Elisabeth Lutyens

(Agnes) Elisabeth Lutyens, CBE (9 July 1906  14 April 1983) was an English composer.

Early life and education

Elisabeth Lutyens was born in London in 1906. She was one of the five children of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and his wife Emily, who was involved in the Theosophical Movement. From 1911 the young Jiddu Krishnamurti was living in their London house as a friend of Elisabeth and her sisters. At age nine she began to aspire to be a composer. In 1922, Lutyens pursued her musical education at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, before accompanying her mother to India in 1923. On her return she studied with John Foulds and subsequently continued her musical education from 1926 to 1930 at the Royal College of Music in London as a pupil of Harold Darke.

Compositional style and development

Lutyens is credited with bringing Schoenbergian serial technique (albeit her own very personal interpretation of it) to Britain. She disapproved of the 'overblown sound' of Gustav Mahler and similar composers, and instead chose to work with sparse textures and develop her own type of serialism; she first used a 12-note series in Chamber Concerto I for 9 instruments (1939), but earlier than this she had been using the techniques of inversion and retrograde fundamental to a serial idiom, and she stated she had been inspired to this by precedents she found in older British music, especially Henry Purcell.

She did not always employ or limit herself to 12-note series; some works use a self-created 14-note progression, for instance. She was very fond of the music of Claude Debussy, and she became close friends with Luigi Dallapiccola. However, her negative opinions of strict serialism caused an ideological rift between herself and her serialist colleagues.

Lutyens, the conductor Iris Lemare and the violinist Anne Macnaghten introduced composers such as Benjamin Britten, Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams, Malcolm Williamson and Alan Rawsthorne.

Film work and later years

In 1933, Lutyens married Ian Glennie, a baritone singer, and together they had a son and twin daughters. The marriage was not happy, however, and in 1938 she left Glennie for Edward Clark, a conductor and former BBC producer who had studied with Schoenberg. Clark and Lutyens had another child (a son) in 1941 and married on 9 May 1942. She composed in complete isolation, a process greatly impeded by the drinking and partying at the Clark flat, and the responsibilities of motherhood.

In 1945, William Walton was able to repay the service Clark had rendered him in relation to the premiere of his Viola Concerto in 1929. Lutyens approached Walton for an introduction to Muir Mathieson with a view to getting some film music work. He readily agreed to pass on her name, but he went a step further: he invited her to write any work she liked, dedicate it to him and he would pay her £100 sight unseen. The work she wrote was The Pit.[1] Edward Clark conducted The Pit at the 1946 ISCM Festival in London, along with her Three Symphonic Preludes.[2]

She found success in 1947 with a cantata setting Arthur Rimbaud's poem Ô saisons, Ô châteaux. The BBC refused to perform it at the time because the soprano range was thought to go beyond the bounds of the possible, but the BBC was nevertheless the organization that gave first performances to many of her works from the 1940s to the 1950s, after which there was a tendency to ignore her until her friend William Glock became Director of Music.

Edward Clark had resigned from the BBC in 1936 amid much ill-feeling. He was still doing contract work for the BBC as well as free lance conducting, but those opportunities dried up and he was essentially unemployed from 1939 until his death in 1962. He was involved with the ISCM and other contemporary music promotional organisations, but always in an unpaid capacity. Lutyens paid the bills by composing film scores for Hammer's horror movies and also for their rivals Amicus Productions. She was the first female British composer to score a feature film, her first foray into the genre being Penny and the Pownall Case (1948).[3] Her other scores included Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), Don't Bother to Knock (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), The Earth Dies Screaming (1965), The Skull (1965) (a suite from this was issued on CD in 2004), The Psychopath (1966), Theatre of Death (1967), and The Terrornauts (1967). Lutyens did not regard her film scores as highly as her concert works, but she still relished being referred to as the "Horror Queen", which went well with the green nail polish she habitually wore.[4] She also wrote music for many documentary films and for BBC radio and TV programmes, as well as incidental music for the stage. She was very prolific at this work and was known in the business for her quip 'Do you want it good, or do you want it Wednesday?'.

By the late 1960s, however, her music was in greater favour and she received a number of important commissions, including Quincunx for orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists (1959–60), which was premiered at the 1962 Cheltenham Music Festival and uses a quartet of Wagner tubas in the orchestra. Her Symphonies for solo piano, wind, harps and percussion was a commission for the 1961 Promenade Concerts. In 1969 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Her autobiography, A Goldfish Bowl, describing life as a female musician in London, was published in 1972. She once said that she hated writing the book, and only did so to record her husband Edward Clark's earlier achievements.[5]

In her later years she took many private pupils, including the composers Malcolm Williamson, Alison Bauld, Brian Elias and Robert Saxton. She also acted as a mentor to the young Richard Rodney Bennett, though he was never a formal pupil.

A combative and idiosyncratic character and a composer of music that has been described as "sensuously beautiful", Elisabeth Lutyens had to struggle to earn her place among the composers of classical twentieth century musical canon, and her music is still seldom heard or recorded. She was also one of the models for Henry Reed's satirical depiction of Dame Hilda Tablet in a series of 1950s radio plays.

Elisabeth Lutyens died in London in 1983, aged 76.

Selected list of works

Chamber music

Vocal and choral

Solo instrumental

Small orchestra


Opera and music theatre

Further reading

External links


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