Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World by Leah Broad - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

They Struck a Chord

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World


Faber & Faber 480pp £20

The arresting subtitle of this absorbing book is contradicted by the story it tells: the four female British composers on which it focuses emphatically did not ‘change the musical world’. Rather the opposite: they enjoyed a modicum of public acclaim before fading into obscurity.

Leah Broad traces the lives of Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen with admirable sympathy and verve, but even though she is unabashedly partisan on their behalf, she is hard-pushed to find any conscious patriarchal conspiracy to repress or deter them. In fact, they were largely welcomed and encouraged by the establishment, as was a subsequent generation of female composers led by Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens and Grace Williams.

Any claim that they have been unjustly neglected should be made alongside an acknowledgement that a much larger number of their male contemporaries – Arthur Bliss, George Lloyd, John Veale, Alan Rawsthorne, Humphrey Searle and Edmund Rubbra, for a start – have suffered a similar fate. Changes of taste

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