"My Mom, the Composer"

For years, our friend George Yeh has been suggesting (or even pestering) us to focus a program on what he believes may be the only Mother-Daughter composer relationship in history (can you believe that!?) Lo and behold his persistence paid off. We are thrilled to be presenting these two very fine composers on our upcoming concert set. George graciously agreed to write their story up for us to share with you, complete with links to recordings and really great research.

We are so grateful to George for bringing these two artists to our attention, and for his faithful support of our mission. We also thank him for sponsoring the piano rental for this concert! THANK YOU GEORGE!

On the upcoming “Family Affair” concert by Chamber Project Saint Louis on February 11, many of the family relationships involve familiar names and conventional connections.  The Bach family is the most obvious example, with Johann Sebastian the illustrious father, and distinguished sons like Carl Philipp Emanuel (also featured on the program), Johann Christian, and Wilhelm Friedemann.  With respect to husbands and wives, the best-known classical music composer couple (not that there are many) is Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, at least for those who remember that Clara was both a composer and a celebrated pianist.  A famous family name attends to the siblings Fanny Mendelssohn and Felix Mendelssohn, although families with composer siblings seem to be quite rare in general, regardless of gender.

NIcola and Elizabeth. Courtesy of Nicola LeFanu's website.

However, the outlier family relationship on this program, in just about all demographic senses, is the pairing of Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) and her younger daughter Nicola LeFanu (born 1947).  The one mother-daughter pairing on this concert, this may well be the only such composer pairing in the history of classical music to date.  In 2007, Maconchy’s centenary and LeFanu’s 60th birthday year, concerts with music from mother and daughter took place in London, Belfast, and Dublin.  10 years later, in honor of Maconchy’s 110th anniversary year and LeFanu’s 70th birthday, one concert with music of both composers is scheduled for this May at the University of York, where LeFanu was formerly on the music faculty.  This CPSTL concert thus marks a rare event anywhere this year, and also might be the sole event in the US with both composers on one concert.

Given that classical music has historically been a man’s world, to state the very obvious, it would be easy to assume various struggles against sexism in their respective lives, at the very least for Maconchy, in earlier, “less enlightened” times.  A closer look at Maconchy’s life reveals a more nuanced picture, certainly with unpleasant incidents of sexist attitudes, but also with much support for Maconchy to pursue her vocation as a composer.

Elizabeth Maconchy

Elizabeth Maconchy

Maconchy showed talent for music at an early age, even though her own parents were not musical.  Her parents thus secured their daughter her fair share of music lessons during her childhood in Dublin.  She also began to compose, and progressed as a teenager to the point that she received lessons in harmony and counterpoint from the Irish composer John Larchet.  According to LeFanu, in her on-line biography of her mother, one of Maconchy’s Dublin teachers was so impressed as to advise the family that “she must go to the Royal College of Music”1 (RCM) in London.  After the death of her father in 1922 from tuberculosis, Violet, her mother, moved the family to her native England, to allow Maconchy to fulfill that advice.

Maconchy began her studies at the RCM in London in September 1923, where she wasn’t quite prepared for the faster pace of London life compared to Dublin.  As well, at age 16, she was younger than most of the RCM students, and still in grief over her father’s death,2 apart from any considerations about being female in a male-dominated environment.  Once acclimatized on campus, however, she progressed well as a pianist and as a composer.  Off-campus, she secured lessons in composition from Ralph Vaughan Williams, starting in 1925.  She became introduced to the music of Bartok about a year later, whose music would prove a great influence on her own voice.  Vaughan Williams reportedly said of Maconchy, once she completed studies with him, that he was:

“…very sorry to lose her, but I can teach her no more, she will work for her own salvation, she will go far.”3

Granted, it wasn’t all completely smooth sailing.  The single most notorious documented incident of sexist attitudes that Maconchy encountered at the RCM involved her application for the Mendelssohn Scholarship for overseas study, the RCM’s prize honor.  She applied after Vaughan Williams suggested that she continue her studies in Prague.  The adjudicators included the RCM’s director, Hugh Allen, who congratulated Maconchy the day after the interview on her winning the scholarship.  However, Maconchy had not won the award, which Allen apparently hadn’t realized.  According to Rhiannon Mathias (daughter of the Welsh composer William Mathias, and a flutist and writer on music), the ensuing conversation included a cringe-inducing, gratuitous comment that contradicted Allen’s nominal commiseration at her not winning:4

