In 1977, 90-year-old Rebecca Clarke was at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan to hear a performance of her Viola Sonata, written more than half a century earlier. Clarke had been a successful composer, the Sonata her breakthrough work – and yet for most of the audience her music was still an unexpected discovery. “Had she not been a woman composer,” conceded the New York Times, “Miss Clarke might be heard more today.” Soon afterwards, Clarke reflected that there had always been people who could not believe that her muscular, modern, “unfeminine” music was written by a woman: “I take this opportunity,” she wrote wryly, “to emphasise that I do indeed exist.”
Emphasising that female composers did (and do) exist, even though they have often been left out of musical history, is what drives this biography of extraordinary women by Leah Broad. Clarke is one of four composers whose lives she weaves into a chronological account that to some extent doubles as a social history of Britain.
The first, Ethel Smyth, is the most familiar thanks partly to the fact that her life makes such a good story. A tweed-suited, cigar-puffing suffragette whose lovers included Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf, she courted ridicule from the all-male musical establishment – “the Machine”, as she called it – yet self-promotion brought her considerable success: her opera Der Wald was, in 1903, the first by a woman to be performed at the august Metropolitan Opera in New York (and the only one until Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016). The scene of Smyth in Holloway prison conducting her fellow suffragette inmates with a toothbrush as they paraded around the prison yard has been recounted many times before, but Broad goes far beyond that here: the tenderness of her letters, and the mixture of rash temper and tenacity with which she bore her disappointments, reveal a still more intriguing character.
Smyth wrote copious memoirs; the other three women left less material, but still emerge brightly. After Clarke, we meet the unassuming Dorothy Howell, whose 1919 orchestral work Lamia brought her acclaim aged just 21 – and the support of the conductor Henry Wood, founder of the Proms and an important gatekeeper. After the second world war she settled into life away from the spotlight, writing mainly for children. Lastly there is Doreen Carwithen, a rising star as a student whose career was subsumed into that of her tutor William Alwyn, whom she would marry following a 20-year affair. Carwithen was elusive – even her own sister didn’t know she had been a very successful film composer until after her death.
Broad has researched widely and thoroughly, and has a good line in anecdote: we read of Smyth’s first offer of marriage, from Oscar Wilde’s brother, shortly after she had been seasick on him, and how when Carwithen had tea with Ralph Vaughan Williams he gave the first slice of cake to his cat. Other female composers flit tantalisingly across the pages – for instance Elizabeth Poston, director of music for the BBC’s European Service, whose insistence that Howell’s wartime piano broadcasts followed strict timings might have meant she was sending coded messages to the resistance. Broad’s eye for character is allied to a way of describing music that makes you want to hear it immediately, so the discography she provides is a welcome inclusion.
Those recordings are being added to all the time, and interest in music by female composers is gaining momentum, yet, as Broad cautions in her epilogue, such enthusiasm has always been followed by a backlash. Perhaps the only thing out of place in this readable and inspiring biography is its subtitle, How Four Women Changed the Musical World: in fact, the stories it tells serve to illustrate how stubbornly change has been resisted.
• Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.