• Leah Broad, Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World (Faber)
  • Roger Nichols, From Berlioz to Boulez (Kahn & Averill)

“As with Ethel, Rebecca’s friendships were the very fabric of her world,” writes the musicologist Leah Broad in Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World. Queer academia’s gleeful dismantling of history’s “just friends” trope has ventured as far as the Gen Z mainstream, with Atlanta TikToker Oublaire’s sage reminder that “History Hates Lovers.” (“Historians will call them / Close friends, bеsties, roommates, colleagues / Anything but lovers / History hates lovers.”) To be fair, Broad actually loves lovers, almost as much as she loves the friendships Quartet recalls. And characters that dance between those two social poles form the backdrop of a music book that puts the social in social history.

Broad’s four-person biography follows fellow Faber author Kate Molleson’s Sound Within Sound in tackling the history of music in the long 20th century via a multi-voice biography focused on unsung heroes. From there, the two books chart very different courses. The characters Molleson examines are prickly outsiders, more willing to create self-sustaining networks completely removed from the established order. But if Broad’s subjects sought personal advancement or even structural change, it was firmly brokered inside a system they entered via the leg-ups of privilege.


Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell, and Doreen Carwithen were all white, English, well-educated, middle-class women, born into a country shaped by empire. All experienced some form of establishment acclaim during their careers, and all, save for Clarke, were staunch Conservatives, with supreme faith in institutions (Smyth in the armed forces and monarchy, Howell in religion, Carwithen in marriage). And yet, in the group’s particular relationship with what Smyth dubbed “the machine”—and the web of counter-networks they spun as a reaction to being shunned by an establishment of Old Boys—their subversive streaks begin to shine through. 

Quartet is, first and foremost, a social history. Broad’s primary sources are letters, diaries and memoirs rendered in the first person that invite readers into the worlds of Ethel, Rebecca, Dorothy, and Doreen, not to mention Virginia and Emmeline. As in life, Smyth tends to dominate Quartet, meeting Queen Victoria (who possessed “the sweetest most entrancing” smile she had “ever seen on a human face”), quarreling with Johannes Brahms, and receiving some choice words from Pyotr Tchaikovsky. His description of Smyth as “a lonely woman” proved apposite, for as comfortable as Smyth felt hobnobbing with Europe’s upper-middle classes in support of her artistic endeavors, she also needed a dedicated support network—at various times Woolf, Pankhurst, Edith Somerville, the keyboard player Violet Gordon Woodhouse, the multi-talented musician Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, and Mary Benson (wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury)—to help her through the personal troughs that inevitably followed her creative peaks. 

It’s a theme that binds a loosely assembled quartet together. When she was banished from her house by her thoroughly unpleasant father Joseph, Rebecca Clarke’s guardian angel wasn’t the state, or other family members, but her College desk partner, Audrey Ffolkes, and Clarke was helped into a flourishing freelance career by the cellist May Mukle (helped behind the scenes by Parry and Stanford). When Dorothy Howell was crestfallen following the poor reviews of her opera “Koong Shee,” she poured her heart out to one Ethel Smyth, and confided in her close violinist friend Elsie Owen. Supporting Doreen Carwithen following the death of her husband was her lifelong best friend Violet Graham. Broad continually highlights the importance of these individuals’ bespoke female support networks, and the platonic love that bound that safety net together. “Without them,” Broad says of Ethel’s friends, “she wouldn’t have had a career at all,” a conclusion which would resonate with all four.

The book’s most moving passages come when the “shining threads” of friendship are pulled apart. Quartet’s outlier is Doreen Carwithen, the prolific film composer born much later than the rest. Her story follows the beautifully egalitarian tale of Rebecca Clarke’s marriage to James Fiskin; by contrast, Carwithen, who changed her name to Mary Alwyn by deed poll, had her romantic life marred by isolation and self-immolation, as she fell deeply, secretly and completely in love with the great-grandfather of Taylor Swift’s boyfriend (who also taught Carwithen composition). The one-sidedness of their romantic correspondences, the suppression of her compositional activities until after his death, and her utter dedication to her husband’s boundlessly Byronic projects (which could carry flagrantly misogynistic sentiment) is a deeply tragic, “I Can Fix Him” tale for the ages. That Quartet has been supported by the William Alwyn Foundation shows an organization braver than the man himself, who comes across as an utter rotter. “I keep on using the word ‘brilliant,’ but I can’t think of any other word because I had quite exceptional gifts,” he once told a biographer.

The other thread that binds the quartet is how quickly decline follows fame. Broad is keen to show how well-received a lot of the quartet’s music was—like Howell’s “Lamia,” Smyth’s “Serenade in D,” and Clarke’s Viola Sonata—with premieres involving multiple stage bows and rapturous applause, in spite of the more skeptical critics. Decline followed, heralded by changing tastes, and a new, male-dominated BBC embracing the “macho” aesthetics of modernism, and later serialism. Could the stories of a new generation of female composers with modernist sympathies—like Elizabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy—complicate the “double bind” faced by the four women (between writing pretty, tuneful music dismissed as “feminine,” trivial and unprogressive, and being attacked for moving away from expectations of what women should write)? Broad hints at a more complex situation, and bookmarks a good starting point for a second Quartet.

