Sunday, February 02, 2003


"Each of us is alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sun: and suddenly it's evening." - Salvatore Quasimodo

Tonight at the Purcell Room on London's South Bank there is a celebration of the life and music of Elizabeth Lutyens (1906-1983), the indefatigable and determined serialist composer. There will be reminiscences by friends and colleagues and her music will be performed by the Endymion Ensemble to mark the twentieth anniversary of her death.

The daughter of famous Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, 'Twelve tone Lizzie' (as she was affectionately known) studied in Paris and at the Royal College of Music in London. She was one of the first British composers to adopt serialized techniques, notably with the 'Chamber Concerto No 1' and 'The Birthday of the Infante' (1939). Her small-scale opera 'Infidelio' (1954), with its playful Beethoven references, and the cantata 'De Amore' (1957) were not performed until 1973, but she then became accepted as a major figure in twentieth century composition. Her other work includes the chamber opera 'The Pit' (1947), 'Quincunx' (1959), and 'Vision of Youth' (1970). She wrote dozens of film scores (around 100 in all), but her commitment to atonality meant that she was ignored, ostracised and marginalised for many years. William Glock, controller of BBC Radio 3 from 1959 - 1972, was her saviour, and that of much other avant garde music too.

Her publishers, Schott, comment: "Formal clarity and precision were valued above romantic expression [in Lutyens' work], but her finest music balances classical poise and direction with a turbulent current of genuine emotion." Some valuable historical context is provided in Heward Rees' final interviews with Welsh musical colleague Grace Williams. See also Susie Harries' and Meirion Harries' biography, 'A Pilgrim Soul, The Life and work of Elizabeth Lutyens' (Michael Joseph, 1989), Sally Macarthur's 'Feminist Aesthetics in Music', chapter 4 (Greenwood Press, 2001) and the composer's own 'A Goldfish Bowl' (Cassell, 1972).

Lutyens' song cycles are among her best known pieces. MusicbyWomen have a couple of soundclips from the Retrospective CD, which includes 'Valley of Hatsu-Se', '6 tempi for 10 instruments', 'Lament of Isis', 'Triolets 1 and 11' and 'Requiescat'.

My own exposure to her work was also my first serious encounter with serialism. It frightened the life out of me (I was only 16 at the time, and Bartok was the most radical thing I had come across). But there was something passionate and compelling about the way she wrote. I fell in love with 'And Suddenly It's Evening' (for solo tenor and eleven instruments), which was written in 1966 to mark the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1967. I still only have the work on a scappy, low-quality preview cassette -- all I had to hand when Radio 3 broadcast it in 1974. The piece is based on poet Salvatore Quasimodo's three-line couplet from 1942. Contemporary US lyric stage composer Tobias Picker has also set the same verse, though I have not yet heard this. It isn't on his recordings page, but I gather it will appear in 2003.

Coincidentally, in last Friday's Guardian newspaper (31 January 2003) , journalist Stuart Jeffries wrote a piece on wartime propaganda music, 'Listen with Prejudice'. Lutyens features honourably in the following closing extract:

[She] wrote a score for a 1946 information film called 'The Way' from Germany about the problem of 18 million people in postwar Germany - concentration-camp survivors, slave workers from eastern Europe - who were to be freed and returned to their various homelands. It must have been a difficult film to score with emotional conviction; how do you write incidental music to go with such a voiceover as the following? "German families were made to give up two sets of clothes to those who had been forced to go in rags or even naked." How do you write music for a film that deals with exposing former Nazis who were trying to pass themselves off as refugees? Certainly not with fanfares or heroic marches. Amazingly, Lutyens manages an impressively modulated, impeccably tasteful score. After all the British martial musical scores in the Imperial War Museum's season, stirring tattoos, victory marches, and obligatory pastoral airs, it is especially refreshing to hear Lutyens' careful work, in which she maps a more complicated emotional terrain and expresses poignantly the disastrous aftermath of war. (c) SJ / Guardian newspapers.

There is a fine Lutyens profile on the BBC1 audio interviews site. There is a list of works on MusicWeb. 'Music for Albion Moonlight' contains David Bedford's work of that name and also features Elizabeth Lutyens' 'And Suddenly It's Evening' (Argo-Decca ZRG 638, 1970; LP only). The work is also on LP 5205, 20530. I haven't been able to trace either so far.

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