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Elizabeth Poston: Threads of a composer’s life

18 August 2023

Elizabeth Poston left hundreds of works that are only now being rediscovered, Madeleine Davies reports


Elizabeth Poston at the piano with her wild owl

Elizabeth Poston at the piano with her wild owl

IF YOU follow a path out of the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, Stevenage, just before you reach a “kissing gate” leading on to open country, you will find two memorials. The first is a sculpture, Only Connect!, celebrating E. M. Forster and the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howard’s End.

Next to it is a black, slightly weathered plaque, marking the centenary of a close friend of the author — the woman who, for more than 70 years, lived in the house just visible from the gate: Rook’s Nest, Forster’s childhood home and the model for Howard’s End. Elizabeth Poston, composer, pianist, arranger, broadcaster, and editor, is remembered here, deep in the English countryside that she loved.

In the house, she could once be found working late into the night on some of the hundreds of compositions that she produced in her lifetime: songs, carols, choral works, arrangements of nursery rhymes and folk songs, orchestral works, and incidental music for television and radio.

In just one year, 1953, her publications included incidental music for a BBC adaptation of Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean; a choral setting of an Elizabeth poem to mark the Coronation; and music inspired by the book of Jonah for an evening service at Bloomsbury Baptist Church. Poston was not short of commissions.

Yet, if her name is recognised today, it is for the single work that she once described as “a good earner”: “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, the carol first broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, in 1967.

“It is fascinating that such an extraordinarily busy and fulfilled life, suffused with connections across a wide spectrum of British classical-music-making in the 20th century is so little known by today’s audiences, owing to the small proportion of her works which remain in publication,” says Louise Stewart, the director of Multitude of Voyces (MoV), the charity that has recently acquired the intellectual property of Poston’s estate.


MoV — an organisation dedicated to “supporting underrepresented and marginalised groups through the creative use of music and words” (News, 22 November 2019) — is determined to change this. “Our ultimate goal is to fulfil Elizabeth Poston’s own wish of ensuring that the general public is able to access, perform, and enjoy her music,” Mrs Stewart says.


WHEN she died, aged 81, in 1987, Poston left behind hundreds of manuscripts, spanning more than six decades, from the carol “Salve Jesus, little Lad” (1925), written when she was 20, to A Settled Rest, the choral setting that she was working on up until her death. Only about 30 per cent of her output has been published, and few commercial recordings exist.


“She died before she was able to draw the threads of her own life’s story together in quite the way she would have liked,” Mrs Stewart says, who refers to advancing years, serious illness, and efforts to complete and publish commissions. Poston never married, and lived with her mother until her mother’s death at the age of 98, in 1971.

The task of sorting out her estate fell to close friends — initially Suzanne Rose and Margaret Ashby — while Dr John Alabaster, a neighbour in Forster country, dedicated his retirement to cataloguing her compositions, and entrusted his work to MoV on his death. With the blessing and support of Simon Campion — Poston’s friend, publisher, and executor — the task now is to continue this research and to bring to publication her out-of-print and unpublished works.

“As an advocacy charity, we want to present her music and legacy in the way that she herself might approve: the context of her compositions and writings needs to be understood through her eyes, and, mindful that she was unable to complete this work herself, contextualised and presented appropriately, fairly and honestly, as any of us might hope to be presented after our deaths,” Mrs Stewart says .


POSTON was born in Stevenage in 1905 to Charles, a member of the Stock Exchange, and his second wife, Clementine, said to be the inspiration for Ruth Wilcox in Howard’s End. The Forsters and Postons were friends, and “Morgan” and Elizabeth remained so. After her father’s death in 1913, Elizabeth moved into Rook’s Nest with her mother and her brother, Ralph (later ordained in the C of E). Her musical gift was encouraged by her mother, to whom she dedicated The Baby’s Song Book — a collection of 84 traditional nursery songs. It includes an illustration of a small pair of hands at the piano keyboard, atop those of an adult: the method by which she had learned from her mother.

Having begun to compose songs as a teenager, she began her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1924. Some of her first compositions were published while she was still a student, including seven solo songs. In 1940, she joined the BBC, rising to Director of Music for the European Service, a job that entailed, in Dr Alabaster’s words, “broadcasting around the clock in some 45 languages and dialects to occupied countries . . . carried out underground in secret studios in cathedral crypts, vaults, cellars and, when premises were destroyed, on the London pavement”.

In 2005, the BBC produced a radio programme, Tinker Tailor Composer Spy, exploring claims that she had conducted secret wartime work during this period. Margaret Ashby described Poston as using gramophone records “to broadcast coded messages to resistance movements in Europe”.


It was the beginning of a long and industrious relationship with the BBC. In 1946, Poston was invited to help establish a new radio station, the Third Programme (the forerunner of BBC Radio 3), which she described as “that splendidly idealistic phoenix that was to arise from the ashes of the jaws of hell”. In the decades that followed, she became the BBC’s most sought-after composer of incidental music, creating works for productions of Medieval Mysteries and Shakespeare’s plays, as well as texts by modern authors such as C. S. Lewis and Dylan Thomas.

