Dr Leah Broad

Forgettable history of forgotten music

These four composers deserve to be remembered without exaggeration in service of social revanchism


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World, Leah Broad (Faber & Faber, £20)

The extensive litany of this book’s myriad problems is complicated by the fact that there is so little space in a review of this sort, and the text itself is so amateurish. The aimless nature and flimsy discursive style of Dr Leah Broad’s text in the first hundred pages undermines any confidence the reader might have in what she has to say in the next three hundred or so. 

Such a weakness is positively tragic in light of the book’s ostensible focus on resurrecting public attention to four forgotten female composers, an aim with which reasonably open-minded readers will be in sympathy. 

Broad’s unwillingness to grapple with the actual music of her four subjects extends in equal measure to her discussion of composers from the canon, which reads like copy from drive-time radio. We are informed regarding Ethel Smyth’s formation under the influence of music from the great Romantics, that “from Liszt came sheer joy in virtuosic, dazzling writing that challenged the performer and astonished and delighted the listener” (A-Level music, eat your heart out). In glazing over Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio, Broad tells us that whilst she “may still have been influenced by Ravel and Debussy … they never wrote anything as terrifying as this”.

Mercifully we are provided with an extensive discography of the composers’ works. In listening to this trio and the works of both Ravel and Debussy, it is unclear what Broad means by “terrifying”. Is it terrifying for the performers? Does Broad mean something to do with the message of the work rather than the musical content? Is there some sort of hermetic significance to the work, apparent to neither Clarke’s contemporaries nor to ears not attached to a body armed with an Oxford DPhil? 

We’ll never know because she never bothers to explain. As with an array of terms bandied about without a shred of context — “avant garde”, “modernist”, “great” — Dr Broad never explains because it apparently doesn’t serve her purposes to do so. 

Rebecca Clarke

In the current social climate, these objections can and probably will be challenged along the often-parroted lines that no one has the right to have any objective standards by which to measure art. That may well be so. It would be churlish to not want to know more about these relatively under-discussed four composers, particularly with respect to the backdrop of broader social history. 

The real issue here is one of basic methodology. In a discursive environment for classical music increasingly given to hyperbole, it now seems de rigueur to describe a piece of music as a masterpiece. This may be expected of radio and television presenters in the few moments when classical music has any traction in the mainstream media. 

It is somewhat more disappointing, however, to read trained musicologists choosing to describe music in terms of such vagueness that critical engagement with them is impossible. In the case of Quartet, we are burdened with an author who never bothers to actually talk about the music so much as talk around it, thus saving herself and the reader the trouble of having any metrics by which to judge any one of an endless thread of declarative statements.

There is no doubt that the four composers discussed in this book had to cope with misogyny in their lifetimes as well as posthumously, given the relatively short shrift given by later writers to female composers. One winces at the many off-hand and groan-inducing remarks made by such men as the piano pedagogue Tobias Matthay who, in writing a recommendation for the young Dorothy Howell, remarked, “there is no doubt that she is possessed of quite an unusual talent … that it should be found in a girl is I think a very extraordinary and suggestive thing”. 

Dorothy Howell

Why these obvious obstacles for women then require occasional swipes at canonic composers along with shoddy discussions of the works at hand is unclear. It is abundantly clear, however, that for Dr Broad the elevation of a composer to genius level needs little more than to find the right social language as a digestible substitute for actual analysis. Herein lies the fundamental weakness of her book. 

As the tacit contract between reader and author depends on a level of trust, it is unfortunate that Broad’s book is littered with various literary infelicities. Writing style may be a matter of taste but the devil is, alas, in the (historical) details. In Broad’s book we have a veritable Miltonian horde. 

Vienna’s Court Opera is described as one of the Habsburg capital’s “most potent symbols of patriarchy”. We are also informed that upon arriving in Leipzig for her studies, Ethel Smyth was “overwhelmed walking down the same tree-lined avenues that Mozart had” (N.B. Mozart is known to have visited Leipzig for three or so days in 1789). 

Dorothy Howell apparently had a “reputation as the ‘English Strauss’”, but the only contemporary reference to this was an item in the now-defunct Daily Sketch titled “Our New Composer at Home”. It must be said that the light character of this piece, to say nothing of the fact that there are few if any discernible similarities between Howell’s music and that of Richard Strauss, calls into question whether the author may instead have had his Viennese namesake Johann in mind. 

Things only get worse from here, and Broad does little to vary the relentlessly smiley nature of her text with actual musical analysis. This begs the question: for whom was this book written? It is doubtful that potential misogynists, who are little concerned with facts, would read it. Anyone with ears can refer to the discography at the back of the work and conclude, after extensive listening, that musical history was quite unchanged by these four composers. 

Ethel Smyth

The general public, particularly in the Anglophone world, would not necessarily be able to keep up with much musical analysis, but then why make claims on behalf of music for the hapless many who have to depend on the authority of the writer? Why ignore the fact that, for example, the music of Dame Ethel Smyth has been performed 66 times at the Proms — more than Berio, Stockhausen and Xenakis put together?

Dr Broad’s academic prowess is of sufficiently high quality to gain her a fellowship at Christ Church and a place as one of the BBC’s New Generation Thinkers, the latter resulting in a number of high-profile radio spots on topics mostly hovering around the area of women in music. With this in mind, her tome’s various weaknesses and the ingratiating tone of her writing are hardly stumbling blocks, should one decide to re-fashion such material into the sort of items currently in favour on BBC Radios 3 and 4. Such programmes, however, require the sort of breezy erudition that Quartet so evidently lacks.

Reinforcing an increasingly skewed worldview, whereby classical music has to be life-redeeming in order to justify its existence, does neither composers nor listeners any favours. On balance, there is no doubt that the music of these four composers deserves to be remembered without its qualities being exaggerated in the service of social revanchism. Clarke’s aforementioned trio is a striking, masterful work; it seems absurd that it is not part of the standard repertoire. 

Ethel Smyth’s double concerto for violin and horn (1927) has moments, particularly in the second movement, of the sort of profound musical beauty that communicate a real and interesting artistic personality.

Doreen Carwithen

The discovery (at least for the present writer) of Dorothy Howell’s 1919 symphonic poem Lamia, based on Keats’s eponymous poem, has been one of the few pleasant experiences of dealing with this book, as was Doreen Carwithen’s piano Sonatina (1946), as exquisite a work to come from England as any of the greatest works written between Byrd and Finnissy. I direct the reader to a particularly magnificent performance of it on YouTube by the British pianist Clare Hammond. 

Why not dedicate a good portion of the book to show what actually makes this handful of rather fine works “tick” and leave it at that? Why instead insist on, say, Rebecca Clarke’s supposedly modernist credentials, as if one need say this to gain her a place in the musical pantheon?

The music of Ethel Smyth and Doreen Carwithen and Rebecca Clarke and Dorothy Howell should indeed be programmed more often, by musicians and halls and ensembles both in the United Kingdom and abroad. Likewise so should the work of Elizabeth Maconchy, whose music exudes the spirit of a veritable musical giant more than a great many postwar composers from any country. It is as much a sign of a vibrant musical society to have good (rather than insistently “great”) music, as it is to lionise the Beethovens and the Brahmses. 

These four composers deserve much, much better than this book.

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