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Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World

Leah Broad

The lives, loves, adventures and trailblazing careers of four extraordinary women from a stunning debut biographer.

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The lives, loves, adventures and trailblazing musical careers of four extraordinary women from a stunning debut biographer.

‘Fabulous.’ Sunday Times A rare gift.’ Financial Times ‘Passionate … Vivid … Timely.’ Telegraph ‘Readable and inspiring.’ Guardian ‘Compelling … Ambitious … Poignant.’ Spectator ‘Magnificent.’ Kate Mosse ‘Riveting.’ Antonia Fraser ‘A breath of fresh air.’ Kate Molleson ‘Fascinating.’ Alexandra Harris ‘Wonderful.’ Claire Tomalin ‘Splendid.’ Miranda Seymour ‘Remarkable.’ Fiona Maddocks ‘Pioneering.’ Andrew Motion ‘Brilliant’ Helen Pankhurst

Ethel Smyth (b.1858): Famed for her operas, this trailblazing queer Victorian composer was a larger-than-life socialite, intrepid traveller and committed Suffragette.

Rebecca Clarke (b.1886): This talented violist and Pre-Raphaelite beauty was one of the first women ever hired by a professional orchestra, later celebrated for her modernist experimentation.

Dorothy Howell (b.1898):
A prodigy who shot to fame at the 1919 Proms, her reputation as the ‘English Strauss’ never dented her modesty; on retirement, she tended Elgar’s grave alone.

Doreen Carwithen (b.1922): One of Britain’s first woman film composers who scored Elizabeth II’s coronation film, her success hid a 20-year affair with her married composition tutor.

In their time, these women were celebrities. They composed some of the century’s most popular music and pioneered creative careers; but today, they are ghostly presences, surviving only as muses and footnotes to male contemporaries like Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten – until now.

Leah Broad’s magnificent group biography resurrects these forgotten voices, recounting lives of rebellion, heartbreak and ambition, and celebrating their musical masterpieces. Lighting up a panoramic sweep of British history over two World Wars, Quartet revolutionises the canon forever.

Critic Reviews

Quartet is much more than a book about four talented, pioneering female musicians. It is also a sweeping social history of the last century with intertwined themes of sex and politics, inspiring and shocking by turns ... They all wrote exquisite, breathtaking and often highly original music which is only now being finally appreciated ... Their time has come.

Anne Sebba, Spectator
Critic Reviews

Broad’s fabulous study of four groundbreaking British female composers ... Each of Broad’s quartet deserves a book to herself, but together they carry this story through the seismic transformations of their world, society and technology. All wrote superb music; each struggled in her own way for performances, recognition and a legacy.

Sunday Times
Critic Reviews

Cleverly interleaves the lives of four pioneering English women composers ... Evokes the prejudices and obstacles faced by women in classical music so vividly that it could be seen as a corrective, or companion piece, to [Tar] ... In this absorbing group biography, Broad deftly handles the complexities of different lives and personalities, placing her subjects in the musical and social context of their time ... Broad has a rare gift for eloquent evocation of the music itself and answers the key question (was the work any good?) resoundingly in the affirmative, making a persuasive case for a revision and expansion of the musical canon.

Financial Times
Critic Reviews

[Smyth] is the most familiar thanks partly to the fact that her life makes such a good story [but] Broad reveal[s] a still more intriguing character ... [The] other three women left less material, but still emerge brightly ... Broad has researched widely and thoroughly, and has a good line in anecdote ... Other female composers flit tantalisingly across the pages ... Broad’s eye for character is allied to a way of describing music that makes you want to hear it immediately ... Readable and inspiring.

Critic Reviews

[Makes] the music feel as vivid as the people .... Quartet makes a forceful case for re-establishing these four women as composers of note.

New Statesman
Critic Reviews

There’s nothing shouty about Quartet, the musicologist Leah Broad’s compelling group biography of four British female composers. The tone is restrained, but the quietly insistent patter of events, statistics, quotations and facts adds up by the end to a polemical roar ... [An] ambitious debut ... Poignant ... The weight of careers unfulfilled and music unheard is heavy, even against the vigorous counterthrust of Broad’s discoveries, and her succinct and urgent descriptions of repertoire.


Leah Broad is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford University, specialising in twentieth-century music. She was one of 2016’s BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers and in 2015 won the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. She writes and speaks for organisations including Glyndebourne, London Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Proms. Quartet is her celebrated first book.

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