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The women classical music forgot

Leah Broad’s Quartet restores the pioneering work and colourful lives of Britain’s finest female composers.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Gender inequality is a stubborn presence in classical music. Worldwide, 8.2 per cent of orchestral concerts feature works by women. In the US, they make up just 1.8 per cent of the total music played by the top American orchestras. It’s into this landscape that the Oxford academic Leah Broad brings Quartet, a group biography of four British women composers who, across the late-19th and 20th centuries, made significant contributions to the classical world that cultural history has duly forgotten.

There is Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003), a young star at the Royal Academy of Music who became a formidable composer for film. There is Dorothy Howell (1898-1982), whose tone poem “Lamia” premiered to rapturous applause at the 1919 Proms, when she was 21. There is Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), a violist who in 1912 became one of the first six women in England to be employed in a professional orchestra. And there is Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), the “grande dame” of Quartet.

Smyth was “completely unrepresentative” of most women composers of her time, Broad writes. “Indeed, she was lucky she was embraced as an eccentric and not institutionalised as a lunatic. Few could lead a life as bold as hers. Few, perhaps, would want to.”

Smyth demonstrated defiance from a young age. Her first obstacle was her father, a major-general who disapproved of her wish to pursue music. She resisted him, moving to Leipzig to study composition aged 19. From there she steadily built a career, her most notable works including the operas The Wreckers and Der Wald, the choral work “Hey Nonny No” and Mass in D.

Smyth was a tweed-clad socialite, a New Woman who played golf and rode a bicycle. She avoided labelling her sexuality, but Broad uses her rich archive of diaries and letters to detail the many romantic relationships Smyth had with men and women. She met William Wilde, brother of Oscar, on a trip to Ireland. On the ship back to England, a queasy Smyth vomited on him – but still he proposed. They were engaged but did not marry. Later she had an affair with Emmeline Pankhurst, whose suffragette cause the composer took up, writing the movement’s anthem, “The March of the Women”, in 1910. In 1912 she served a short sentence in Holloway for throwing stones at a politician’s residence as part of a protest. In prison she led fellow suffrage inmates in song as she conducted “The March of the Women” from her window with her toothbrush.

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She befriended Virginia Woolf, a relationship Broad describes as “tempestuous”: Woolf wrote of Smyth’s “general look of angry energy”, the way she “reminded me of a ptarmigan – those speckled birds with fetlocks”. From early on, Smyth knew that talent alone would not be enough. “Hard work was possible,” Broad writes, playfully, “humility she would find a little more difficult.”

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Women who excel in male-dominated fields are often held to different standards: the controversy around Cate Blanchett’s conductor in Tár has shown how uncomfortable we are with a woman displaying the kind of moral shortcomings we associate with men. Broad resists heralding her composers as moral heroes. Carwithen had an affair with a married man for more than 20 years – Broad’s sympathies lie with his wife.

It is, of course, their work that matters, and the challenge in a book such as this is to make the music feel as vivid as the people. For the most part Broad rises to it. Clarke “finishes her songs like a novelist concluding with a final sentence that contains the single most important question of the whole book, making you reappraise everything you’ve just read”. Only a line about Carwithen’s “spicy harmonic and rhythmic surprises” being like “a chunk of chilli at the middle of a Werther’s Original” feels unnecessarily put on.

Quartet’s primary concern is legacy: who the culture decides to remember. All four composers were pioneers – yet across three generations, little changed. Carwithen was born 64 years after Smyth and suffered much the same sexism from programmers and critics. While Smyth was the first woman to have her work performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she remained the only one for more than a century – until Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin was played in 2016.

Quartet makes a forceful case for re-establishing these four women as composers of note. Upon finishing the book, I quickly sought out Clarke’s searing sonata for viola, and then Carwithen’s energetic soundtrack for the 1949 drama Boys in Brown. It’s up to orchestra leaders, conductors and concert organisers to do the same.

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World
Leah Broad
Faber & Faber, 480pp, £20

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere