Maconchy, Dame Elizabeth Violet (1907–94), composer, was born 19 March 1907 at Silverleys, St Catherine's Estate, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, the second of three daughters of Gerald Edward Campbell Maconchy, a solicitor, and his wife Violet Mary Maconchy (née Poe); both parents were Irish and her grandfather was George Maconchy (1818–89), of Rathmore, Raheny, Co. Dublin, a justice of the peace for Co. Longford and Co. Wexford and high sheriff of Co. Wexford (1846). Raised in Buckinghamshire, she spent her holidays with her grandparents at Santry Court in Dublin. When her father was diagnosed with tuberculosis towards the end of the First World War the family moved to Ireland and Maconchy lived at Howth, Co. Dublin, where she completed her education. She developed an early interest in music, but although she was composing for the piano from the age of six and received lessons in piano and music theory in Dublin, she remained ignorant of the classical repertoire.
In 1923 she went to London, where she studied for six years at the Royal Academy of Music; her teachers included the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, with whom she developed a lifelong friendship. She was also a friend of Ina Boyle (qv), the composer, and later published an appreciation and selected list of her music (1974). While studying she encountered prejudice against female composers: she was denied the prestigious Mendelssohn scholarship because it was assumed that she would get married and stop writing. In 1930 she won a travelling scholarship to Prague, where her first major work, the Piano Concertino (1928), was performed. The same year her orchestral suite The land (1929) was conducted by Sir Henry Wood at the London Proms. Much praise for these works was forthcoming, but few commissions followed. Establishing the annual Macnaghten–Lemarre concerts to promote British and Irish composers, she was able to feature her own work at these events, and also at the festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague and Paris. She fell ill with tuberculosis in 1932 and her promising career was threatened, but she moved to Kent, where she recovered and resumed writing; her First String Quartet was completed in 1933. During the second world war her ballet Puck fair was staged in Dublin.
In a prolific career, she wrote vocal, orchestral, operatic, and chamber pieces, but it is for her thirteen string quartets that she is most remembered; she herself admitted that she found it the most satisfying medium. For Maconchy music was about the expression of feeling, and a string quartet allowed for ‘an impassioned argument’ (Morris, 450). Rich in counterpoint, these chamber pieces explore the relationship and conflict between intellect and emotion. She won the prestigious Edwin Evans prize for her Fifth String Quartet (1948). Greatly respected by her contemporaries, she was the first woman to chair the Composers' Guild (1959–60). Various commissions eventually came her way, including one for the Proms in 1983, and she also produced many works for children, such as the opera The king of the golden river (1974–5). Outside influences were also important: the slow movement of her Ninth String Quartet (1968–9) was inspired by the Soviet invasion of Prague. Her Ariadne (1970–71) for soprano and orchestra had words by Cecil Day Lewis (qv), while the solo song ‘The leaden echo and the golden echo’ (1978) put to music a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins (qv).
Maconchy was created CBE in 1977 and DBE in 1987. Her music became more radical as she grew older, moving from traditional, if chromatic harmonies, to more atonal writing in her later works. In old age her output declined, but she remained active and wrote a detailed series of programme notes for a CD recording of her complete string quartets in 1989. Her final work was On St Stephenses day for women's chorus (1989). She married, 23 August 1930, William Richard Le Fanu , librarian at the Royal College of Surgeons in London; he was the son of Thomas Phillip Le Fanu, of Bray, Co. Wicklow, and a descendent of Sheridan Le Fanu (qv). They had two daughters; the younger, Nicola Frances Le Fanu (b. 1947), became a composer, and was a recipient of the Mendelssohn scholarship which had been denied to her mother. Elizabeth Maconchy was one of the great, if under-appreciated, female composers of the twentieth century. However, as she herself reflected ‘being a composer is a life sentence from which there is no release’ (Irish Times, 16 Dec. 1994). She died 11 November 1994 at the St Clements Nursing Home, Norwich.