(Agnes) Elisabeth Lutyens (19061983), by John Vere Brown, 1963
Lutyens, (Agnes) Elisabeth (19061983), composer, was born at 29 Bloomsbury Square, London, on 9 July 1906, the fourth of five children and third of four daughters of , architect, and his wife, , daughter of , statesman. She was educated at Worcester Park School, Westgate-on-Sea. She turned to music at an early age, not because of any conspicuous talent for it, but as another form of my need for privacy (Lutyens, 10). The family's reaction to her musical aims was at first more one of apathy than of outright opposition, and, after a period of private piano and violin lessons, in January 1922 she was permitted at fifteen to study at the École Normale in Paris. In 1926 she entered the Royal College of Music, London, becoming a pupil of Harold Darke for composition and of Ernest Tomlinson for the viola. She had cause to be grateful to Darke, who managed to arrange for almost everything she composed at this time to be performed. This was most unusual for the Royal College of Music, where Brahms was the god of new music. Lutyens was emphatically not sympathetic to Brahmsian ideals, yet working in this style for exercises enabled her to develop a powerful compositional technique. Among her friends from this time were Anne Macnaghton, the violinist, and Iris Lemare, and together they founded the MacnaghtonLemare concerts, which began in 1931 at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate. The main aim of the concerts, which continued until 1994, was to discover and encourage composers of British nationality by having their works performed.
On 11 February 1933 Elisabeth Lutyens married Ian Herbert Campbell Glennie, who had also been a Royal College of Music student. He was the son of William Bourne Glennie, a minor canon of Hereford. They had a son and twin daughters. They were divorced in 1940, and in 1942 Elisabeth Lutyens married Edward Clark (18881962), a tireless champion of new music, who had previously worked for the BBC in Newcastle upon Tyne and London. He was the son of James Bowness Clark, coal exporter, of Newcastle. They had one son.
For much of her life Elisabeth Lutyens endured relative poverty (with occasional help from her family over such things as housing and children's education), a considerable amount of ill health, physical and mental, and widespread lack of recognition of her originality and achievements. None the less, she never ceased to compose, her opus numbers extending to at least 135, in addition to which there are a hundred film scores from 1944 to 1969 and about the same number of musical commissions for radio. She admitted that the continual steady drinking involved in discussing the radio projects turned her into an alcoholic. Most of her life, apart from moves to Northumberland and other areas during the Second World War, was spent in and around London.
Lutyens was a prolific and versatile composer, one for whom neglect may have been discouraging but made no essential difference to her development and productiveness. From the outset she veered away from what Constant Lambert termed the cowpat school of English music and described integrity as not a virtue [but] a necessity for an artist (Harries, 53). She was the outstanding pioneer of serial music in England, and while she would have liked more performances of her works, her fulfilment lay in composing them. Her first work to become known through performance was a setting for a ballet, The Birthday of the Infanta (1932), after Oscar Wilde. This was given at a Royal College of Music Patrons' Fund concert while she was still a student (the score has since been withdrawn). The main work of the pre-war years was the chamber concerto, op. 8 no. 1 (1939), for nine instruments, which antedated by several years any knowledge of Webern's concerto for a similar ensemble. The first work to be performed abroad was the string quartet no. 2, op. 5 no. 5, given at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival at Cracow in 1939. Possibly her best-known work is O saisons, o châteaux!, op. 13 (1946), for soprano and strings, to a poem by Rimbaud. Many of her later works make use of words, some written by herself, and others by an enormous range of writers, among them Stevie Smith and Dylan Thomas, with whom she was personally acquainted. At a relatively late stage she turned to dramatic music, and her opera charade Time Off? Not a Ghost of a Chance!, op. 68 (19678), to her own libretto, was staged at Sadler's Wells theatre, London, in 1972.
Lutyens relished company and good talk and could be provocative and outrageous, as when ringing up a Jewish pupil at 1 a.m., saying the PLO's all right (private information). Her sitting-room was very welcoming to a new pupil, with a large pot of steaming tea on the table, a standard lamp created from a French horn bell, and the work-desk with its stopwatches and slanting architect's board; the sense of excitement and joy in the act of composing this generated in a young composer can be imagined. She had various rather unsatisfactory arrangements with publishing firms, and eventually formed her own, the Olivan Press, which in the 1960s and 1970s published many more works than all the other publishers had managed over her entire career. In 1969 she was appointed CBE and awarded the City of London Midsummer prize. York University awarded her an honorary DMus (1977). She died in Hampstead, London, on 14 April 1983.
James Dalton, rev.
E. Lutyens, A goldfish bowl (1972) · M. S. Harries, A pilgrim soul: the life and work of Elisabeth Lutyens (1989) · private information (1990) [Robert Saxton] · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1983) · A. Payne, Lutyens, (Agnes) Elisabeth, New Grove · Burke, Peerage (1967)
BFINA, Mothers by daughters, 14 June 1983
BL NSA, documentary recording
BL NSA, A goldfish bowl, Feb 1973, M4702R, M4846R, M4744R BD7
BL NSA, oral history interviews
BL NSA, performance recordings
BL NSA, Talking about music, 1LP020024652 BD2
BL NSA, Talking about music, 161, 1LP020041751 BD2 BBC TRANSC
BL NSA, Talking about music, 201, 1LP020196131 BD3 BBC TRANSC
J. V. Brown, photograph, 1963, NPG [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£51,870: probate, 20 July 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales