The Group Biography ‘Quartet’ Illuminates the Lives of 4 Overlooked Female Composers

Group biography of the British composers Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell, and Doreen Carwithen weaves together the stories of these four high-achieving women

By Miranda Wilson | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Leah Broad’s Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World is a group biography of the British composers Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell, and Doreen Carwithen. Of the four, Smyth and Clarke are well known for their respective achievements as the first woman to have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera and one of the first women to win a position in a professional orchestra. Howell, a star of the 1919 Promenade Concerts, and Carwithen, one of the first women to compose film scores, may be less familiar to American readers.

Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World by Leah Broad, (Faber & Faber)
Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World by Leah Broad, (Faber & Faber)

Broad’s absorbing book weaves together the stories of these four high-achieving women whose lives collectively span a century and a half. At first glance, their only similarities might seem to be nationality, gender, and profession. As Broad’s narrative progresses, common themes begin to emerge. All four composers experienced many challenging obstacles in their careers due to sexist prejudice in the 19th and 20th centuries. Smyth (1858–1944), the oldest of the quartet, came of age during an era when many authority figures considered it biologically impossible for women to succeed as professional musicians. Even those who made it still had to contend with conductors who refused to hire women players, music publishers who would not print scores by women composers, and critics who dismissed women’s creative efforts as trivial or unfeminine. Considering the tireless feminist activism of Smyth and her fellow suffragettes, it is disappointing to learn that the youngest member of the quartet, Carwithen (1922–2003), had to fight many of the same battles.


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Smyth, Clarke, Howell, and Carwithen were all successful in their own lifetimes but were later virtually written out of history books and concert repertoire. Broad’s painstaking work goes a long way to redress the balance. Researching the quartet was no small task, since of the four, only Smyth’s career was well documented. For Clarke, Howell, and Carwithen, Broad had to locate and sift through previously unarchived materials. Along the way, she seems to have rescued irreplaceable manuscripts, diaries, documents, and other memorabilia from decay or loss. 


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The most heartwarming moments in Quartet are Broad’s descriptions of women helping other women. Smyth, whose support network included Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf, and Violet Gordon Woodhouse, “wouldn’t have had a career at all,” Broad asserts, without her friends. We learn of Smyth’s kindness to Howell when she was disconsolate over negative reviews of her compositions and of the chamber music partners who bolstered Clarke’s early career following her flight from an abusive father. All of the quartet understood that they stood on the shoulders of other women musicians, and in turn, they offered their own shoulders for those who needed them.

In writing Quartet, Broad fulfills an ambitious goal of drawing wider attention to the lives of four unjustly marginalized composers. Her deliberately nonspecialist language makes their fascinating biographies accessible to general audiences. Conversely, Broad’s lively descriptions of their compositions are likely to entice professional musicians to seek out scores and recordings. The critical success of this book may help to bring works such as Howell’s Lamia and Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite into the core repertoire alongside Clarke’s Viola Sonata and Smyth’s The Wreckers.