The Maconchy Project

“Music is an intellectual art, a balanced and reasoned statement of ideas, an impassioned argument, an intense but disciplined expression of emotion.”

Elizabeth Maconchy

British composer Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) was one of the most recognized composition talents in the mid-20th century. Throughout her life, she enjoyed recognition and praise for her music. Henry Wood, founder of the BBC Proms, premiered her works at Promenade concerts and her works received awards such as the Edwin Evans Prize (1948) and the London City Counsel Prize (1953), organized to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1981, My Dark Heart for soprano solo and six instruments was commissioned by the Royal College of Music on the celebration of their centenary and was appointed an honorary fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1977. She served as Chairwoman of the Composer’s Guild in Great Britain and became the President of the Society for the Promotion of Good Music after her friend and previous president of the SPGM*, Benjamin Britten’s death in 1976. However, despite the prominence of her career and life’s work, Maconchy compositions are virtually unknown today.

With the influence of Holst and Vaughan Williams on her music, her early works are reflective of the continued line of distinctly “British Music” that Vaughan Williams, in particular, endeavored to establish. However, early on in her composition studies at the RCM, the music of Béla Bartók caught Maconchy’s interest. Although studying with him was never a viable option for her during her student years, the progression of her compositional output throughout the 20th century clearly displays his influence. Particularly evident in her string quartets, Maconchy develops a technique of development and variation on short motivic materials and nontraditional scales. Within her orchestral work, similar techniques can be heard that incorporate her British Nationalist background with the harmonic transformations of Bartok. For example, her Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-53) and Music for Strings (1981-82) demonstrates this marriage of influences. Through the string orchestra, a genre for which both Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams are famously known, she presents works that—through techniques traceable to Bartok—are clearly divergent from the lush harmonies inherited by her teacher yet still maintain the essence of the Nationalist tradition from which she came.

Vaughan Williams was a “hands off” teacher and was known to tell his students that they must “work out their own salvation.” Some have argued that this passive attitude toward his students—including Elizabeth Maconchy—prevented them from blossoming into their full potential. Maconchy seems to have taken seriously the intention behind the quip and worked quietly and consistently out of the international spotlight to find her own voice in a tradition which did not quite fit her personality or style. In that way, she exhibits a style and musical personality completely unique; a style that can be seen as an organic progression out of the British Nationalist movement into the post-modern 20th century.

Project Goals

The Maconchy Project brings select orchestral works by Elizabeth Maconchy to greater attention through performance, research, and the creation of new editions of her works. There will be 4 written components to the project, one presentation, and one performance. Written materials will include: 1) An analytical article highlighting Maconchy’s compositional style, particularly pertaining to the Nationalist movement in Great Britain and the self proclaimed influence of Bartok on her music, 2) accompanying historical, analytical, and methodological materials, 3) newly typeset editions of Serenata Concertante and Music for Strings, and 4) program notes to accompany the final concert performance.

*In a previous version of this abstract, the word “mentor” was used to describe the relationship between Britten and Maconchy. It has been removed as it does not adequately capture the mutual influence and advocacy that their relationship enjoyed.

Current Works in Preparation

Music for Strings (1983)
Published by Chester Music
Status: Awaiting Publication

Serenata Concertante for Violin and Orchestra (1962)
Published by Chester Music
Status: In Preparation

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