Born and educated during an era that rarely encouraged women to practice the art of musical composition, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994)—British but of Irish descent and upbringing—became, in the words of Martin Anderson of London's Independent newspaper, "one of the most substantial composers these islands have yet produced." Her accomplishment was magnified by the fact that her style was largely original, not adhering to any of the schools and "isms" that defined musical compositions in the classical field for much of the twentieth century.
Maconchy, known by the nickname of Betty, was born in the town of Broxbourne in eastern England's Hertfordshire region on March 19, 1907. Her father was an Irish-born lawyer. Unlike many creative figures in music, she had very little exposure to the art form growing up; the family had neither a radio nor a record player, and she heard a symphony orchestra for the first time only when she was in her mid-teens. Maconchy's creative drive, however, came from within, and she made her own music; she started playing the piano and writing pieces of her own when she was six, and it did not take her long to announce that composing music was to be her life's work.
Maconchy's family moved to Ireland around the end of World War I so that her father could take a job in Dublin. After her father's death in 1922, Maconchy applied to the Royal College of Music in London and was accepted, impressing professors of piano (Arthur Alexander) and composition (Charles Wood). She suffered a setback when RCM director Sir Hugh Allen refused to allow her to be named as recipient of the school's prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship, saying, according to the Times of London, "If we give you the scholarship you will only get married and never write another note." More sympathetic to her ambitions was Ralph Vaughan Williams, a member of the school's composition faculty and arguably England's greatest composer of the era. He steered Maconchy toward devoting herself to composition full time. According to Anderson, when she graduated, Williams wrote in her final evaluation that he was "very sorry to lose her—but I can teach her no more—she will work for her own salvation and will go far."
Maconchy as a composer was only slightly influenced by Vaughan Williams; the evocations of the English countryside contained in his so-called pastoralist style held little appeal for the culturally Irish Maconchy. However, Williams did steer Maconchy toward works by other twentieth-century composers who would exert greater impact on her. He suggested that after leaving the RCM she go not to Vienna, dominated by composers in the heavily systematic 12-tone style, but instead to Prague, Czechoslovakia. There Maconchy studied with Czech composer Karel Jírak and expanded her knowledge of the music of the most innovative Central European modernist of the time, Hungary's Béla Bartók. It was not Bartók's experiments with Eastern European folk music that interested Maconchy, however, but his way of using counterpoint—the combination of independent lines of music, often in different instruments—to develop a unique structure for each composition. Bartók emerged as the single most important influence on Maconchy's style. As she rounded out her education, Maconchy and Welsh-born composition student Grace Williams visited Vienna and enjoyed smoking cigars in the city's fabled cafés.
The year 1930 was eventful for Maconchy. She married medical historian William LeFanu that year. And two of Maconchy's works received premieres from major ensembles: a concerto (or concertino) for piano and orchestra was conducted by her teacher Jírak, leading the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, with Czech pianist Erwin Schulhoff (who later died in a concentration camp) as soloist, and her orchestral suite The Land , which she had sent on an impulse to conductor Henry Wood, was included in the summer programming of London's popular Promenade Concerts, known as the Proms, and had a positive reception from audiences. The Daily Telegraph newspaper (according to the website of Ireland's Contemporary Music Centre) introduced its review of the concert with the headline "Girl Composer's Triumph."
This promising beginning to Maconchy's compositional career was cut short by health problems: in 1932 she contracted tuberculosis, which was untreatable at the time and often fatal. The disease killed both Maconchy's father and her younger sister. Doctors recommended that she go to a sanitarium in Switzerland, but Maconchy replied that she wanted to die in Ireland or England if it came to that. Maconchy went to live alone on England's southeast coast and eventually recovered completely. She dropped out of the musical world at what could have been a critical time, but she made good use of her convalescence by thinking about how to develop her individual musical style.
Maconchy's Times of London obituary suggested that she turned to chamber music—music for small groups of instruments—because of continuing physical weakness after her illness, but an alternative explanation would refer to Bartók's string quartets of the 1920s, dense yet highly expressive works, each with an original structure. Maconchy favored the string quartet form throughout her career, feeling that it combined intellectual accomplishment with the representation of strong dialogue among individuals. "Music should be passionately intellectual and intellectually passionate," Maconchy said (according to the MusicWeb International website). "Just intellectual would make the music dry and driven by an emotional force; whereas passion without a mind behind it is no good at all."
