The Mysterious Case of Lilian Elkington

History, especially music history, can be puzzling. Sometimes a composer who is immensely popular during their lifetime can get swept under the metaphorical rug after their death, becoming nothing less than a footnote or being forgotten altogether. Others can experience more unfortunate circumstances – they can die young, their music can be lost, or their life situation can prevent them from gaining their well-deserved exposure.

Lilian Elkington in the 1920s
British composer Lilian Elkington (1900-1969)

One composer that remains on the fringes of history is the twentieth-century British composer Lilian Elkington. Born in 1900 in Birmingham, England, she studied composition at the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music and frequently performed as a concert pianist. Sadly, once Elkington married, she gave up composition to devote herself to being a mother and wife (as was the reality of many female composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Perhaps even more tragic was that her entire compositional output was “disposed of” once her husband remarried after her death in 1969. (It is unknown whether this was by accident or on purpose.)

By a stroke of luck though, in the 1970s, the musicologist David Brown stumbled upon four of Elkington’s compositions in a secondhand bookshop in the seaside town of Worthing. To this day, these four – one orchestral work and three chamber pieces – are still the only works of hers that have come to light. Further, very little information exists about Elkington overall. She has no entry in the New Grove Dictionary, no scholarly biography, and only a handful of websites and blogs (including the two linked above) contain information on Elkington and her career.

Only one of Elkington’s pieces has been commercially recorded – the short orchestral tone poem Out of the Mist, which depicts the November 1920 voyage of the Unknown Warrior on the HMS Verdun. Despite its relatively short length, the piece is wonderfully evocative and displays Elkington’s striking command of orchestral color, texture, and mood, signaling an inventive musical voice that was cut all too short by societal circumstances.

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