Music blog

16 November 2018

Elisabeth Lutyens: notebooks, letters, and papers

Nearly a hundred notebooks belonging to Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) arrived at the British Library earlier this year, in several Sainsbury’s bags-for-life (the extra-large ones, ‘strong and study’ as their elephant illustrations proclaim). The little books are uniform in shape, their covers bear the logos of long-lost London stationers, and a small amount of foliage needed teasing out from their spiral bindings. It soon became apparent that they date from the final two decades of Lutyens’s life: the earliest (1962-3) include plans for a memorial concert for her second husband, the once-influential impresario, conductor, and broadcaster Edward Clark, while the shaky handwriting of the later books offers a stark testimony of her worsening arthritis. While these materials have previously been accessed by a handful of scholars, their forthcoming listing on the British Library’s catalogue will make their contents available to many more future researchers – the same is true of the substantial collection of Lutyens’s correspondence and miscellaneous papers, also now housed at the British Library.[i] This post gives a few glimpses into these notebooks, letters, and papers.


Broadly speaking, the notebooks contain an unpredictable mix of professional and personal notes. There are detailed ideas and jottings for new pieces;[ii] notes for lectures, talks, and for chapters of her 1972 autobiography; and scribbled draft letters to colleagues – where legibility tends to vary according to temperament. But in equal measure there are shopping lists that provide both mundane details of groceries and tantalising insights into Lutyens as hostess (a role she relished), as well as numbers, notes, and doodles documenting her busy telephone schedule. Notebooks dating from the time of her relocation from Belsize Park Gardens to King Henry’s Road contain floorplans and furniture layouts – merely functional but suggestive of familial architectural zeal[iii] – while fraught medical notes overleaf from musical jottings serve as more blunt reminders of the life behind the scores. These are not diaries, and are certainly far from the systematic record-keeping bequeathed to future scholars by composers such as Schumann, but their jumbled contents and messy physical presentation (they often require 180-degree reorientation page after page) offer invaluable snapshots into the later life of this major figure of twentieth-century music.

Lutyens’s famously colourful personality, as well as her quick wit (and temper), are reflected throughout the collection.[iv] Equally striking, though, are the numerous instances of long, persuasive letters about musical causes she deemed important. For instance, she led a petition to obtain a Civil List pension for composer Priaulx Rainier; and she objected at length to the BBC’s meagre commissioning fees, citing the comparatively generous pay of composing for film scores (which she did for many years to support her family) and warning against the erosion of composers’ rights. A draft letter to William Glock, with whom she had a long and complex professional relationship, demonstrates her commitment to obtaining proper performance conditions for a new work: drafted over 13 pages, she threatened to withdraw The Essence of our Happiness, op.69, from the 1970 Proms season if it were not given a ‘good cast’ of performers and sufficient rehearsal. She had no qualms about quibbling with friends in order to promote her music, which remained widely neglected until the mid-1960s (and Glock, in his position as BBC Controller of Music, helped with this considerably). A further strongly-argued letter went to Wilfrid Mellers, voicing objections to his 1965 review of O Saisons, O Châteaux!, Op. 13 (1946), following its premiere recording. Later, Mellers invited Lutyens to the only university teaching position of her career, at his York music department in 1975-6; there is extensive correspondence between the two dating from this later period.

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While this collection will contribute to the better understanding of a composer whose music has undoubtedly suffered neglect owing to her gender, it is important not to omit Lutyens's own complicated personal politics and reactionary opinions, which also surface regularly. As early as the 1930s a correspondent pleaded for Lutyens to reconsider her anti-Semitic prejudices, while numerous off-cuff remarks demonstrate her well-documented suspicions about the prominence of gay men in artistic circles. In a draft for her autobiography, she wrote: ‘I, for one, am tired of queers’ quartets and sodomite symphonies, and their hareem of supporters, critics and sycophants (not the music itself, if good, but the edifice of a mutual admiration society supporting it)’.[v] So too we find countless protestations against being labelled a female composer, and a pointed refusal to support causes that promoted women in music and the wider arts (she was, however, clearly impressed by her militant suffragette aunt, Lady Constance Lytton, and appeared briefly in the 1951 documentary To Be a Woman, for which she arranged Ethel Smyth's March of the Women for percussion ensemble). Indeed, her writing makes clear the difficulties she faced as a woman ‘in a man’s world’ – apparently George Dyson wouldn’t permit her, or any other women, to teach composition at the Royal College of Music – and she expressed hope that her juggling of domestic responsibilities, wage-earning, and composing would provide a positive role-model for her daughters and for future generations of women.

