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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

An art that silences women

By Norman Lebrecht / April 12, 2006

When the BBC Proms are announced at the end of the month, they will be built around the usual clutch of anniversaries of composers great and small. Somewhere at the periphery you may find a pair of lively centenarians, uncelebrated elsewhere. The two have little in common beyond a date of birth in 1906, a vocation and a disability that excludes them from the classical canon. Both, in other words, are women.

Elizabeth Lutyens, daughter of the New Delhi architect acclaimed in his day as the greatest since Christopher Wren, was the first English musician to adopt the serial method of composition pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg.

Grace Williams, born to a pair of parish schoolteachers in the Welsh docks town of Barry, studied with Vaughan Williams, was warmly admired by Britten and wrote in a lushly decadent Straussian style until, in mid-life, she discovered a satisfying idiom rooted in Welsh cadences.

Both were enduringly influential. Among Lutyens' students were Peter Maxwell Davies, present Master of the Queen's Musick, as well as his predecessor Malcom Williamson who said of her that she was the one composer in Britain who Îwas thinking in world terms: she had mentally crossed the Channel.' Others who clustered around her skirts include Richard Rodney Bennett, Harrison Birtwistle and William Glock, the all-powerful, austere controller of music on the BBC.

Grace Williams left her mark stylistically on every subsequent Welsh symphonist, none of much wider renown but collectively the voice of a nation. Without Grace, Wales has no modern concert music to call its own.

Which begs the question why, apart from the obvious gender impediment, are these two remarkable and distinctly gifted women so glaringly unperformed? There are, as you might suspect, a clutch of personal reasons, along with a whiff of scandal.

Lizzie Lutyens was a crabby soul who frustrated by professional neglect, turned alcoholic, anti-social and venomously anti-semitic. Strikingly ugly, almost simian-looking, she boasted embarrassingly of her sexual appetites - ÎI've had a hundred lovers, 99 men and one woman, and the woman was by far the best.' She was prone to accosting uniformed men on intercity trains.

Lutyens married a fellow-misanthrope, a BBC producer called Edward Clark who was a Schoenberg pupil, an avowed Communist and the Corporation's main point of contact with European modernism. Clark was roundly loathed by colleagues and forced into early retirement. In a celebrated 1950s libel case before the future Lord Scarman, he sued the composer William Frankel for alleging that he embezzled funds from musical trusts and used his position to advance second-rate Communist composers. Clark won the case, but his reputation was ruined and Lizzie's works were further prejudiced by the libel chill.

Grace Williams lived, by comparison, an innocuous life. She mingled with racy set in 1930s London and took a Polish lover, but she maintained a sturdy discretion while working mostly for the BBC. In 1947, dogged by ill-health, she returned to Barry to be cared for by her elderly parents in bracing sea air.

She appears to have been one of the very first women to write a film score, Blue Scar (1948) - directed by Jill Craigie, wife of the radical Labour MP, Michael Foot. Her choral suite, The Dancers, was premiered by an Australian ingénue, Joan Sutherland. A comic opera, The Parlour, was staged at Cardiff in 1966 and the bulk of her output was aimed at reviving Welsh culture, sacrificing whatever foothold she might have earned in the broader mainstream. Her friendship with Britten persisted to his death; he, however, was never much inclined to promote a friend's compositions.

Music's loss, for sure, since Williams wrote fluently and engagingly for orchestra and voice. The Dancers, recorded by Richard Hickox on Chandos, is a rustic delight, freshly baked and not excessively indulgent in folk nostalgia. The Fantasy on Welsh Nursery Tunes exists on three commercial recordings by London orchestras, the LSO taking a particular interest in her work as its chairman at the time, Anthony Camden, premiered her oboe concerto. Camden, a robust orchestral politician, died sadly last month in Australia; it would be a nice gesture if the LSO played Williams' Carillons at a Barbican concert in his memory.

Lutyens' music is tougher to crack, harder to find. Bits and bobs have been done on NMC Recordings, an Îindependent, charitable' label which takes in forlorn composers like Battersea does stray dogs. Written in abstruse atonal formulae, the music bristles with restless energy and, on second hearing, reveals a lyrical expressiveness. Quincunx (1960) for soprano, baritone and orchestra, sits squarely in the idiom of Schoenberg's mighty Five Pieces for Orchestra; Requiescat (1970), written in memory of Stravinsky, is a seductive elegy for soprano and small ensemble.

Struggling to obtain commissions, Lutyens laboured conscientiously for British films, mostly for the Hammer Horror set but also for Jill Craigie - To Be A Woman - and for the cultish Richard Todd, Elke Sommer vehicle, Don't Bother to Knock. Her last film was Dutch soft porn, Secrets of Naughty Susan.

That a composer of high accomplishment should be reduced to earning her crust on the red-light writhings of Amsterdam whores is a searing indictment of the musical establishment. True, Lizzie was a high-risk dinner guest and a raving Nazi on the subject of Jews. But her work is, by every objective assessment, powerful and attractive. It cries out to be heard, as does Grace Williams', but the prospects of a centennial reassessment have been crushed by the same forces of sexual discrimination that oppressed the two women in life. If either of them gets five minutes at the Proms, that will be more mass attention than they have received in a decade.

The situation is beyond scandalous: it is suicidal. If ever you wondered why classical music is in decline, it is because its publishers and promoters have wilfully excluded one half of the human race from the creative process. There are no women in the symphonic canon. Isolated attempts have been made at raparation - Karin Rehnquist is the most performed composer in Sweden this year and Daniel Barenboim has nobly supported Augusta Read Thomas as composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - but this is too little, too late, to repair damage to past careers, and to the confidence of women who have been told, down the generations, that their voice is worthless. Lutyens and Williams are victims of an old boys' club that is driving classical music to the wall.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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