Quartet is the stunning debut by biographer Leah Broad. It tells of the lives, loves, adventures and trailblazing musical careers of four extraordinary women. We were lucky enough to have a chat with Leah and hear about how she magnificently resurrects these forgotten voices, recounting lives of rebellion, heartbreak and ambition, while celebrating their musical masterpieces.
Quartet is, first and foremost, a social history spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A group biography that interlaces the lives of four pioneering English women composers. Can you tell us a bit more about these women and what drew you to tell their stories?
The four women in the book are Ethel Smyth (b. 1858), Rebecca Clarke (b. 1886), Dorothy Howell (b. 1898) and Doreen Carwithen (b. 1922). I was drawn to them first and foremost because of their music. All of them composed heart-stoppingly brilliant pieces that deserve to be heard. And beyond that, they all led fascinating and very different lives! Together they show that there was no one way to be a composer, or indeed to be a woman, in the twentieth century. Ethel was famous as the composer of six operas, being the first British woman to receive a damehood for services to composition, and for her role in the suffrage movement. Rebecca was a modernist pioneer and one of the first women to be hired into a professional orchestra in the UK. Dorothy was an overnight sensation at the 1919 Proms and went on to write major orchestral works and music for the Catholic church. And the last of the quartet, Doreen, was one of the first women in Britain to work primarily as a film composer. So quite an array of achievements between them!
The lives and careers of these four women are interweaved into a single chronological narrative. While the brilliant, difficult and controversial Ethel is undoubtedly the centrepiece, how aware were you of not letting Ethel’s huge personality dominate the achievements of the others?
Very! I tried very hard to not let Ethel dominate (which I’m sure would have annoyed her immensely). She’s a larger-than-life personality, but I hope I’ve brought out and embraced the very different personality traits of each individual. I don’t think you have to be as outlandish as Ethel to be interesting! Dorothy, for example, was probably the most retiring composer in the book. But she is spoken about so fondly by people who knew her, her music is extraordinary, and she clearly had a wonderful sense of humour. I hope I’ve shown this throughout the book – how kind and generous and funny she was, and how that inspired great loyalty and devotion from her friends and her family.
How did you approach the research for this book? Primary sources such as letters, diaries and memoirs are rendered in the first person and invite readers into the worlds of Ethel, Rebecca, Dorothy, and Doreen. How conscious were you, as an historian, of presenting these sources in such an absorbing and vivid way?
Researching this book was fascinating partly because of how different the range of available sources are. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got Ethel, who once quipped that ‘my mother had told me often it was bad manners to talk so much of myself, but I found the subject so absorbing that I never cultivated the opposite art.’ She wrote multiple autobiographies, diaries, and more letters than is really believable. On the other end you’ve got Doreen, who was intensely private. She kept an appointment diary for a few years and wrote some heavily revisionist notes about her life in her later years, but not much else. Navigating between those two was a real challenge. But luckily (and not accidentally) I’m writing about four women with very strong personalities, so in some ways I could just let their words stand for themselves. Their writings are packed with eminently quotable moments!
Although Quartet shines a bright light on the prejudices and obstacles faced by women in the music industry, it does not show them to be victims. Yet, admittedly all four women were white, English, well-educated, middle-class and all experienced some form of establishment acclaim during their careers. All, save for Clarke, were staunch Conservatives. So while we can admire their personal subversiveness, what does this tell us about the wider social, political and sexual context of both the musical and wider world of the time?
I did partly pick them for their similarities, to be able to get into the contextual depth that I wanted for all four women. Whatever separates them, they are united by their nationality, class, gender and race, and that makes it more possible to balance between structural and individual factors when I’m writing about them because they’re all coming from an approximately similar starting point. That said, there were really entrenched prejudices in British society that made it more likely that professional women musicians would be within these identity groups. For example, a musical education was (and still is, to some extent) extremely expensive – to say nothing of the costs of putting on concerts as a composer, or the opportunities that having a well-connected network of friends could bring. This made it more difficult (but not impossible) for working-class women to have musical careers. At the same time, upper-class women were under a lot of societal pressure not to have paid jobs and it was seen as extremely improper for an upper-class woman to “cheapen” herself by either performing or publishing. So we find that a lot of women musicians at the turn of the century came from the middle classes, and often had musical families. Ethel is the only woman in the book who was not taught an instrument by one of her parents.
Are there still unsung musical heroes to uncover, those that were more marginalised?
So many. This is a world of opportunity – there are so many women to champion. I’m currently writing book two, so watch this space!
Has much changed for women composers? Quartet isn’t a progressive history that moves from fringe to centre – ground is gained and then lost. Do you think there’s still resistance or prejudice towards women composers today? What does their music mean to you?
Yes, certainly one of the key messages of Quartet is that progress isn’t linear. Sometimes it takes a while for attitudes to catch up with legal changes, and rights and freedoms can be fragile. The situation with women composers today is complex. Research by DONNE Women in Music shows that only 7.7% of orchestral pieces played worldwide are written by women. That’s shocking. The top ten most-played concert composers are all men. Every single one. But when we look at living composers, the future looks more hopeful. Bachtrack’s recent report shows that nearly half of the most-played living composers are women. Organisations like PRS are making positive interventions through initiatives like Women Make Music. But I think we really need to guard against complacency. We’re certainly not yet at the point where a composer’s gender is unremarkable. And it’s no good “filling your quota” of women composers on International Women’s Day, or having a token woman in a couple of concerts to tick a diversity box. Programming works by women needs the same time and care that we give to men as standard. And that means a lot of catching up, learning new repertoire, thinking differently about programming, and doing the work to create systemic and not cosmetic change. As for what contemporary composition means to me – I love so much contemporary work! To name just a few, I’m a huge fan of Dobrinka Tabakova, Errollyn Wallen, Shelley Washington, Anna Meredith, Anna Clyne, Valerie Coleman, Caroline Shaw, Debbie Wiseman, Rachel Portman, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, I really could keep going!
In the run-up to the publication of Quartet, you have been sharing music by these four composers via a Twitter thread. How do you feel about their work reaching new audiences? What has the reception been?
A huge motivation for writing this book was to bring their music to new audiences. And the reception so far has been fantastic! When people hear their music for the first time, a really common response is – wow, where has this music been? Why do I not know this composer? It’s so lovely hearing from people who have said that they love this music now they’ve been introduced to it. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only five pieces by these composers to play, which pieces of music would you take along with you?
Argh! Erm. I think I’d choose Ethel’s The Prison, Rebecca’s Piano Trio and song ‘The Salley Garden’, Dorothy’s Violin Sonata and Doreen’s Piano Concerto.
What is next? Are you currently working on other projects?
Right now it’s all about Quartet, but I am also working behind the scenes on my second book. I can’t say what it’s about I’m afraid – but it will be women in music related for sure!
Thank you, Leah.
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