More frivolous notebook leaves lead us to a different corner of Lutyens’s mind. Five sides of a notebook, likely dating from 1969, contain jottings based on a doodled female nude. The title is ‘Prisms’, although a crossed-out alternative reads ‘Cherchez la femme, for piano’.[vi] The images below are fairly self-explanatory, and there is no obvious manifestation of ‘Prisms’ in Lutyens’s published work – while there is some gestural regiment affixed to body parts, it is far from her usual rigorous serial technique. Such are the unexpected pleasures of archives!


Several notebooks, and two further Sainsbury’s bags of A4 drafts, plans, and notes relate to Lutyens’s autobiography, A Goldfish Bowl (earlier drafts are titled ‘From Here to Maternity’, while a later version offers a hopeful alternative: ‘Why have you got such big ears, Gran’ma?’). Published in 1972 by Cassell’s, the book had a protracted gestation: Lutyens originally proposed a biography of Edward Clark, apparently to be titled ‘The Man who Cared’ or ‘Contact Extraordinary’, in the hope of gaining posthumous recognition for his considerable influence on the musical infrastructure of early twentieth-century Britain (an excerpt of a draft chapter plan is pictured below), but she was advised to incorporate this into an autobiography of her own.[vii] While writing came easily to Lutyens, her early plans for 52 chapters had to be compressed into 15, and once the manuscript was complete, further months were lost dealing with a lengthy report from the publisher’s legal department. Outraged at the suggestion that numerous passages might land the firm with hefty libel suits, Lutyens upset the lawyers with a 28-page list of her objections.

Quite idiotic

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The 600-plus individual correspondents in Lutyens’s collection of letters are testament to her remarkably wide-reaching professional and personal networks. The contents of the letters also give an impression of her outward-facing persona, as they were sometimes multiply drafted and reworked in notebooks before being typed or neatly copied - the prose considered and (sometimes) carefully calculated. A short roll call of memorable musical correspondents is indicative of her connectedness: Alwyn, Bennett, Dallapiccola, Finnissy, Gerhard, Glock, Goehr, Lambert, Langridge, Maconchy, Manning, Mellers, Schoenberg-Nono, Pears, Rainier, Rawsthorne, Sargent, Saxton, Scherchen, Smyth, Tavener, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Wood. Beyond the musical world, highlights include postcards from Paolozzi, with whom Lutyens collaborated in the mid-1960s, and letters from Stevie Smith. Notes from Sir Edwin Lutyens to the young ‘Betty’ are preserved along with numerous later enquiries to the composer concerning her father’s vast architectural legacy; meanwhile, abundant letters from maternal relatives and in-laws (Lyttons, Balfours, and Ridleys) shed light upon the fading aristocracy into which she was born.

While reading fragments of correspondence inevitably gives a blinkered view of actual historical situations, there is a lot to be gleaned from viewing musical moments and societies through one person’s archive. For instance, following the premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s opera We Come to the River (The Royal Opera House, 12 July 1976), Lutyens sent William Walton a typically acerbic assessment:


On the point of communists, elsewhere Lutyens recounts visiting old friends at a local communist office in Newcastle, who expressed interest in her mining-disaster dramatic scene The Pit (Op. 14, 1947), and suggested they play it at local pit welfare halls. When Lutyens warned they might not appreciate the ‘modern music’, an ex-miner present asked: ‘don’t you think that after two hundred years of capitalist ownership we could stand twenty minutes ‘modern music’?’ Lutyens described herself as ‘always socialist’ and ‘only briefly a communist’, and further opinions on political factions and musical society can be found throughout the papers (notably, in various draft book chapters that cover the infamous slander suit Clark brought against Benjamin Frankel, following accusations that he had mishandled expenses while president of the International Society of Contemporary Music).

