MUSIC / A woman of new importance: On the 10th anniversary of Elisabeth Lutyens' death, Bayan Northcott reconsiders her music in the light of a forthcoming disc

Click to follow
SUNDAY HUSH in the City on a grey, late afternoon of March 1992: in the Bishopsgate Institute, that incredibly professional soprano, Jane Manning, and four young players of her ensemble, Jane's Minstrels, are recording Elisabeth Lutyens' fine-spun Japanese song-cycle, The Valley of Hatsu-Se, for the contemporary label NMC.

Thanks substantially to the calm authority of the Minstrels' conductor, Roger Montgomery, five other Lutyens scores have already been safely captured over an arduous weekend. All the same, time is now pressing and when the cellist pleads ardently for another shot at a solo he has already turned with apparent distinction, the producer Anthony Burton is obliged to insist that things must move on. Yet, in a moment, the session will be completed, and Jane Manning will still have time to register the unaccompanied Lament of Isis on the Death of Osiris in a couple of virtually flawless takes. Granted, her commitment to this music has been firm ever since she gave the premiere of Hatsu-Se back in 1965 at the very outset of her career. But how is one to explain the absorption and real insight of her players, most of whom can have barely reached their teens when Lutyens died 10 years ago this week?

It would be hard, after all, to think of a style, an output, a creative stance more completely out of fashion just at present. Born in 1906, Lutyens was one of the earliest British composers not only to heed the modernist call for the perpetual renewal of artistic means, but to pursue it through her own version of 12- tone serialism. This duly earned her the opprobrium of the conservative English establishment of the 1940s and 1950s, a degree of approbation in the more radical 1960s and, subsequently, the renewed dismissal of those latter-day apostles of accessibility who would like to paint not just serialism but the whole modernist enterprise as an elitist conspiracy to force 'squeaky gate' music on ordinary music consumers. Historically, such broad controversies by technique or aesthetic have rarely proved substantive. The fact that Bach's younger contemporaries already thought his music out of date hardly matters to us. And the validity of modernism or serialism can only be realistically assessed through the artistic success or failure of the individual composers who believed in them.

Not that it is quickly or easily decided in the case of Elisabeth Lutyens. Almost everything about her character, life and work breathes paradox - and not only because she was a woman trying to make her way in a profession still hogged by men. Upper-crust in origins and fundamentally shy of temperament, she espoused fiercely left-wing politics and roistered her way through Fitzrovia with the likes of Constant Lambert, Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas - the latter briefly her lodger. Again, idealistically dedicated as composer, teacher and mother, to creativity in all its forms, she seemed to harbour a commensurate destructiveness, not only of others - in her increasingly cantankerous anti-semitic and homophobic diatribes - but of herself in her mid-life alcoholism and the smoking by which she almost succeeded in burning herself alive in her bed-ridden last years. And what is one to make of an output, initially devoted to refining the most precise new language, which somehow managed to extend itself ever more frenziedly to an opus list of 160 works; to say nothing of the plethora of 'musical journalism' in every conceivable style by which she subsidised herself - from Third Programme scores for Louis MacNeice to music for such horror films as The Earth Dies Screaming?

According to her autobiography, A Goldfish Bowl, much of the problem dated from her unencouraging early years. With her famous architect father busy designing New Delhi and her aristocratic mother wrapped up in her theosophy, the child apparently gravitated to music as a means of self-definition: 'Too bad if I had no talent - I would simply have to find one.' It was to prove a long process. Though adequately trained in Paris and at the Royal College, and much involved in the new music scene of the 1930s, she only seems to have glimpsed her true path on hearing the premiere of Webern's cantata, Das Augenlicht, at the London ISCM Festival in 1938. Like her friend Dallapiccola in Italy, Lutyens evidently construed Webern's lapidary style as a step towards a fundamental 12-tone technique free from the expressionistic fever of Schoenberg and potentially as universal as the principles of conditional counterpoint. Her earliest serial piece, the Chamber Concerto No 1 (1940) - included on the forthcoming NMC disc - does not sound much like Webern, but its spare textures must already have come as a shock to wartime English listeners.

Thereafter her progress was still hampered by official neglect and her attempts to support four children plus a mostly unemployed second husband - the once-influential new music animateur, Edward Clark - and was punctuated by a nervous breakdown and tuberculosis. Yet with 6 tempi for 10 instruments (1957) - also on NMC - she seemed to have reached a classic atonal equilibrium in a sequence of luminous sonic designs that could perhaps best be compared in aesthetic with the abstracts of Ben Nicholson. With the arrival of the more responsive 1960s, she evidently felt able to admit a wider range of reference - Hatsu-Se suggests more than an exotic hint of Boulez - and by the 1970s her now almost improvisational rate of composition was threatening a certain diffuseness. Yet the final NMC items show she remained capable of exquisitely focused work. Stravinsky had praised her 6 tempi: in 1971 she commemorated his passing with a brief Requiescat that somehow conveys a vast stillness. And the crystalline miniatures of Triolet I and II (1982-83), set down with arthritic fingers virtually on her deathbed, represented a final, determined self-renewal.

Yet it has to be conceded that her media image as a wickedly outspoken old survivor had begun to overshadow her creative achievement long before she died. In 1989, Meirion and Susie Harries attempted to redress the balance in their well-researched biography, A Pilgrim Soul, but the retrogressive fashions of the last decade for minimalism, neo-tonality and sacred primitivism have hardly favoured a re- examination of the vast output itself. Curiously, that very vastness seems to have reflected a lifelong uncertainty about her basic gift: 'I can only achieve quality through quantity,' she would say - as if her best works remained in the nature of lucky throws. And while her radical stance and the purity of her writing undoubtedly inspired younger contemporaries such as Malcolm Williamson, Alexander Goehr and Richard Rodney Bennett, and a generation of pupils including Alison Bauld, Brian Elias and Robert Saxton, her ultimate reputation must rest upon the nature and number of the lucky throws she achieved.

The NMC selection, for which this writer has been partly responsible, is an attempt to suggest that, in the domain of vocal and instrumental chamber music (in which the individual talent seeks to engage with subtlest intensity the individual listener), her successes were not a few. The reissue of such larger-scale recordings as the aspiring early cantata, O Saisons] O Chateaux] (1946), or the haunting Quasimodo settings, And Suddenly It's Evening (1966), would help to broaden the picture; still more perhaps, a revival of such surging scores as her Music for Orchestra I (1955) or a mounting of her still-unperformed opera on Canetti's play The Numbered (1967). None of this music is ever likely to wow the mass audiences of the new musical consumerism, but for that very reason may endure as a fierce, bright emblem of the lone visionary quest.

Elisabeth Lutyens on NMC DO11 will be released at the beginning of May. NMC is a non- profit-making charity funded by the Holst Foundation for the recording of contemporary music