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"What a delicious, what a malicious imputation!" Gender and Politics in the Reception of Elizabeth Maconchy's The Sofa


Despite being hailed as one of the finest composers of her day, Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) and her music are unaccountably neglected today. While Maconchy remains best-known for her orchestral works and cycle of thirteen string quartets, in the late 1950s her compositional career moved in another direction, and she composed three one-act operas between 1956 and 1961: The Sofa (1956-1957), The Three Strangers (1957-1958), and The Departure (1960-1961). Her first opera, The Sofa, stands out as an anomaly. Based on the libertine novel Le Sopha, conte moral (1742) by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1707-1777), the opera's racy subject matter, with a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams represents a stark departure from the more serious themes of her other works. The Sofa's critical reception is enlightening not only for reactions to the opera's risque subject matter, but also for the general reactions to Maconchy's music. Why did the prewar years prove to be more favorable for Maconchy, as contrasted with the comparatively indifferent reception accorded to her music during the war and after? While gender discrimination is often cited as the primary reason for this neglect, this supposition does not satisfactorily account for her marked early success. There is no doubt that Maconchy was discriminated against on the basis of her gender, as were many of her peers. However, the nature of her reception both during and after the war requires that one look beyond the strict binaries of gender in order to understand not only the complexities of gender politics in the British musical establishment of the last century, but also how the changing political climate came to greatly affect the marketability of her music.

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