In order to justify that position, we really have to be prepared to honor merit when it is deserved. To that end, I want to introduce you to a woman composer of outstanding merit who has been shamefully neglected. One wonders why.
|Elizabeth Maconchy (1907 - 1994)|
Elizabeth Maconchy has a remarkably brief entry in Wikipedia, the entirety of which consists of this:
Dame Elizabeth Violet Maconchy Le Fanu DBE (19 March 1907 – 11 November 1994) was an English composer of Irish heritage.That's it! This is followed by a list of compositions, fairly lengthy. Luckily some hard-working music bloggers are on the job and two in particular have written lengthy posts on Maconchy:Maconchy was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and grew up in the English and Irish countryside. She enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London at the age of sixteen studying under Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams.In 1932, Maconchy developed tuberculosis and moved from London to Kent.In 1930, Maconchy married William LeFanu with whom she later had two daughters. Her first daughter, Elizabeth Anna LeFanu, was born in 1939, and her second daughter, Nicola LeFanu, was born in 1947.
While this music is sometimes described as neo-Bartók, it sounds as much like Alban Berg (or Shostakovich for that matter) to me as the rhythms do not really suggest Bartók to my ear. But that quibble aside, this is very fine string quartet music: impassioned, but concentrated, lyric but astringent. Well worth our time. But inexplicably we hear over and over and over again at string quartet concerts (I am going to a couple next weekend) a repertoire that consists only of the Usual Suspects (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn) leavened with the Fashionable Composer of the Day (Thomas Adès, Esa-Pekka Salonen). And that's it. Now I think that this is mostly ok as this repertoire is the core of the canon. But why we keep hearing the same Brahms and Shostakovich over and over again and never hear Maconchy (or Weinberg as this is not really a gender issue) is the real mystery.
Let's hear some more. This is the String Quartet No. 3, dating from 1938 in a performance by the Signum Quartet during the 2013 Proms:
Here is how the second blogger linked above discusses Maconchy's remarkable exclusion from concert programs:
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong teacher, wrong genre? There are some implications of that: could it possibly be the case that the composers from those decades that we do listen to are simply more well known because they luckily were born at the right time in the right place, studied with with right teacher and wrote for the right genre? I think this could be put more clearly like this: a significant number of the composers that we adulate receive this praise and attribution of historical significance for reasons other than aesthetic ones. They were plausible ideologues like Boulez or Cage, wrote exactly the kind of tradition-breaking music that one expected, like Stockhausen, avoided the traditional genres, like all of those figures, and cultivated a distinctive public persona through adroit marketing (even if of a kind specific to classical composers).Elizabeth Maconchy was born ten years after Korngold, in the wrong place. Her birthplace, Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, is one of the few towns in the world that doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia entry. She had the wrong teachers. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who remained a close friend but not a musical influence, is forever branded an English pastoralist, while her teacher in Prague, Karel Jirak, remains as neglected as his pupil. She had the wrong life changing event. TB claimed her sister and father, and she contracted and recovered from the illness herself. This experience contributed to the development of her individual musical voice, and her single minded and painstaking focus.She also lived in the wrong place. Essex is a creative no-go area between the musical honey-pots of London and Aldeburgh. She didn’t network with musical movers and shakers, although she was the first woman to sit on the influential BBC music panel, and was also the first woman President of the Society for the Promotion for New Music. She was married to a historian for more than sixty years, and bore two daughters, one of whom, Nicola LeFanu, is a notable composer in her own right. And she wrote for the wrong genre. The string quartet stubbornly refuses to fit into the sound-byte culture of radio stations such as BBC Radio 3, where a single movement is rapidly becoming the largest acceptable single unit of musical currency.
Composers like Maconchy, who were really focussed just on working toward aesthetic goals are so easily neglected because they do not call attention to themselves, their eccentricities or personalities. Maconchy is not the kind of person who would write an essay titled "Britten is dead" à la Boulez or claim to write her music using the I Ching à la John Cage. No, she just wrote the finest string quartets she could. For 50 years. And now is forgotten.