Celebrating our Alumnae – Nicola LeFanu

nicola lefanuBack in February, I promised to do an occasional series of blogs on some of the most distinguished alumnae of St Mary’s Calne. I started out with the aim of counteracting the impression that girls’ schools don’t have the same history or tradition as some well-known boys’ schools, but I now find myself much more simply being drawn to celebrate the diverse and fascinating group of women that are our alumnae.

Just last Friday, as many of you will know, we held our annual Music Scholars’ Concert at the school. This was, as always, a great occasion and reminded me once again of our long and enviable tradition of music. Only last autumn we held our Memorial Service for the life of Sir David Willcocks at Salisbury Cathedral, Sir David having been Director of Music at the school from 1947 to 1949. It was clear from the evening in Salisbury what a great influence – not surprisingly – he had on many of our girls before he went on to King’s College, Cambridge for so many years and he certainly played a hugely significant part in establishing our musical tradition. In fact, the girls and the staff of the Music Department have just finished recording a CD of music from the concert, including a piece written for the occasion by David’s son, Jonathan Willcocks.

The alumna I wanted to focus on in this blog is also part of that tradition (though not in Sir David’s time) and I was reminded of her when I found that she was Composer of the Week on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago. Nicola LeFanu is, it would be fair to say, at the other end of the ‘classical’ music tradition from Sir David, but she is without doubt one of our leading composers – having written around one hundred works for a whole variety of ensembles, been commissioned by the BBC and many festivals, and widely recorded.

Nicola’s parents were from Ireland: her father William LeFanu was from an Irish literary family (if the name rings a bell it may be because his brother Sheridan was a very successful writer of Gothic stories in the nineteenth century, one of which influenced Bram Stoker in the writing of Dracula), and her mother was Elizabeth Maconchy – also a distinguished composer at a time when this was still quite unusual for a woman.

Nicola is known to have a strong affinity for vocal music, and has written eight operas. The Story of Mary O’Neill particularly shows her Irish connections and I urge you to explore it if you can. She also had an academic career, having been Professor of Music at the University of York from 2002 to 2008, and I believe she still lives in that city. We very much hope to be able to arrange for Nicola to visit the school in the near future; what a great opportunity that would be for the music scholars who performed last Friday.

In the next of this occasional series, continuing the musical theme, I hope to cover Rosamund Strode, who was at the school from 1939 to 1945 and was Music Assistant to no less a figure than Benjamin Britten and the first archivist of the Britten-Pears collection.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the school, copies of the book, Consider the Lilies by Elizabeth Christie are available from the school. Please contact Arabella Unwin on arabella.unwin@stmaryscalne.org for further information.