Caught by the River


Clare Wadd | 28th February 2023

This week, Faber publishes Leah Broad’s ‘Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World’ — which delves into the lives, loves, adventures and trailblazing musical careers of four extraordinary but largely forgotten musicians and composers. It serves to remind us, writes Clare Wadd, that music was never exclusively a man’s world.

Quartet by music historian Leah Broad is a group biography of four female classical musicians and composers — Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen — whose combined lives spanned 150 years from the 1850s to the early 2000s. All four were hugely talented and famous in their day, yet have been all but written out of musical histories which focus on their male contemporaries like Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten; to the extent they are included, they’re reduced to muses and footnotes. Quartet serves to remind us that music was never exclusively a man’s world, and that, ‘if we choose it, music histories could be filled with the notes of surprising, exciting and delightfully difficult women. It’s time their stories were told.’

If this sounds like a book for classical music buffs, it isn’t. If it sounds rather worthy, again, trust me, it isn’t. It follows Ethel, Rebecca, Dorothy and Doreen’s lives, from infancy to final days, not just their careers, but their passions, feelings, friendships, loves and lovers too. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and an absolute riot at times. I laughed out loud at the image of Ethel Smyth, while serving two months in Holloway for breaking windows, conducting a performance of her Suffragette anthem March of the Women out of her cell window with a toothbrush.

Quartet runs chronologically and begins with Ethel, who was best known for her operas. She was a trailblazing queer Victorian composer, who rebelled against the few roles, like teaching, permitted to musical Victorian women, instead battling her father to study in Leipzig, to have a career and to earn her own living. Women before her had composed, but Ethel was the first to demand equal treatment and for her work not to be judged differently because of her gender. 

Ethel was brave and eccentric and had passionate friendships with a number of women during her life, including Emmeline Pankhurst, who she taught to throw stones at targets on her local golf course, and Virginia Woolf. With a different family she might have been sectioned for her boldness and refusal to conform, and my thoughts turn to the women who were, and to those who didn’t have enough fight in them, or who just didn’t succeed against such huge odds, and to all their combined missing music (and art and writing). Marriage too put an end to careers, so it’s unsurprising that only two of Quartet’s four married, and neither until their fifties. 

As Ethel’s story enters the late 1880s, we’re introduced to Rebecca Clarke, who grew up in Harrow, also with a domineering father who she had fight to follow her talent as a composer and violist. Thrown out of the family home aged 23, she had to quickly learn to support herself by working as a musician. She was one of the first women to be hired by a professional orchestra, became a regular on the BBC in the early years of radio, and was celebrated for her modernist invention. 

Next up is Dorothy Howell, born just before the turn of the century in the West Midlands to a supportive family which meant she could study at the Royal Academy of Music from the age of 15. She was a composer and pianist who achieved fame at the 1919 Proms with her symphonic poem, Lamia, inspired by Keats, and was nicknamed “the English Strauss”. She was a Land Girl during World War II, balancing war work with performing concerts, and continued teaching at The Royal Academy until 1970.

Our fourth woman, Doreen Carwithen, doesn’t make an appearance until two thirds of the way through Quartet. Born in the 1920s in Buckinghamshire, she had a musical mother, so studied piano and violin from the age of four. Doreen was 25 when her first orchestral overture premiered at Covent Garden. She was the only woman selected for an apprenticeship run by Rank, then Britain’s largest production company, to train composers and conductors to work in film. In 1948, at a time when it was rare for women to compose for films, she had her first official credit, going on to write over 30 film scores in total. Her reputation for speed and professionalism saw her commissioned by Pathé to write the score for the coronation film Elizabeth is Queen, which had to be completed in three days, though she was credited as an assistant instead of the composer and, of course, never got the same pay as male contemporaries.

Quartet is a very personal history of these four remarkable women, which celebrates them and their importance, whilst stressing the obstacles they had to overcome to succeed as they did. It quotes many contemporaneous press reviews, which invariably either criticise the women’s work for being feminine, which translates as insubstantial and inferior, or for not being feminine enough, and so falling short of a womanly ideal. Plus ça change.

Despite the fame they enjoyed during their lives, these four brilliant women seem to have been forgotten all too easily. Even during her lifetime, it was suggested that Rebecca couldn’t have written her own work and, even, didn’t actually exist. And Broad says ‘the process of writing Ethel’s music out of history began with her obituaries.’ Benjamin Britten, then 30 and about to become famous, ‘wanted to cast himself the first and only British opera composer of note’, so wouldn’t acknowledge her or her influence, and the press simply followed suit. Doreen Carwithen married composer William Alwyn, took his surname, changed her first name to Mary and effectively disappeared; after his death she was intent on securing his musical legacy not her own.

Of course, things have changed enormously, yet Victorian Ethel building her Old Girls’ network of women patrons to counter the Old Boys’ one which worked against her, feels very modern. And whilst an orchestra would no longer get away with sacking all its women players, it’s only a decade ago that blind auditions were introduced as, seemingly, the only way to prevent gender bias. Broad leaves us with the sobering thought that even today, only 8.2% of orchestral concerts worldwide feature works by women and only 1.8% of music played by top US orchestras is written by women.

Quartet is a fascinating and compelling read but, just as importantly, a hugely enjoyable one.


‘Quartet’ is published in hardback this Thursday by Faber. Order your copy here (£19.00).