, whose compositions, she found, set fire to her imagination. (His influence may have been due in part to her earlier visits to Central Europe.) Although she borrowed a great deal from him in matters of technique, Maconchy's work was to prove quite different from Bartok's. Some have found her style more Celtic than English, although without apparent reliance on Celtic folk music. Describing how she went about composing, Maconchy said:

The form … must proceed from the nature of the musical ideas themselves—one cannot simply pour music into a ready-made mold. The composer must try to evolve a form that is the inevitable outcome of his own musical ideas and provides for their fullest expression.

Discussing the extreme economy of thematic material that characterizes her work, she said:

To me music is a sort of impassioned argument, propelled by the force of its own inner logic, and by virtue of this logic each new idea will derive from the original premise and throw new light on the whole. The rigid self-discipline which the composer must impose on himself must always be directed to the fullest expression of the underlying emotion and never to its exclusion. This passionately intellectual and intellectually passionate musical discourse is what I seek to express in my music.

Although music is sexless, composition was for centuries divided according to whether it was "masculine" and "feminine." "Masculine" music demanded the best performers and large orchestras (almost all of which were comprised solely of male musicians), was performed on concert stages throughout the world, and could be innovative without being condemned. "Feminine" music was expected to be pleasant and pretty, like those who composed it, and performance of it was generally restricted to the home, which was where a great deal of music was performed before the advent of phonographs, radios, movies and television. As technology replaced musicians in the home in the early years of the 20th century, public and private performances were forced to merge. In the Western music world, women increasingly began insisting on filling the roles of performers and composers. Women first began to be taken seriously as composers at about the same time many were obtaining the right to vote.

Lefanu, Nicola (b. 1947)

English composer . Born in 1947; daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy (b. 1907) and William Lefanu; studied at Oxford University and Royal College of Music; studied with Maxwell Davies at Dartington and in Siena.

Following her studies with Maxwell Davies, Nicola Lefanu was appointed lecturer at King's College, London. Her compositions, including Antiworld (1972) and Dawnpath (1977), earned her many awards, as did her radiophonic operas, The Story of Mary O'Neill (completed in 1986, broadcast in 1989), and Wind Among the Pines: Five Images of Norfolk (1987).

Conscious of those "feminine" stereotypes about women composers, Maconchy clearly intended to avoid them. Her energetic music, with brazen tempos characterized by strong motor rhythms, has, perhaps not surprisingly, been described as "tough and masculine." She established thematic connections between movements, and sometimes based a whole work on a single idea. Austerity and severity prevailed, particularly in slow movements. Summing up her philosophy of composition, Maconchy said, "Every note is an essential part of the whole structure—there is no place for 'effects without causes.'" She further noted:

To crowd new and extraneous notes into existing harmonies may perhaps add a certain colour, but it does not represent any real development. On the other hand, the several threads of the music moving in melodic lines can coalesce vertically to create a new harmonic interest. A counterpoint of rhythm exists side by side with melodic counterpoint. By the free movement of several rhythms simultaneously we can hope for more rhythmic development than by any amount of experiment with monadic rhythms.

Fusing many traditions, her style seemed to move past the debate about classical tonal harmonies versus modern atonality.

Maconchy was accorded growing recognition after World War II. In 1947, her work was chosen for inclusion at the Copenhagen International Festival, and her fifth string quartet won the Edwin Evans Prize the following year. Her overture Proud Thames won the L.C.C. Prize in 1953, the Coronation Year of Queen Elizabeth II . With each new composition, she remained concentrated on developing a single concept. Speaking of her intense focus, Maconchy said:

Writing music, like all creative art, is the impassioned pursuit of an idea. … The greatthing is for the composer to keep his head and allow nothing to distract him. The temptations to stop by the way and to be sidetracked by felicities of sound and colour are ever present, but in my view everything extraneous to the pursuit of this central idea must be rigorously excluded—scrapped.

Her music of this period is characterized by a preoccupation with short themes playing around a few notes, with the notes described by some as a "finger print." Intense movements, given a disturbing and sometimes vehement sense of pent-up energy and emotion by her strong sense of rhythm, are interspersed with movements of serenity. Some critics have said that while the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams and other members of the English School portrays the beauty of the Cotswolds, Maconchy's music portrays the "bare mountains, dark loughs, black bogs and turf stacks of Connemara, the country nearest her heart."

In the mid-1950s, Maconchy experienced a creative block and briefly stopped composing. When she returned to work it was in the operatic form, and between 1957 and 1967 she wrote three one-act operas, several choral pieces, and several pieces for children's voices. The latter works, including Samson and The King of the Golden River, are dramatic without overstepping the bounds of children's musical abilities, and while simple and approachable also make full use of Maconchy's creative powers. In the 1970s, she became interested in the characteristics and foibles of particular instruments, exploring the freedom and expressive quality of a wide-ranging vocal line in Ariadne and the character of the solo cello in Epyllion. The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, written in 1978, continued her experimentation with vocal works, combining mixed chorus, alto flute, viola and harp. These successful vocal compositions marked both growth and expanded interest since the early years of her career, when she focused primarily on musical instruments (in 1938, Frank Howes had noted that Maconchy "shows no great partiality for vocal writing").

In 1989, Maconchy's "Music for Woodwind and Brass," written two decades before, was finally published. Scored for a classical orchestra without strings (paired woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and timpani), the work was a true chamber piece, like so many of her best compositions. Critics particularly liked the piece for its use of numerous pianissimo passages without a single fortissimo passage, a rarity in wind music. She has received numerous awards, including a GEDOK International prize in 1961, a Radcliffe award in 1969, and membership in the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1970. She was granted the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1977. In 1987, Elizabeth Maconchy was named a Dame of the British Empire (DBE), the equivalent of a knight-hood, for her contributions to music, in fitting tribute both to her own lasting compositions and to her important influence on 20th-century classical music.


Britten, Benjamin. "England and the Folk-Art Problem," in Modern Music. Vol. 18, no. 2. January–February 1941, pp. 71–75.

"Contemporary Composers: Elizabeth Maconchy," in Women and Music: A History. Ed. by Karin Pendle. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 178–179.

"Elizabeth Maconchy," in Le Page, Jane Weiner. Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies. Vol. III. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Gruenberg, Louis. "Modern Youth at Prague, 1935," in Modern Music. Vol. 13, no. 1. November–December 1935, pp. 38–44.

Howes, Frank. "The Younger English Composers, III: Elizabeth Maconchy," in The Monthly Musical Record. Vol. 68, no. 798. July–August 1938, pp. 165–68.

J.V.R. "Recordings: Maconchy: String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4," in Chicago Tribune. Sunday, July 1, 1990, p. 22.

Lopatnikoff, Nicolai. "England's Young Composers," in Modern Music. Vol. 14, no. 4. May–June 1937, pp. 204–207.

Macnaghten, Anne. "Elizabeth Maconchy," in The Musical Times. Vol. 96, no. 1348. June 1955, pp. 298–302.

"Maconchy, Elizabeth," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 11. Ed. by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 1980, pp. 448–449.

Matthew-Walker, Robert. "Maconchy, (Dame) Elizabeth," in Contemporary Composers. Ed. by Brian Morton and Pamela Collins. Chicago: St. James Press, 1992, pp. 599–602.

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

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Maconchy, Elizabeth (1907—)

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