Elizabeth Maconchy ‘Nocturne for Orchestra’: A Beautifully Fashioned Orchestra

Happy Tuesday dearest readers! It’s Day 6 in my Female Fortnight Challenge, and today I have chosen to look into the wonderful composer that is…Elizabeth Maconchy! The piece I have chosen to delve into today is her work, entitled Nocturne for Orchestra. This is a superb work and I hope you will enjoy today’s musical journey!

Elizabeth Maconchy was born to Irish parents in Hertfordshire, 1907. After her birth, the family moved back to rural Ireland, where Maconchy began taking piano lessons. She began to write her own music by age six and when she was in her late teens she enrolled at the Royal College of Music. Her composition tutor was none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams – whom remained a lifelong friend to Maconchy. However, whilst Maconchy was developing her compositional style, she realised that she was less inclined towards English pastoralism that the likes of Vaughan Williams and Holst were composing. Maconchy was, in fact, more interested in central European modernism, with Bela Batrók being a particular favourite of the young composer. So to complete her studies, she transferred to Prague to study with K. B. Jirák. After her graduation, Maconchy returned to England, where she began her career as a composer. Her first large and successful premiere was in 1930 where her suite The Land Under Sir Henry Wood was performed in the 1930 Proms season. After this, Maconchy was in demand in premiere her music in a wealth of different European cities.

Post-war, Maconchy was in high demand as a composer and she worked with some of the leading professional ensembles, orchestras and soloists. Maconchy was soon recognised as a leader of her profession. She was first chaired for the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain. Following this she was President for the Society for the Promotion of New Music. Then in 1987 she was appointed Dame of the British Empire. Maconchy lived in an Essex village most of her life, with her husband, William LeFanu and together they had two daughters (the youngest of which is the composer Nicola LeFanu. Maconchy died in November 1994 due to natural causes.

Maconchy composed in a range on different forms in her lifetime, such opera, orchestral, chamber and vocal. This quote from Maconchy herself sums up what her conception of music is: “Music is an intellectual art, a balanced and reasoned statement of ideas, an impassioned argument, an intense but disciplined expression of emotion.” Maconchy was particularly keen to compose for strings, whether that be in a chamber or full orchestral setting. Her works for strings are generally her most well-known works and are the most prominent on her catalogue. Maconchy’s music has been described as ambitious but modest. A plethora of different genres have been enriched by Maconchy’s music, which makes her an incredibly important figure within 20th Century classical music.

Nocturne for Orchestra was composed in 1950 and is perhaps one of my favourite works by Maconchy. There is not a lot of documentation on this piece it seems, but one thing is for sure – this work is a showcase of Maconchy’s style and ambition whilst writing for a large orchestra. The work is incredibly well-orchestrated and the atmosphere created is very evocative. The piece is about 6-7 minutes in duration, but Maconchy packs a lot of emotion and musical complexity in within this short space of time.

The work begins with a mysterious chord played by the upper strings. The woodwinds play angular melodies, which create a fugal feel to the work. The strings move between two chords, but the feeling is quite static. The clarinets, oboes and flutes lead the melodic output in this section. The lower strings create more of a drive, which leads to a beautiful chord in the harp which creates an evocative dreamlike sound. The atmosphere created it very bizarre, it’s not completely dark and moody, but there is a sense of menace close by. The strings use their top range, with the horns proclaiming block chords, which creates a very sparse texture. The winds take turns in playing the disjunct melody. The strings take this theme over into their top register, creating an unsteady feel. The use of xylophone adds to the atmosphere that Maconchy is trying to create. Her extensive use of winds in this work makes the brass entries very passionate, loud and bold. The trumpet plays a long sweeping melody, which is accompanied by the whole ensemble. This leads to an explosion of sound led by the trombones. The strings take over and the colour of sound here is just wonderful. The dynamic dies away slightly, and the fanfares in the brass lead into a violin solo. The strings take over the melody that the trumpet played, this time the texture is very rich. The strings stay in their top register, with the harp embellishing the chord with a broken chord sequence. The horns and winds play some other embellishments to make the texture and timbre much more rich and colourful. The work slowly dies away to a silence at the end.

Just from the title itself we can deduce that this work is evocative of the night. The slightly menacing feel and the fast movements from the winds suggest birds or other creatures who are awake in the night. The atmosphere created in this piece is mysterious, yet dreamlike at some points. However, this is a slightly uneasy feel at times, which makes the work seem ‘on edge’ at times. I think this piece is wonderful, its evocative, imaginative and surprising. Maconchy was a wonderful British treasure and her compositions still inspire today. I hope you have enjoyed this blog today, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for what Day 7 (the halfway point!) of my challenge will be!

Happy Reading!

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