Another point of interest is the substantial material, dotted through the decades, that mentions Dartington Summer School – a microcosm of important musical happenings in the mid-late century.[viii]  Lutyens first taught there in 1953, on William Glock’s invitation, and returned many times thereafter. Her student Alison Bauld posted an annotated concert programme from the 1972 summer school – at which time Glock was still director – which should be an interesting read for many:

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Michael Finnissy sent his well-wishes from Dartington in 1981, halfway through Peter Maxwell Davies’s tenure as director, and commented on the tides of change as well as the idiosyncratic ambience long associated with the Summer School:

Max is quite rightly intent on raising the intellectual tone, certainly the ambience is uncomfortably poised between ‘holiday camp for music enthusiasts’ and ‘hotbed of progressive thought’… whether that can be accommodated by Dartington’s financial status I wouldn’t pretend to know. As you can imagine I would rather be at my desk, Devon is all very well but it’s encrusted with a sort of ‘civilised’ socialising that is inappropriate to the healthy evolution of music… in other words what action there is (the Cold Comfort Farm variety) is too damn slow for me.

Indeed, perhaps the most heated exchange of the collection had its roots at Dartington, where Lutyens had made incendiary comments about her former student Richard Rodney Bennett to her composition class in 1965. Word got back to Bennett, leading to an increasingly bitter and personal chain of letters (Lutyens preserved copies of her replies in certain instances like this, and the discrepancy between her irate scrawl and Bennett’s unflappably beautiful penmanship adds a certain visual thrill to the exchange). They reconciled soon after, and later letters from Bennett are much more jovial.

Relationships with many correspondents lasted decades. A particularly affectionate example is the series of almost 70 letters from Robert Saxton, beginning with his first contact with Lutyens as a young composer and prospective pupil aged ‘16 and a quarter’, and continuing regularly as Saxton continued his studies at Cambridge and began early posts at Oxford. These, along with numerous letters and cards from the young composer’s parents, Jean Infield and Ian Saxton, can now be read in conjunction with the letters received by the Saxtons from Lutyens, which are also housed in the British Library (MS Mus. 1726/2).


Lutyens’s letters, notebooks, and papers will be catalogued as MS Mus. 1841, and join the British Library’s existing collection of her music manuscripts (Add MS 64435-64795) and an earlier batch of correspondence acquired in 1985 (Add MS 71144). 112 years after her birth and 35 since her death, Lutyens is beginning to receive more scholarly attention,[ix] but many of her prized compositions remain unperformed. The listing of this material will facilitate further research, not only into Lutyens but into broad swathes and specific corners of twentieth-century musical life.



Frankie Perry is a PhD candidate in musicology at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is writing a thesis on recent arrangements and reimaginings of nineteenth-century Lieder. She has been at the British Library on a research placement for 3 months, working on the collections of Harrison Birtwistle and Elisabeth Lutyens.


[i] In particular, Meirion and Susie Harries, A Pilgrim Soul: The Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens (London: Faber, 1989), and Rhiannon Mathias, Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

[ii] Glyn Perrin has recalled that Lutyens tended to plot the overarching shape of works in a notebook, before proceeding to sketch straight into full score.

[iii] Her father was the influential architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944).

[iv] Short reminiscences of her ‘forceful, fiery character’ from her children Rose, Tess, and Conrad, and great-niece Jane Ridley, are indicative:

[v] This sentence is found in numerous early drafts, handwritten and typed, for a chapter dealing with issues of gender identity and musical society, for the autobiography while still titled ‘From Here to Maternity’.

[vi] A computerised simplification of the doodle, with certain body parts omitted, is given as Appendix 17 in Sarah Tenant-Flowers, A study of style and technique in the music of Elisabeth Lutyens (PhD Diss., Durham 1991).

[vii] For more on Clark, see Annika Forkert, “Always a European’: Edward Clark’s musical work’, Musical Times, 159/1943 (2018), 55-80.

[viii] Thanks to Emily Hoare for sharing with me a list of personnel present each year at the Summer School, 1948-present.

[ix] See, for instance, Annika Forkert, ‘Magical Serialism: Modernist Enchantment in Elisabeth Lutyens’s O Saisons, O Châteaux!’, Twentieth-century Music, 14/2 (2017), 271-303; further work on Lutyens and Clark by Forkert is ongoing.


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