The Maconchy Quartet

On their namesake and the representation of women in classical music.

The Maconchy Quartet is a string quartet with an agenda: to promote the music of Elizabeth Maconchy and integrate her back into the canon of celebrated British composers. Their first violinist, Maren Bosma, is also currently setting up her own festival aimed at furthering links between music and academia as well as promoting music and performers whose work has gone undiscovered due to various social constraints. I met Maren and Eloise near the Royal College of Music, where the quartet was formed, to discuss their motivation, future plans and the group’s vision for the representation of women in music.

The Maconchy Quartet: Maren Bosma (violin), Joanna Patrick (viola), Lily Hope (cello), Eloise MacDonald (violin).

How did you start working together?

Eloise: We first came together at the beginning of 2018 for a performance celebrating International Women’s Day.

Maren: At the time we were all at the Royal College of Music, and Eloise was doing a project on women in music.

E: I was doing a project on Elizabeth Maconchy. I put on a lecture recital based on her cycle of 13 quartets, which we performed extracts from, and the group developed from there.

Was it natural for Maconchy to then become your namesake?

E: Yeah – her life was very inspiring. She managed to raise a family whilst being thought of as the premier British composer, even ahead of Benjamin Britten before World War II. She did a lot as an advocate for composers, working as the head of different societies advocating new music.

How do you choose what music to programme?

E: Our programming is inspired firstly by Maconchy’s quartets, and then works by her different influences. We focus on British music (her teacher at the RCM was Vaughan Williams), music by female composers, Eastern European music (she studied in Prague and had a love of Bartok’s music), contemporary music – those are the closest links to her as a composer. We want to integrate her music, and the other undiscovered or forgotten music that we play, into the canon by programming it alongside better-known works.

What are your thoughts on the way that women are represented in classical music?

M: What I’ve seen personally is that a lot of the efforts trying to bring women forward in music result in them actually being set apart, with their music being programmed as “female music”. That goes against the whole point because then they are being programmed because of their gender and not their music.

That’s why we’ve chosen to start with performing Maconchy’s quartets alongside more canonic works that might have influenced her, placing this relatively unknown music on the same level as music that people already know. We’re not making a big thing of her being a woman, we’re just saying, ‘this piece was influenced by this piece, and it programmes well with this other piece’. We believe this is a much more effective way of representing female composers – above all we want it to be about the music.

E: I’ve noticed how many of these female composers that have since been forgotten achieved enormous success during their lifetimes. So the fact that they are no longer played seems really strange. Maconchy died as recently as 1994 and most people haven’t heard of her! That’s been the case with many, many female composers, that in their lifetime they are seen as really successful and then they’re just completely forgotten.

When Maconchy was studying at the RCM, she didn’t receive the prestigious Mendelssohn scholarship because the Director said, ‘you’re only going to go and get married and then you’re never going to write another note’. It’s been so systematic for so long that many people are just blind to the way it influences us.

At the end of the day we are driven by wanting to play good music. We’re not saying that masterpieces by male composers are anything less than that, but just that there’s a whole realm of undiscovered masterpieces we want our audience to know about.

Is there a case for positive discrimination to redress the balance?

E: There are all sorts of organisations who still aren’t proportionately representing female composers: the Proms, classical music charts, halls of fame. In these cases positive discrimination might be necessary, but we believe the most important thing is integration. There’s no point programming a day or a week of music written by women and then none for the rest of the year.

M: There are two sides to the coin because I think whenever something very fundamental needs to be changed in society there’s always going to be a reaction against that change. So in the short term positive discrimination may be necessary, but I also think it’s really necessary to think about what underlying problems are.

What are your future goals as a group?

E: The dream would be to record each quartet from Maconchy’s cycle on a separate disc, alongside other quartets which were influential to her at the time she wrote each one. So for instance the first one could be paired with an early Bartok quartet which she had recently heard at the Albert Hall, the second maybe with a Janacek quartet as she was living in Prague and maybe the first Britten quartet, which was also written around the time of World War II. Of the 13 string quartets, there is only one existing recording of her cycle, and she still doesn’t have an official society, so these are some of the things we hope to address in the future.

We would also love to recreate some of the programmes from the Notting Hill Macnaghten-Lemare concert series, which was set up by Maconchy’s female contemporaries in the 1930’s, alongside some newly commissioned works inspired by those pieces.

Maren, your project ‘FAMA Music Festival’ is about to be launched, can you tell us more about it?

M: I wanted to set up a festival for undiscovered repertoire in general – not necessarily female composers but anything people haven’t heard before. While I was doing a lot of research I began to think about the library as a venue, and that then became one of the main themes of the festival. We will work together with libraries to showcase their special collections and build musical programmes around them. I want to strengthen the link between the artistic heritage this country has and the academic resources that are available to literally anyone who lives here.

I was spending a lot of time working with both the quartet and the festival, so they began to tie in together and I thought, this is a really good way to put forward composers and performers who haven’t been heard yet because of something like their gender, being a minority, being LGBTQ+, people who have struggled with poor mental health or disabilities. There are people out there who are doing such great work and not getting the credit or recognition they deserve and I want the festival to give them a platform.

The festival itself is going to be in early 2020. The launch event is on the 8th of May 2019 which is also our next performance as a quartet. The British Library recently acquired all of Elisabeth Lutyens’ correspondence and 100 of her notebooks, and it will be a lecture-recital based on these. Although she’s relatively unknown, she was a big deal and a really interesting person – she was the first English composer to bring serialism into the UK. She also went to the Royal College as well as Maconchy and Britten, so for this performance we have programmed three of their string quartets all written in the same year and will talk about at how their lives all connected. 

Let us be men or women, old or young, black or white; let us enjoy books, music; town and country; triviality and serious moments, fun and games; news and plays. But let us people and our varied activities and occupations be equally appreciated and truly integrated.

Elisabeth Lutyens

This is about so much more than a young chamber group trying to find a niche. Their passion and dedication to the cause is undeniable. Their sheer amount of knowledge on the issue, as well as the analysis and opinions which they articulated so intelligently, made editing the transcript for this interview a fascinating challenge. As a female working in music myself I was aware of the issue of under-representation, but everything Maren and Eloise said clarified how much further we still have to go in making changes on a fundamental level. The message to their audience: be curious, be open to music that is lesser-known or undiscovered for whatever reason, demand better representation and then enjoy the wealth of masterpieces out there waiting for you to discover.

More details and tickets for ‘A Musical Memoire: Maconchy – Lutyens – Britten’ at the British Library on the 8th of May can be found here.

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