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The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Book Review – Quartet: Ethel, Rebecca, Dorothy & Doreen

  6th September 2023

6th September 2023


Oxford-based academic and author Leah Broad has certainly caught the mood of the moment. Released with much pre-publicity in March this year, her impressively weighty and dazzlingly written debut book, Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World (Faber), has become a best-seller in the classical world. Consistently engaging, and aimed at the general rather than specialist reader, it traces the lives, careers, strengths, flaws and times of four English composers who battled against prejudice to carve out very different paths in classical music in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries. Although the overlapping careers of Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen developed largely in parallel rather than being closely entwined, Broad skilfully weaves together their successes and setbacks to create a vivid picture of what it meant to be a woman composer in the male-dominated musical world of much of the 20th century.

The unfolding chronological narrative encompasses a period of peace and war, with their various challenges and opportunities, as well as family backgrounds – Smyth from an upper middle-class military background, Clarke, Howell and Carwithen from the aspiring lower middle classes – education and burgeoning careers and fame. The larger-than-life Ethel Smyth, born a good 30 years before the next oldest, Clarke, dominates the early pages and much of the rest of the book, with her blusteringly direct personality and combination of a fundamentally conservative outlook with streaks of militancy and unbridled passion. Her life was indeed an extraordinary one, from early encounters with the likes of Brahms and Tchaikovsky during her early years of music training in Leipzig, to close relationships with Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf, not to mention such aristocratic figures as the Empress Eugénie and Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac. Most moving, however, is her relationship with her one male soulmate, the writer Henry Bennet Brewster (‘H. B.’), with whom she collaborated on her operas, and her battle with encroaching deafness in the years after World War I.

Smyth’s blunt personality meant that many of her close friends didn’t stay close for very long, but she cuts an imposing figure, whether conducting her suffragette anthem ‘The March of the Women’ with a toothbrush from her cell window in Holloway Prison or more conventionally on the rostrum with her proudly-worn honorary doctoral robes from Durham. (Recognition in later life with a damehood and further honorary degrees came ‘too late’, in her opinion.) The force of her personality comes across in tiny details as much as in more public outbursts. During her work behind the lines in wartime France she finds ‘a captive audience’ for the first drafts of her two-volume memoir in an immobilised patient. Impressions that Remained: ‘Sitting and reading at him became part of Ethel’s nursing routine.’

If Smyth emerges as a figure to admire but difficult to love, more compelling is the story of Rebecca Clarke, who emerged from a difficult family life dominated by a bullying father, amid which music lessons were a chore, to perhaps the most musically gifted and original of all four composers. After eventually breaking free of the familial home, Clarke developed into a composer of real originality across a relatively small output, her writing squeezed in whenever she could between a hectic performance schedule as one of the most accomplished viola players of the day, particularly in the chamber repertoire. Unlike Smyth’s Eurocentric travels, Clarke’s career took her across India and the Far East, on top of regular visits to the United States where, visiting her brothers during the early stages of World War II, she became ‘stranded’ and made her eventual home. Although Broad’s main focus is on these women’s lives rather than their individual works, the quality of Clarke’s music shines through, its boldness owing something to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel combined with her own deep understanding of stringed instrument techniques.

Also sympathetic is Broad’s account of Dorothy Howell who, though less forceful than Smyth and less fashionably modern than Clarke, has an endearingly modest and often childlike nature. Although Broad perhaps too frequently characterises Howell’s lighter music (which featured prominently on the wireless during the early days of the BBC) as ‘sprightly’, the accomplishment of her orchestral piece Lamia and her subsequent Piano Concerto make one keen for her still unstaged orientalist ballet Koong Shee – given one disastrous concert performance in 1921 – to be reappraised. Howell’s devout Catholic upbringing made her, in the early years of the 20th century, doubly an outsider, and Broad’s captivating description of her triumphs and stinging disappointments, as well as her lone tending of Elgar’s grave, should earn her many new fans. It’s difficult to read about the youngest of the Quartet, Doreen Carwithen, without experiencing exasperation at the way she sacrificed her own career as a pioneering film composer to that of her teacher and eventual husband Wiliam Alwyn. Although she returned to composition in her widowhood, the challenges of old age meant that she achieved little in her final years.

Broad’s book is fastidiously researched, and the detail she conjures up, especially when ‘scene setting’, often verges on the poetic. The absence of footnotes or endnotes ensures that the narrative flows effortlessly, yet it can be frustrating not being able to follow up individual quotations (from letters, biographies or reviews), which are often uncredited. For the general reader, terms like ‘libretto’ and ‘symphonic poem’ are succinctly explained, although introducing Vaughan Williams with the words ‘now most famous as the composer of The Lark Ascending’ does him scant justice. Apart from Brewster, the one male figure who emerges from Broad’s finely nuanced yet unashamedly partisan narrative is Henry Wood, the first professional conductor to employ women players in his orchestra, and also a uniquely committed supporter of women composers.

Readers may be surprised to learn of earlier phases in British musical life when women composers were the focus of media attention. If Broad’s book, with its extensive bibliography and helpful discography, achieves its end, it will be to win a more permanent place in the repertoire for the music of these four figures and their female colleagues. Much is still to be achieved, but this is an enormous step in the right direction, as is the imminent release by Resonus Classics of the first recording of Ethel Smyth’s operatic breakthrough work Der Wald (1902), which features prominently in the pages of Quartet.

The Book:
Leah Broad, Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World (London, Faber, 2023)

Recommended Recordings:
Smyth - Der Wald (BBCSO/Andrews) RES10324
Smyth - Mass in D, Overture to The Wreckers (BBCSO/Oramo) CHSA5240

Clarke - Works for Viola (Beranger) AP289
Clarke, Farrenc & Beach - Piano Trios (Neave Trio) CHAN20139
Clarke - Rhapsody + Smyth - Cello Sonata (Handy, Hughes) SRCD383

British Tone Poems Vol.2 (incl. Howell - Lamia) (BBCPO/Gamba) CHAN10981
Howell - Chamber Music (McAslan, Rahman) CDLX7144

Alwyn & Carwithen - Music for String Quartet (Tippett Quartet) SOMMCD0194
Carwithen - Orchestral Music (LSO/Hickox) CHAN10365X

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