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“New recordings and performances of their pieces are showing us just how much incredible music is out there – and how very, very limited our stories have been,” Broad says in her opening remarks. It’s an optimistic use of the past tense, as music histories continue to nervously cha-cha—forwards, backwards, side-to-side—between the heralding of the unsung and the comfort of the pre-known.

Roger Nichols’ From Berlioz to Boulez is an entertaining collection of articles, obituaries and interviews taken from his forty years as an acclaimed observer of French music. Owing to that smörgåsbord mentality, thoughts of writing a “complete” history don’t figure, which makes sense; the totemic History of Music is hardly the most on-trend genre of music book. But rejecting completeness as a goal while doing little to dislodge the function of the book (it could easily be subtitled “A History of Modern French Music,” or “A Guide to French Music”) actually makes things worse than if the book was through-composed. In cherry-picking a selected history from his writings, Nichols reveals a significant blind-spot—partly his own, partly of the publishers, partly from the publications who commissioned him—around the history of France’s female composers when it comes to painting a national portrait.

In From Berlioz to Boulez, Nadia Boulanger’s significant impact on 20th-century composition is reduced to a couple offhand mentions and footnotes, leaving other educator-composers (Charles Koechlin, Vincent d’Indy) to take the plaudits. Pauline Viardot is “a famous contralto” for whom Gounod wrote “Sapho,” with no mention of her own operas. Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six, is quickly dismissed, without explanation of how and why her music “adhered very much to the graceful, charming tradition the group claimed to supplant.” And in the book’s 19 index pages, there’s no mention of Augusta Holmés or Louise Farrenc, Cécile Chaminade, Charlotte Sophy, or Éliane Radigue. 

It’s not complete erasure: Nichols interviews soprano Irène Joachim about Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” and organist Dame Gillian Weir about Messiaen. But rarely do women appear with complete—or even the majority of—creative agency. Not that Nichols is pursuing a particularly exclusive agenda: His study of music in Paris after the Great War, Harlequin Years, discusses Boulanger and Tailleferre, as well as the famed patron of the arts, Winnaretta Singer. That fact makes the scarcity of women in this larger collection all the more curious. “If we choose it, music histories could be filled with the notes of surprising, exciting and delightfully difficult women,” says Broad. Consciously or not, From Berlioz to Boulez makes its choice painfully clear.

There are bound to be similarities in two historical studies of classical composers in neighboring countries during the long 20th century. Both casts face similar questions of success, rejection and recognition that were (and are) part and parcel of a career in composition; for Nichols’ characters, winning the annual Prix de Rome became a fixation, just as gaining a broadcast on the shiny new BBC became for the members of Quartet. But it’s worth noting how differently those situations express the idea of entitlement. Nichols quotes the grumpy Édouard Lalo, who found himself part of a dinner set comprised of composers who had not won the Prix de Rome, “including Fauré, Messager, d’Indy, Duparc and, of course, Chabrier: it was called ‘Le Dîner des pris de rhum’ (the club for those out of their heads on rum).” You almost feel sorry for the group, until the subtext—that the Prix de Rome competition was well over 100 years old before it had its first female winner—smacks you in the face. “History is full of women,” Broad says, “who were famous in their lifetimes but have since become ghosts who haunt the pages of books dedicated to the men they worked with, talked with and sometimes loved.” And the chronically sick Lili Boulanger, winner of the Prix in 1913 and another absentee from this book, is a particularly ghostly apparition who lurks in the background of this glum dining room scene.

Beyond the huge gender disparity, the two books’ most striking contrast is in the fragility and robustness of the authors’ chosen histories. Beyond Smyth’s lengthy paper trail (“both a biographer’s dream and nightmare,” comments Broad), the quartet’s footprints are lighter, prone to vanishing. Carwithen’s own diaries simply stop in 1944. Howell’s unwanted manuscripts were saved from the fire by her quick-thinking niece and nephew. To her credit, Broad’s journey never runs aground, but you also feel that a discarded filing cabinet or a dusty shoebox could blow the story wide open.

Contrast that with Nichols’s history. “Inevitably, in a collection of this sort, there are repetitions,” he informs us in the preface. “I hope you, dear reader, may take the charitable view that repetition could make the passage in question easier to remember.” This is the basting of history, cooking the subject in its juices until all the messy residue is slurped up. But it’s also the way these stories are reduced, reproduced, and ultimately, remembered. Like the figures they recount, historians themselves hold more agency than is traditionally assumed. But there’s a fair degree of agency too in who they choose to forget. ¶

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Hugh Morris is a freelance writer and editor based in London.