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Elizabeth Maconchy


"Music should be passionately intellectual and intellectually passionate. Just intellectual would make the music dry and driven by an emotional force; whereas, passion without a mind behind it is none at all."
Elizabeth Maconchy

The British composer was born in Broxbourne, Hertfortshire as a child of Irish parents on 19 March 1907. Although she grew up in a musically uninterested family, she had already decided at the age of six to become a composer.

She studied at the Royal College of Music in London compo-sition under Charles Wood and Vaughan Williams and piano under A. Alexander from 1923 to 1927.

After being a student of Williams for nearly one year Maconchy discovered the music of Bela Bartók, which was a revelation to her.

After leaving the RCM, Vaughan Williams recommended her further study in Prague, rather than in Vienna. In 1929 she studied for a few weeks under Karel Jirak. She did visit Vienna and there are stories of her smoking cigars with fellow student Grace Williams in the city's streets and cafés.

In 1930 Jirak conducted the première of her Piano Concerto with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The soloist was Erwin Schulhoff. In the same year Henry Wood gave the first performance of her orchestral suite The Land. It was a great success for the composer.

Some of her work was performed as part of the MacNaugh-ton-Lemare concerts and, in 1933, her Oboe Quintet won the Daily Telegraph chamber-music prize. It was also the year of her String Quartet No. 1, the medium to which she felt the most affinity.

Her Quartet No. 5, written in Ireland in 1948, was her first to attract a wide audience.

It may not be hyperbole to state that Maconchy was, and still remains, the finest British composer of music for strings ... not only in her 13 string quartets, although she did not number the last one, '13' being an unlucky number, but also in her Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1945-8) and her Music for Strings.

As already stated her string writings are exemplary; some believe it is not unlike Tippett and it is vastly superior to Elgar. Indeed, her favorite instrument is the viola.

In the 1950s and 1960s she turned to opera, writing three one-act operas, namely The Sofa (1957), The Departure (1961) and The Three Strangers which was completed in 1967. She composed Music for Brass and Woodwind (1966) and the dra-matic monologue Ariadne (1970) for soprano and orchestra. Nine years later, the Croydon Philharmonic Society performed Héloise and Abélard, an Cantata for soprano, tenor and baritone, chorus and orchestra.

Possibly the finest of her choral works are the settings of Dylan Thomas's And Death Shall Have No Dominion for choir and brass (1969) and Louis MacNeide's Prayer Before Birth (1971).

Her compositions are performed around the world. Her daughter Nicola LeFanu also made a name for herself as a composer.

Elizabeth Maconchy died in 1994.

"... When she died in 1994 she bequeathed to the discerning British music public a very fine legacy of string quartets upon which she will be constantly judged. In this realm she set a high standard. There seems no foreseeable challenge to this achieve-ment. Perhaps she summed up her life of music when she said, 'Being a composer is a wonderful life sentence from which there is no escape'."      David Wright


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Elizabeth Maconchy