‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea’: Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet

Plaque in Shottesbrook, Boreham, UK. Picture is shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
Plaque in Shottesbrook, Boreham, UK, taken by Sludge G. Picture is shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Last year I wrote about my embarrassing ignorance of music by women composers, and my vow to educate myself. I mentioned that even a short time spent searching YouTube had revealed lots of surprising and brilliant classical music by women, and that the string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94) had immediately stood out as revelatory. Now I want to return to these works with a blog of their own.

The YouTube videos came from what is, shockingly, the only commercial recording set of these 13 quartets yet released. While listening, I was immediately struck by Maconchy’s compelling writing; here was a razor-sharp musical intelligence completely inhabiting a musical medium. In fact it is remarkable how easy it is in these works to forget that you are listening to a string quartet. The instrumentation is totally synthesised into the musical message – Maconchy plays to the natural expressive strengths of the instruments without drawing attention to their limitations with excessive demands.

The first movement of her second quartet, composed at age 29, demonstrates her mastery. It builds from a low drone, the parts twisting and turning around each other with gathering momentum like the evolving shapes of a bonfire taking hold. No instrument takes centre stage; instead the parts work together in a tightly knit argument of motifs, ebbing and flowing in fascinating ways while effortlessly driving a sense of drama. Maconchy always keeps you guessing, resisting any sense of resolution until the final tentative major chord. I find it utterly compelling and – if perhaps unconventionally – beautiful.

In 2007 the On An Overgrown Path blog posted an insightful and lovingly-written advocacy of Maconchy and her quartets, which I encourage you to read. The author describes the ‘conundrum’ that she poses: ‘vital and astringent music combined with an unassuming personality’. There is certainly an enigma to these works, a fascination deriving from the combination of their expressive qualities with a restless abstraction. Maconchy’s notes to her sixth quartet offers an insight into her approach:

Writing music, like all creative art, is the impassioned pursuit of an idea […] in my view everything extraneous to the pursuit of this central idea must be rigorously excluded – scrapped.

The thirteen quartets span over fifty years of composition. The remnants of traditional tonality in her second quartet do not survive into her late works, which are more brutal in their dissonance and often more reticent in their textures.  Her ’impassioned pursuit of an idea’ seems to have given way to a landscape which is much more fractured and complex. This evolution was not confined to her string quartets, as Maconchy’s daughter Nicola LeFanu – a composer in her own right – described in these comprehensive biographical notes about her mother:

She had left behind a harmony based on familiar tonal or modal hierarchies, for a language that is more exploratory. Her melodies became more expansive and her sensitivity to timbre, notable from her earliest work, was strengthened […].

It’s a considerable change of style, but Maconchy was perhaps moving with the times: the eleventh quartet was composed in 1976, and has an uncompromising strangeness, a resistance to being easily understood which to this day seems to be a default setting in so much new classical music (contrast this to the serenely beautiful late quartet of Rubbra I recently wrote about, which was composed the following year).

Sadly, the severe neglect of Maconchy’s works that On An Overgrown Path highlighted in 2007 has barely changed 8 years on, with performances few and far between. Yet when she is performed, reactions tends to be positive: her two chamber operas The Sofa and The Departure got aired in that centenary year to good reviews, her third quartet made an appearance at the 2013 Proms, and another quartet outing in 2012 had one unsuspecting tweeter summing up my reaction to hearing her music for the first time.


In considering Maconchy’s neglect, perhaps a useful comparison is Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). Just four years older than Maconchy, she excelled in another abstract form: sculpture. I’m a music graduate, yet I was aware of Hepworth’s work long before I was aware of Maconchy. Why? Because I saw her sculptures in galleries. I didn’t need an art degree to pick up a sense that she is considered important – Britain’s cultural establishment told me so. As if to illustrate my point, there is even a whole exhibition dedicated to her work at Tate Britain right now.

There are limitations to this comparison of course, but it nonetheless illustrates something. Tate Britain has a free collection in central London dedicated to Britain’s heritage in visual art. A public institution of equivalent stature to promote Britain’s contribution to classical music is both sorely lacking and sorely needed. (Maconchy was Irish, though having lived and worked for most of her life in England was undoubtedly part of Britain’s musical landscape). I’m not sure what form such an institution should take. But as I argued on St. George’s Day, no one will look after our music if we don’t.

And inevitably, Maconchy’s marginal status raises another question. Does classical music fail its women of the past even more than other art forms? To me it certainly looks like it. Radio 3’s long overdue Women’s Day showed how much fabulous music there is by historic women composers, yet this is not remotely reflected in concerts. It’s partly bound up in the bigger problem of our repertoire being too narrow across the board, and as such, it’s hard to unpick how much the neglect of someone like Maconchy is down to her being a woman, or her just not yet being a bankable name. But it’s certainly interesting that all the bankable names still seem to be men.

So what does it take for a composer like Maconchy get the same kudos as Hepworth? For all the disruptive potential of social media and blogs, it’s still establishment institutions and the mainstream media that hold the most sway over the public’s sense of what, or who, is important. Their decisions can significantly change perceptions – the BBC’s recent decision to give the women’s football world cup much more prominent coverage is a case in point.

But even without institutional support, it does surprise me that more string quartets haven’t seized on Maconchy’s works. The first seven quartets in particular should hold no fear for audiences fed on a seemingly limitless supply of Shostakovich. And the more I listen to Maconchy, the more fascinating and brilliant she becomes: respecting the intelligence of the listener without ever trespassing on his or her patience, never striving for the monumental, but producing superbly crafted music of real integrity. Her music doesn’t need a gender gap to justify being championed, but the fact that we have one – one so stark and persistent – surely makes not doing so unjustifiable.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

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