Elizabeth Maconchy was a fiercely individual Irish-English composer who wrote music that was often highly dissonant, contrapuntal, intense, even disturbing—and far from the more pastoral, lyrical music of fellow Britons such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams (who taught her composition at the Royal College of Music and remained a lifelong friend). She was the only musician in her family and thus lacked some of the musical resources that bolstered the talents and ambitions of other women composers. In a wonderful chapter on Maconchy from Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Anna Beer writes that the composer had “no piano-teacher father to produce lessons, no sibling composer with whom to collaborate, no concert halls, no soirées or salons, just an urgent inner compulsion and lifelong commitment to expressing herself in music.”
That compulsion was nourished by many people in her life: the teachers she encountered at the Royal College of Music; her husband who championed her creative efforts over the course of the more than sixty years they were married; and fellow women musicians who supported her as she supported them. (The composers Imogen Holst and Grace Williams studied with Maconchy in London and met regularly to discuss each other’s music, and the conductor Iris Lemare, the violinist Anne Mcnaughten, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens created a series of concerts to showcase new music by young composers and strongly promoted Maconchy’s music through the 1930s.)
Maconchy wrote a wide variety of music—symphonies, concertos, ballets, operas, choral works, chamber music (including thirteen astonishing string quartets), and many songs. The two featured here come from the late 1920s. Both are world-premiere recordings, and one of them (“In Fountain Court,” a hushed and meditative song about the coming of sleep) was recorded from a handwritten manuscript in Maconchy’s archive at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Maconchy’s music is receiving increasing attention, but more editions, performances, and studies of her music are needed. Here are some useful resources for those interested in learning more about her life and work:
- Beer, Anna. Chapter 8 of Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, 287–324. London: Oneworld, 2016.
- Doctor, Jennifer. “Intersecting Circles: the Early Careers of Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens and Grace Williams.” Women & Music 2 (1998): 90–109.
- Doctor, Jennifer, and Sophie Fuller, eds. Music, Life, and Changing Times : Selected Correspondence Between British Composers Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams, 1927–77. Vols. 1 and 2. Abingdon: Routledge, 2019.
- Mathias, Rhiannon. Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
- Loges, Natasha. “In Focus: Dr Natasha Loges on Elizabeth Maconchy.” Royal College of Music. November 20, 2020. Educational video, 4:30.
- Songs of Elizabeth Maconchy & Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vol. 1. James Greer, tenor, and Ronald Woodley, piano. Resonus RES10299, 2022, compact disc. [Includes seven songs by Elizabeth Maconchy.]
- My podcast episode on Maconchy’s song “In Fountain Court.”