Text: Dr Sophie Fuller
When was I woke? When did I first start to care about women who had created music that was lying unplayed and unheard? When did I become so determined to make their voices sing again?
I thought I knew about 20th-century chamber music, but hearing the powerful driving rhythms that open Elizabeth Maconchy’s first string quartet, a work written in the early 1930s, jolted me out of my complacency. Here was music that spoke to me directly with urgency and passion. But why had I not heard it before? Why didn’t I know that Maconchy (1907-1994) had written string quartets throughout her long career? That she saw the string quartet as ‘an impassioned argument’? Why had I been taught about other string quartet composers of the 20th century (Bartók, Britten, Shostakovich…) but not her? Why was men’s music so easily available? There were many different recordings, different interpretations of Bartók’s six, Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets, Britten’s three (and even also of his schoolboy quartets, that he had disowned!) There were scholarly articles about all these works… but a deafening silence when it came to Maconchy’s thirteen.
Nearly 25 years ago, I published The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629-present. This book, aimed at a general reader, told the stories of just some of the women whose music I had got to know. It has always been supremely important to me that we don’t just tell their stories (fascinating as they so often are) but that we also make the music live and breathe again. I was a part of Women in Music, an organization that fought for all women who wanted to make and had made all sorts of music. We organized festivals and listening exhibitions, but maybe we were just too polite?
The time has come to stop playing nice and to start shouting. Through Venus Blazing, I will be shouting at the top of my voice and our remarkable, creative students will be doing what they do so well, bringing the music to life.
As I write this in March 2018, a small group of Trinity Laban students – undergraduates and postgraduates, women and men – have just finished a week-long project, part of our innovative CoLab festival, in which they explored music by Maconchy and the British women composers who were her friends and contemporaries. It was a happy and satisfying week, when singers, string players, a pianist and an oboist discovered for themselves how rewarding it can be to play this music. At the informal concert they gave at the end of the week we heard plenty of songs and the remarkable, haunting oboe quartet Driving out the Death op.81 (1971) by Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983). For me this was a small taste of what will happen next year when we will be encouraging and supporting our students to make their own discoveries of women’s music.
There is so much out there – music for all instruments and voices, music in every conceivable genre, music to laugh with and dance to, music to make us think and music to make us feel. It’s time we heard some different voices.