Elisabeth Lutyens

Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens, CBE (9 July 1906  14 April 1983) was an English composer.

Early life and education

Elisabeth Lutyens was born in London on 9 July 1906. She was one of the five children of Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton (1874–1964), a member of the aristocratic Bulwer-Lytton family, and the prominent English architect Edwin Lutyens. Elisabeth was the elder sister of the writer Mary Lutyens and niece of the suffragette Constance Bulwer-Lytton.

Lutyens was involved in the Theosophical Movement. From 1911 the young Jiddu Krishnamurti was living in the Lutyens' London house as a friend of Elisabeth and her sisters. At age nine she began to aspire to be a composer. In 1922, Lutyens pursued her musical education in Paris at the École Normale de Musique, which had been established a few years previously. She accompanied her mother to India in 1923. On her return to Europe she studied with John Foulds and subsequently continued her musical education from 1926 to 1930 at the Royal College of Music in London as a pupil of Harold Darke.

Family life

In 1933, Lutyens married Ian Glennie, a baritone singer, and together they had twin daughters and a son. The marriage was not happy, however, and in 1938 she left Glennie for Edward Clark, a conductor and former BBC producer who had studied with Schoenberg. Clark and Lutyens had a son in 1941 and married on 9 May 1942. She composed in complete isolation, a process greatly impeded by the drinking and partying at the Clark flat, and the responsibilities of motherhood.


Compositional style and development

She disapproved of the 'overblown sound' of Gustav Mahler and similar composers, and instead chose to work with sparse textures.

Lutyens is credited with bringing Schoenbergian serial technique (albeit her own personal interpretation of it) to Britain. She developed her own type of serialism; she first used a 12-note series in Chamber Concerto I for 9 instruments (1939), but earlier than this she had been using the techniques of inversion and retrograde fundamental to a serial idiom, and she stated she had been inspired to this by precedents she found in older British music, especially Henry Purcell.

She did not always employ or limit herself to 12-note series; some works use a self-created 14-note progression, for instance. She was very fond of the music of Claude Debussy, and she became close friends with Luigi Dallapiccola. However, her negative opinions of strict serialism caused an ideological rift between herself and her serialist colleagues.


In 1945, William Walton was able to repay the service Clark had rendered him in relation to the premiere of his Viola Concerto in 1929. Lutyens approached Walton for an introduction to Muir Mathieson with a view to getting some film music work. He readily agreed to pass on her name, but he went a step further: he invited her to write any work she liked, dedicate it to him and he would pay her £100 sight unseen. The work she wrote was The Pit.[1] Edward Clark conducted The Pit at the 1946 ISCM Festival in London, along with her Three Symphonic Preludes.[2]

She found success in 1947 with a cantata setting Arthur Rimbaud's poem Ô saisons, Ô châteaux. The BBC refused to perform it at the time because the soprano range was thought to go beyond the bounds of the possible, but the BBC was nevertheless the organisation that gave first performances to many of her works from the 1940s to the 1950s, after which there was a tendency to ignore her until her friend William Glock became Director of Music.

Edward Clark had resigned from the BBC in 1936 amid much ill-feeling. He was still doing contract work for the BBC as well as freelance conducting, but those opportunities dried up and he was essentially unemployed from 1939 until his death in 1962. He was involved with the ISCM and other contemporary music promotional organisations, but always in an unpaid capacity. Lutyens paid the bills by composing film scores for Hammer's horror movies and also for their rivals Amicus Productions. She was the first female British composer to score a feature film, her first foray into the genre being Penny and the Pownall Case (1948).[3] Her other scores included Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), Don't Bother to Knock (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), The Earth Dies Screaming (1965), The Skull (1965) (a suite from this was issued on CD in 2004), Spaceflight IC-1 (1965), The Psychopath (1966), Theatre of Death (1967), and The Terrornauts (1967). Lutyens did not regard her film scores as highly as her concert works, but she still relished being referred to as the "Horror Queen", which went well with the green nail polish she habitually wore.[4] She also wrote music for many documentary films and for BBC radio and TV programmes, as well as incidental music for the stage. She was very prolific at this work and was known in the business for her quip 'Do you want it good, or do you want it Wednesday?'.

By the late 1960s, however, her music was in greater favour and she received a number of important commissions, including Quincunx for orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists (1959–60), which was premiered at the 1962 Cheltenham Music Festival and uses a quartet of Wagner tubas in the orchestra. Her Symphonies for solo piano, wind, harps and percussion was a commission for the 1961 Promenade Concerts. In 1969 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).


Her autobiography, A Goldfish Bowl, describing life as a female musician in London, was published in 1972. She once said that she hated writing the book, and only did so to record her husband Edward Clark's earlier achievements.[5]

Teaching and encouragement of other composers

Lutyens, the conductor Iris Lemare and the violinist Anne Macnaghten introduced composers such as Benjamin Britten, Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams, Malcolm Williamson and Alan Rawsthorne.

In her later years she took many private pupils, including the composers Malcolm Williamson, Alison Bauld, Brian Elias and Robert Saxton. She also acted as a mentor to the young Richard Rodney Bennett, though he was never a formal pupil.


A combative and idiosyncratic character and a composer of music that has been described as "sensuously beautiful", Elisabeth Lutyens had to struggle to earn her place among the composers of classical twentieth century musical canon, and her music is still seldom heard or recorded. She was also one of the models for Henry Reed's satirical depiction of Dame Hilda Tablet in a series of 1950s radio plays.


Elisabeth Lutyens died in London in 1983, aged 76.

