The Howells Quintet belonged to a lost world. Its linguistic sureties—not merely tonal but diatonically tonal (Howells’s personal brand of harmonic/polyphonic chromaticism was a much later development) would strike a post-war generation of composers as insular and anachronistic. Elizabeth Maconchy is a case in point. When informed that her own Clarinet Quintet was to share a programme with Howells’s, her reaction was ‘Oh, Lord!’. That this was so should not of course be interpreted in any way as a criticism of Howells, still less of Elizabeth Maconchy; rather was it a succinct and spontaneous comment on a process of historical inevitability. English music could not go on feeding on its own reserves for ever: inbreeding is always unproductive in the long run, and though Maconchy was a pupil of Charles Wood and Vaughan Williams she also spent a short time in Prague with the Czech composer Karel Jirák. Her musical outlook has always been more European than familiarly English, nowhere more so than in her chamber music (a sphere in which composers, being less concerned with the problem of mass-audience reaction, often feel free to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude). Maconchy’s Quintet of 1964 shares with Howells’s a certain fondness for rhapsodic, florid textures, long singing lines, lively and probably dance-derived rhythms; but the musical substance is entirely different. Howells dreams of the England of A E Housman and Rupert Brooke, and let no one tell us it never existed (probably it didn’t), for where would we be without our dreams? Maconchy lives far more in the then-present, her music has a ruder, earthier aspect—even wild (can we hear something of her Irish origins in the second and fourth movements?). She is not concerned with indulging her listeners or sugaring pills, but she does offer sweep and stamina and an inspiring professionalism.
from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1991