In 1933 Maconchy's String Quartet No. 1 was performed at London's Macnaghten Concert Series, a prominent venue for new music, and another chamber work, her Oboe Quintet, won the Daily Telegraph newspaper's chamber music prize. Maconchy's works were performed at festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague (1935) and Paris (1937), but her critical success at home in England was inconsistent, perhaps because of lingering prejudice against female composers. Some called her music colorless. In 1939 Maconchy's first child was born: a daughter name Anna. During World War II she and her family fled London for Herefordshire in England's West Midlands.
Maconchy's second daughter, Nicola LeFanu, was born in 1947. She would become a noted composer and professor of music at King's College in London. Maconchy sometimes talked to friends about the problems of squeezing composition in among childcare activities, and during the postwar years she added music administration jobs to her responsibilities, working for the Macnaghten concerts that had supported her career in the 1930s, becoming chairwoman of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and taking over from Benjamin Britten as president of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. Maconchy never divorced, but she lived separately from her husband at times. One of Maconchy's major works from the postwar years was a symphony that was given its premiere by one of England's legendary conductors, Sir Adrian Boult.
Maconchy's style was difficult to classify with reference to those of other composers. Influences upon her, beyond that of Bartók, included Czech composer Leos Janacek and Austria's Alban Berg. She moved to the edges of but did not abandon the system of keys and conventional harmonies in music, and though complex, her music remained accessible to audiences. "Her music is often fiercely dissonant but never gratuitously so, always as a result of motivic argument," Anderson wrote. "Her acute sense of rhythm can produce an electrifying tingle in the nape of the neck. Her use of instrumental color is piquant, tart, fresh. And her structures are never static: they bowl along with a long-legged vigor that is inordinately exciting."
In the late 1940s and 1950s Maconchy reached the high point of her popular and critical appeal. Her String Quartet No. 5 of 1948 was among the most widely performed of her set of 14 quartets, which Anderson called "alongside the 15 of Robert Simpson, the most important quartet cycle by any British composer, and an achievement no other woman composer has come near." The String Quartet No. 9 (1969) had a tragic slow movement alluding to the Soviet Union's invasion of Maconchy's beloved Prague the year before it was written. There are only 13 numbered quartets, for Maconchy, fearing the unlucky associations of the number 13, left one work without a number. Maconchy began to expand into larger forms, writing a Symphony for Double String Orchestra in 1952 and 1953, and the shorter orchestral overture Proud Thames (1953), which won a prize from the London County Council. Top British conductors, including Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Arthur Bliss, and Sir Thomas Beecham continued to program new orchestral works by Maconchy in concerts.
In the late 1950s and 1960s Maconchy turned to vocal works, producing three one-act operas, The Sofa (1957, with a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the widow of Maconchy's one-time teacher), The Departure (1961), and The Three Strangers (1967). She read widely among the classics and contemporary manifestations of British poetry in search of texts to inspire her, resulting in a series of distinctive choral works that included And Death Shall Have No Dominion for choir and brass (1969) and Prayer Before Birth (1971). Her solo vocal works included the large cantata Héloise and Abélard for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, but she never wrote a full-scale opera.
A noteworthy aspect of Maconchy's career was her consistent output that lasted into great old age. Her Music for Strings had its premiere at the 1983 Proms concerts, and one three-year period while she was in her seventies saw the composition of four choral pieces, a Clarinet Concertino, a string orchestra work, a solo bassoon piece, and a group of songs. Maconchy traveled to Australia for performances of her works when she was 77, and a 1984 documentary sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain provided an overview of her career. The list of honors Maconchy received in later life was topped by her designation as Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1987.
At the time of her death in Norwich, England, on November 11, 1994, Maconchy's music was in temporary eclipse on British concert programs. With the inclusion of her Oboe Quintet and Theme and Variations for Strings on the touring programs of the prominent British chamber ensemble The Ambache in the early 2000s, however, Maconchy's reputation would begin to outlast her lifetime. A 1989 recording of her complete string quartets, originally released on the Unicorn label, was reissued on the Regis imprint, and the centenary of her birth in 2007 promised additional performances and recordings.
Independent (London, England), April 13, 2001.
Times (London, England), November 12, 1994.
"Elizabeth Maconchy," Chester Novello, http://www.chesternovello.com (February 11, 2007).
"Elizabeth Maconchy: Intense but Disciplined," Contemporary Music Centre, http://www.cmc.ie/articles/article-maconchy.html (February 11, 2007).
"Elizabeth Maconchy," MusicWeb International, http://www.musicweb-international.com/maconchy/index.htm (February 11, 2007).