Selected list of works

Chamber music

  • String Quartet I, Op. 5, No. 1 (1937) – withdrawn
  • String Quartet II, Op. 5, No. 5 (1938)
  • String Trio, Op. 5, No. 6 (1939)
  • Chamber Concerto I, Op. 8, No. 1, for 9 instruments (1939–40)
  • String Quartet III, Op. 18 (1949)
  • Concertante for five players, Op. 22 (1950)
  • String Quartet VI, Op. 25 (1952)
  • Valediction, for clarinet and piano, Op. 28 (1953–54) – dedicated to the memory of Dylan Thomas
  • Capriccii, for 2 harps and percussion, Op. 33 (1955)
  • Six Tempi, for 10 instruments, Op. 42 (1957)
  • Wind Quintet, Op. 45 (1960)
  • String Quintet, Op. 51 (1963)
  • Wind Trio, Op. 52 (1963)
  • String Trio, Op. 57 (1963)
  • Music for Wind, for double wind quintet, Op. 60 (1963)
  • Oboe Quartet: Driving out the Death, Op. 81 (1971)
  • Plenum II, for oboe and 13 instruments, Op. 92 (1973)
  • Plenum III, for string quartet, Op. 93 (1973)
  • Clarinet Trio, Op. 135 (1979)

Vocal and choral

  • Ô saisons, Ô châteaux! – cantata after Rimbaud, Op. 13 (1946)
  • Requiem for the Living, for soli, chorus and orchestra, Op. 16 (1948)
  • Stevie Smith Songs, for voice and piano (1948–53)
  • Motet: Excerpta Tractatus-logico-philosophicus, for unaccompanied chorus, Op. 27 (1951) – text by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • De Amore for soli, chorus and orchestra, Op. 39 (1957) – text by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Quincuncx, see full orchestra
  • Motet: The Country of the Stars, Op. 50 (1963) – text by Boethius translated Chaucer
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (SATB), Op. ?? (February 1965)
  • The Valley of Hatsu-Se, for soprano, flute, clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 62 (1965) – on early Japanese poetry
  • And Suddenly It's Evening, for tenor and 11 Instruments, Op. 66 (1965) – text by Salvatore Quasimodo
  • Essence of Our Happinesses, for tenor, chorus and orchestra, Op. 69 (1968) – texts by Abu Yasid, John Donne and Rimbaud
  • In the Direction of the Beginning, for bass and piano, Op. 76 (1970) – text by Dylan Thomas
  • Anerca, for speaker, 10 guitars and percussion, Op. 77 (1970) – on Eskimo poetry
  • Requiescat, for soprano and string trio, in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1971) – text by William Blake
  • Voice of Quiet Waters, for chorus and orchestra, Op. 84 (1972)

Solo instrumental

  • 5 Intermezzi, for piano, Op. 9 (1941–42)
  • Piano e Forte, for piano, Op. 43 (1958)
  • Five Bagatelles, for piano, Op. 49 (1962)
  • The Dying of the Sun, for guitar, Op. 73 (1969)
  • Plenum I, for piano, Op. 87 (1972)
  • La natura dell'Acqua, for piano, Op. 154 (1981)
  • ‘’Encore-Maybe’’, for piano, Op. 159

Small orchestra

  • Chamber Concerto II, for clarinet, tenor sax, piano and strings, Op. 8, No. 2 (1940)
  • Chamber Concerto III, for bassoon and small orchestra, Op. 8, No. 3 (1945)
  • Chamber Concerto IV, for horn and small orchestra, Op. 8, No. 4 (1946)
  • Chamber Concerto V, for string quartet and chamber orchestra, Op. 8, No. 5 (1946)
  • Chamber Concerto VI (1948) was withdrawn
  • Six Bagatelles, Op. 113, for six woodwind, four brass, percussion, harp, piano (doubling celeste) & five solo strings (1976)


  • Three Pieces, Op. 7 (1939)
  • Three Symphonic Preludes (1942)
  • Viola Concerto, Op. 15 (1947)
  • Music for Orchestra I, Op. 31 (1955)
  • Chorale for Orchestra: Hommage a Igor Stravinsky, Op. 36
  • Quincunx, for orchestra with soprano and baritone soli in one movement, Op. 44 (1959–60) – text by Sir Thomas Browne
  • Music for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 59 (1963)
  • Novenaria, Op. 67, No. 1 (1967)

Opera and music theatre

  • Infidelio – seven scenes for soprano and tenor, Op. 29 (1954)
  • The Numbered – opera in a Prologue and four acts after Elias Canetti, Op. 63 (1965–67)
  • Time Off? Not the Ghost of a Chance! – charade in four scenes, Op. 68 (1967–68)
  • Isis and Osiris – lyric drama after Plutarch, Op. 74 (1969)
  • The Linnet from the Leaf – music-theatre for singers and two instrumental groups, Op. 89 (1972)
  • The Waiting Game – scenes for mezzo, baritone, actor and small orchestra, Op. 91 (1973)

Further reading

  • Fuller, Sophie (1994). The Pandora guide to women composers : Britain and the United States 1629 – present. London [u.a.]: Pandora. ISBN 0044408978. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
  • Kenyon, selected by Nicholas (2002). Musical lives. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0198605285. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
  • Lutyens published an autobiography A Goldfish Bowl (1972)
  • Mathias, Rhiannon, Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012); ISBN 9780754650195.
  • Meirion and Susie Harries, A Pilgrim Soul. The Life and work of Elisabeth Lutyens
  • Anthony Payne: 'Lutyens's Solution to Serial Problems', The Listener, 5 December 1963, p. 961


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