It was at the Proms in 1930, with the premiere of her orchestral suite The Land, conducted by Henry Wood, that Elizabeth Maconchy established her name as a composer of individuality and inventiveness.
Although born in England, she was of Irish descent and started to compose at the age of 6. She studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Wood and Vaughan Williams. At the college she had to struggle against the prevailing prejudice against women composers; she was denied the Mendelssohn scholarship on the grounds that once she was married she would cease composing and that, as a woman, she would not find a publisher.
However a different award enabled her to continue her studies in Prague with Karel Jirák, where her first major work, the Piano Concerto (1928) was performed. Far from giving up composing after her marriage to the medical historian William Lefanu (their second daughter is the composer Nicola Lefanu), her career steadily embraced all genres.
At the core of her compositions is the series of 12 string quartets written between 1933 and 1979. They demonstrate the major musical influences on her of Bartók and Janácek, as well as exemplifying the tightly knit thematic integration of her music derived from short, pithy motifs which are then developed using her natural flair for countrapuntal writing. Overall, chamber pieces form a major part of her legacy as recognised by the award of the Cobbett medal for services to chamber music.
Her operas include The Sofa (1956–7) and The Departure (1960–61, rev. 1977). The cantata Héloïse and Abelard (1976–8) is her major large-scale choral achievement and among orchestral works are the overture Proud Thames (1952–3), Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952–3), Serenata concertante for violin and orchestra (1962), and Music for Strings (1981–2), which have been recently re-released on CD. Frequently writing to commission, she showed flair in composing music for amateurs, as in the children’s opera The King of the Golden River (1975, rev. 1976).
Maconchy made important contributions to British musical life, for example as the first woman chairman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, and she succeeded Britten as President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. She was made a CBE in 1977 and a DBE a decade later. She summed up her approach succinctly: ‘Writing music, like all creative art, is the impassioned pursuit of an idea.’
Profile © Andrew Burn