Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Case of Elizabeth Maconchy

From time to time on this blog there have been discussions about women composers, usually in the context of demands for some sort of quota system to guarantee that a certain percentage (50%?) of premieres be guaranteed for women composers. Well, ok, I haven't seen it stated quite that baldly, but calls for overturning a supposed bias against women orchestral musicians and, in particular, conductors, seem pretty common. I usually push back against this sort of thing by saying that esteem and employment in the classical music world has been and should be based simply on artistic merit.

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.
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.
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:
‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea': Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet
How important is a composer’s music?
(Full credit to Alex Ross, by the way, for putting me on the track of Maconchy and those two bloggers.) Before we go any further, let's listen to some of her music. From the list of works we see that her output falls into three groups: thirteen string quartets written between 1932 and 1984, orchestral music written between 1926 and 1985 and concertante works written between 1926 and 1984. This is a very healthy output. Most commentary focuses on her string quartets, of which there is a complete recording from 1989. Amazon has some copies available, used. Here is the Quartet No. 11, dating from 1976, played by the Mistry Quartet:

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:
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.
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).

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.


Rickard Dahl said...

The String Quartet No. 3 sounds interesting and beautiful (from what I can tell, haven't listened to it all). I don't like the 11th as much (haven't listened to it completely yet) because of the dissonance levels but maybe it's not bad once I get used to it (it's somewhat similar with certain works by Bartok or Schoenberg for instance). Obviously many composers have been out of place, or rather out of time over the course of history but it's especially true for the 1900s with the modernist ideology in dominance. It is basically an "either adapt to the current trends or become the new trend (if you want to relevant that is)" type of ideology. Fashion in other words.

Bryan Townsend said...

Maconchy was not out of touch with the aesthetic currents in the 20th century as we can see from her increasing use of dissonance. But she was not a fashion follower either. Just a good composer. I like her succinct writing: nothing bombastic, no padding. At 13 or 14 minutes, her quartets are shorter than most.

Marc Puckett said...

I started with the two one act operas, The Sofa and The Departure. I can see listening again, although neither one features tunes one hums afterward walking down the street. (The Opera Today reviewer in 2009 thinks 'once is enough', at least about The Departure [] but Geoffrey Norris, then and now at the Telegraph, was more positive [].) There are two or three lovely clouds of music, and several beautiful passages of the soprano voice. Ralph Vaughan William's wife/widow, Ursula, is the librettist of The Sofa (from the French of Crebillon fils, 1707-1777).

Listened to her Quintet for oboe and strings (1932) just now and it's interesting with hints of dissonance and edginess. I see that her third string quartet is less than 11 minutes, from lento to poco largamente.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that you have listened to more Maconchy than I have.

Marc Puckett said...

Do like that Quintet for oboe and have listened to it a couple of times, but I can tell that my momentary interest is passing, although her quartets are still on my 'to be listened to' list. One has one's learned preferences, after all, and that's not not going to be the case because there are a thousand composers out there whose works aren't on that list and are somehow oppressed because it isn't comprised of equal numbers of males and females, and equal proportions of writers from each century etc etc. Not until the state sends out its commissars to enforce such things. And I suppose the state could require an equitable proportion of GLBT etc composers, too. Jobs for psychiatrists to certify which identity categories one belongs to!