“…[Allen] replied that the adjudicators must have changed their minds after he had left the room.  He then added, ‘but anyway, if we’d given it to you, you’d only have gotten married and never written another note!’”4,5

This is obviously a very tacky comment, to put it mildly, if a commonplace reflection of earlier social attitudes.  However, it must be noted that during her time at the RCM, Maconchy never faced barriers, from Allen or anyone, to tackling any courses or subjects, or studying with whomever she wanted.  Remember also that Allen had assumed that Maconchy had won, which conveys Allen’s subliminal knowledge that she was a quality student, regardless of gender.  Ultimately, this story ended happily.  Maconchy won a different RCM award in 1928, the Octavia Traveling Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to Prague after all.  

    If anything, a much bigger life challenge for Maconchy resulted not from gender bias, but health.  Full-blown tuberculosis struck her around 1932, presumably the result of latent infection from her father that only blew up on her years later.  She and her husband William LeFanu adopted an English countryside lifestyle of “fresh air and sheer willpower”6, as she did not want to move to Switzerland for recuperation.  Over the rest of her life, while she still encountered general instances of prejudice against female composers, she and her music received praise and championing from such influential British musical figures of the time as Sir Henry Wood and Donald Tovey, as well as Vaughan Williams.  Maconchy became friends with composers of her generation like Michael Tippett (a classmate at the RCM) and Benjamin Britten.  She also formed great friendships with fellow composer Grace Williams and violinist Anne Macnaughten, who became a strong champion of Maconchy’s music.  Maconchy was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1977, and named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1987, the second woman composer in UK history to be made DBE. 

    Perhaps the heart of Maconchy’s achievements as a composer is her series of 14 string quartets.  This writer recalls that the Mid-County branch of the St. Louis County Library had at least one CD of Maconchy’s quartets (if some enterprising reader who happens to be in the library’s neighborhood can confirm if they’re still there, that would be nice to know).  You can check out one of her string quartets, No. 13, from a 2013 concert at London’s Cadogan Hall, as part of that summer’s Proms, at the following video:

By comparison, LeFanu didn’t have to concern herself with overtly sexist attitudes the way her mother did.  Of course, it helped to have an extraordinary and unique mother as a role model.  Growing up, LeFanu attended concerts with her mother, and listened a great deal to the BBC’s Third Programme. Originally, she thought of becoming a playwright rather than a composer.  She sometimes wrote songs to go with the plays, and gradually realized that she was better at writing music than plays.  One obvious question here is how present the mother’s work was in the daughter’s work.  On this question, and regarding her own early efforts, LeFanu recollected:

“She was always extraordinarily supportive but she didn’t help directly; I think she was very nervous of pushing it….My mother didn’t formally teach either my sister or myself because she thought it was not a good idea for parents to teach their children, but she was very supportive.”7

LeFanu also stated this interesting perspective about artists in general:

“I don’t see composers or writers or anyone as on a pedestal; I don’t have a nineteenth-century view of them like Wagner did; maybe that is the advantage of having had a mother who was a composer.”7

LeFanu studied music at Oxford, and soon after at the RCM, following in her mother’s footsteps.  Ironically, at the RCM, LeFanu won the Mendelssohn Scholarship.  After graduation, she spent several years as a freelance composer, and did graduate studies at Harvard.  In 1979, she married a fellow composer, David Lumsdaine.  Their son, Peter, was born in 1982.  She and Lumsdaine held a joint post at King’s College London from 1981 to 1992.8  She then became a professor on the music faculty of the University of York in 1994, and was department head from 1994 to 2001.  She retired from York in 2008.

Regarding her own life, LeFanu recalled that a bigger challenge of being a composer was the classic career-family balance, rather than any sort of gender prejudice:

“I didn’t have a full-time job until I came to York in 1994, so I could always put composition first.  During the years at King’s College London, David and I had a job-share, which was ideal.  I would compose at home in the mornings and teach in the afternoon, and inevitably I lived an incredibly hectic life because I also enjoyed being a wife and mother.”7

In retrospect, LeFanu realized that she was very lucky to come of age as a composer when opportunities for female composers were particularly strong, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s:

“I came to London’s concert halls as a young woman and heard The Fires of London playing Gillian Whitehead, the Allegri Quartet playing Jennifer Fowler, Jane Manning singing Erika Fox, the CBSO [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra] playing a new orchestral work of mine... I believed, in my naivety, that this was the beginning of the good times; that all that Elisabeth Lutyens, Priaulx Rainier, my mother Elizabeth Maconchy and the other women composers in that generation had stood for and struggled for was finally bearing fruit.”9

