Continuing with yesterday’s theme of female composers, today is the 29th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Lutyens, a British composer born in 1906.
Daughter of Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, Elizabeth Lutyens is remembered as a pioneer amongst woman composers, and an early advocate of the twelve-note system in Britain at a time when it was derided and misunderstood. Thought most comfortable in the smaller forms, she created a large output of works for the concert hall in addition to her commercial writing for the cinema. Formal clarity and precision were valued above romantic expression, but her finest music balances classical poise and direction with a turbulent current of genuine emotion.
Determined to be a composer from the age of 9, Elisabeth Lutyens went to Paris in 1922 to study at the Ècole Normale de Musique in Paris. On her return to London, she studied composition and the viola at the Royal College of Music from 1926-30.
Critical of the “overblown” music of Mahler, Bruckner and Elgar, she collaborated with fellow RCM students Iris Lemare and Anne MacNaughton to mount a series of modern music concerts which featured first performances by new composers such as Benjamin Britten, Alan Rawsthorne and Elizabeth Maconchy. Some of Lutyens’ own works were also performed, but she withdrew these later because they were “too conservative”.
As the music of Webern and Alban Berg became better known in this country, recognition gradually came Lutyens’ way with such works as the Wittgenstein Motet (1952) and Music for Orchestra 1 (1955). She nevertheless had to earn her bread and butter by writing film scores, which she did with characteristic energy and professionalism. Her film music career began in 1944 with an item in a 1944 RAF newsreel, and included feature films such as Don’t Bother to Knock (1960). She also had a close association with Hammer films, which found her 12-tone system to their taste in numerous movies, including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull (1965) and The Terrornauts (1967) — and of course, that deathless classic, “The Earth Dies Screaming.”
Lutyens was known and respected as a creative artist for whom compromise was impossible. She was also a provocative and inspiring teacher who gave herself unstintingly to her pupils. Her output was large and varied, and the importance of her contribution to the country’s musical life was recognised in 1969, when she was made a Commander of the British Empire.