Nicola LeFanu

Nicola LeFanu

However, by the mid-1980’s, this environment had distinctly retreated for women in British classical music.  LeFanu addressed entrenched and unconscious gender bias in the field in a public lecture titled “Master Musician: An Impregnable Taboo?”, which she delivered almost exactly 30 years ago, at the “Women in Music” weekend in London over February 6-8, 1987.  (The immediately previous quote from LeFanu is from this lecture.)  In an interview published in 2006, she recalled how she was motivated to research the issue in detail:

“I felt that I had had terrific opportunities and so I was somebody who could speak up without being accused of having a chip on my shoulder.  It was obvious to me that you cannot combat sexism with sexism, which is a mistake that is often made.  If you take one group who are suffering and show up prejudices then you’re probably helping all the groups who are suffering, which was not easily understood by those men who criticized us and said that we were creating ghettos and so on.  They didn’t realize that what we were pointing out was a certain very territorial and self-regarding oligarchy in the English musical establishment, which ironically is still there.”7

In a 2008 interview with the MUSE Choir of Cincinnati, LeFanu acknowledged that she was quite fortunate in her own life as a composer:

“Prejudice is seldom overt these days, but it exists, nevertheless. I'd like to think, since UK has such a number of fine women composers, that things were getting better; but then, things were very good for women composers when I began, in the nineteen sixties.  So I don't take for granted that all the old prejudices have completely gone away.  But for myself, I have not been discriminated against as far as I know.”10

One can see that LeFanu has advocated for the greater presence of women composers on general principle, rather than out of self-interest, since by her own admission, she knew that had it good personally in her own professional life.  It thus only makes sense that she would advocate that other female composers should enjoy similar barrier-free careers.

    We can ask, of course, how much things have changed in the last decade in the UK for female composers.  Such a question is well beyond the remit of this blog post, of course.  The single most visible positive sign is the 2014 appointment of Judith Weir as Master of the Queen’s Music, the first woman in the post’s nearly 400-year history.  In London, at The Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, composers like Weir and Sally Beamish, and Charlotte Bray, Tansy Davies, and Anna Meredith from the next generation, have become regular featured composers. 

LeFanu herself continues to compose, where her recent works include a chamber opera, Tokaido Road (2014), which you can sample on-line from a February 2015 performance at the Guildhall School in London:

Her other recent compositions include Threnody for orchestra (2015), and “A Birthday Card for Jane O’Leary” for solo piano (2016).  Her very newest opus is scheduled to premiere on February 17 in London, The Crimson Bird for soprano and orchestra, a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society.

It remains to hope to see you at this concert at The Chapel on February 11, and to send early happy 70th birthday greetings to Nicola LeFanu from St. Louis, Missouri, USA.


  1. LeFanu, Nicola, “Elizabeth Maconchy DBE (1907-1994)”.  ‘MusicWeb International’ website, October 7, 2007.

  2. Mathias, Rhiannon, Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music.  Ashgate Publishing Limited (Farnham, England), p. 16 (2012).

  3. Anderson, Martin, “Our finest lost composer”.  The Independent, April 13, 2001.

  4. Mathias, p. 28.

  5. Interestingly, LeFanu reverses the attributed sentiments, in her 2007 on-line bio of her mother, that the adjudicators were in favor, but Allen was against, quoting the same comment.  However, Mathias had cited Maconchy’s own reminiscences in a 1985 TV documentary for the UK’s Channel 4, Elizabeth Maconchy: A Video Portrait.  Maconchy quipped that the adjudicators were “aged about ninety”.  So, with all due respect to LeFanu, this writer leans more to Mathias’ recounting of the story.

  6. Mathias, pp. 51-52.

  7. Haddon, Elizabeth, Making Music in Britain.  Ashgate Publishing Limited (Aldershot, England), pp. 119-135 (2006).

  8. LeFanu, Nicola, “David Lumsdaine: A biographical appreciation”.  ‘The music of David Lumsdaine’ website, 2012.

  9. LeFanu, Nicola, “Master Musician: An Impregnable Taboo?”  Lecture given at “Women in Music”, February 6-8, 1987, South Bank Centre, London.

  10. A Conversation with Composer Nicola LeFanu”.  MUSE News, Fall 2008.