Poston was in demand as a performer, arranger, broadcaster, editor and composer, Mrs Stewart notes. While the BBC commissions ensured an income stream, they were also time-specific, written on demand, often to mark an anniversary or national event. Most are unpublished. It is hard to know, Mrs Stewart says, the extent to which her gender influenced commercial decisions. There is, she suggests, “an astonishing lack of commercial recordings of her work despite strong evidence that she enjoyed and welcomed recordings”.


THE BBC was only one of the bodies that commissioned Poston. The catalogue — still a work in progress — includes many commissions for churches, church-music festivals, and cathedrals. While some of her works had their première on the BBC or at the Three Choirs, others were first performed in schools and parish churches. Dr Alabaster noted on her centenary that she had “great sympathy for the young and the less gifted amateur”.

While Poston did not have children, she appreciated childhood and nursery rhymes, writing vividly about her own memories and creating several compilations for children: The Baby’s Song Book, The Mother Duck’s Book; Children’s Song Book. Commissioned by Penguin and others, she conceived, arranged, collated, and edited anthologies such as The Penguin Book of American Folk Song, The Cambridge Hymnal (“hymns which a self-respecting English teacher could study with his class” was her criterion), The Penguin Book of Folksongs of the British Isles, and two volumes of The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols.

RALPH MEAKINSElizabeth Poston at the premiere of Festal Te Deum at St Matthew’s, Northampton, in September 1959, with the Director of Music, Dr John Bertalot, and his parents

Her arrangements were widely praised for their sensitivity. An adventurous collector, mentored by Ralph Vaughan Williams, she sought out folk songs, nursery rhymes and carols from all over the world and accumulated a “vast knowledge of folk tunes and texts, and of their contexts — not just those of the British Isles, but of many countries she visited on research expeditions”, Mrs Stewart says. She was also once arrested while hunting for folk songs in central Europe and placed in jail with a herd of goats, Dr Alabaster’s research suggests.


MULTITUDE OF VOYCESFestal Te Deum typeset by Anna WilliamsPOSTON’s “sound” remains defined for most by “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. Malcolm Williamson, a friend and the Master of the Queen’s Music, described it as “perpetually unpredictable, since it functions neither tonally nor modally, and obeys no conventional laws of part-writing . . . Simple to perform, yet radiantly rich, after one has performed it a few times the unpredictability vanishes and one says, ‘But of course! It had to be like that!’ — a not uncommon reaction to great music.”

Poston recalled its composition: “The spirit bloweth where it listith. I wrote it down immediately and inevitably, almost without thinking, on the nearest scrap to hand at the time, which happened to be a garage bill . . .”

In a contribution to the centenary celebrations, organised by the Friends of the Forster Country, Dr Jamie C. Bartlett, an associate professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, described Poston’s music as “tonal, melodic and often rhythmically driven by the text when a text is present”. In her contribution to the centenary talks, she suggested that the art-song composer Roger Quilter was an early influence, with Poston producing “simple beautiful melodies encased in quasi-virtuosic piano flourishes”.

The celebration of nature is a thread running through Poston’s works. She set texts about ladybirds and cuckoos, and composed a carol about a dormouse. She also loved literature. Her student years, Mrs Stewart points out, coincided with a renewed interest in English texts and music of the 16th and 17th centuries. One of her earliest compositions, “Sweet Suffolk Owl”, which she wrote at the age of 17, was a setting of Thomas Vautor from 1619.

MULTITUDE OF VOYCESPoston’s manuscript for Festal Te Deum (1959) commissioned by St Matthew’s Church Northampton

This love of language and literature is evident in Poston’s correspondence, which reveals an erudite, warm, and witty writer and a dedicated host. In a diary column, Ronald Blythe described her as “an enchanting woman, full of zest and tales out of school (Diary, 25 September, 1992).”

A reflection on the Lord’s Prayer for the BBC suggests that she had thought deeply about prayer and the relationship between words and faith. She was firmly attached to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — “what I cannot understand is why it should be thought necessary to seek to change language where it is basic, expressive, colourful, moving and vital” — but concluded that prayer belonged ultimately to a realm beyond words: “the personal utterance from the silence of the soul.”

Mrs Stewart has spent hundreds of hours to date looking through the archive. “A picture is re-emerging of a woman of immense intelligence, intuition and creative skill, born into circumstances, which enabled her to develop those gifts,” she says. She has been struck by Poston’s gift for friendship, which included a close relationship with Peter Warlock (Philip Arnold Heseltine) — whose premature death was a cause of great grief — and the efforts that she expended supporting her musical peers, especially in times of distress.


THE copyright on Poston’s work expires in 2058. Work is already under way to plan the première or “re-première” of some compositions. Among MoV’s collaborators is the choir of Somerville College, Oxford, which is planning to make a choral CD.

But the overall task of bringing the vast estate into order and then publication will require years of work and substantial funding. MoV has calculated that an initial £40,000 will be needed to take the first steps, including photographing, cataloguing, and storing tens of thousands of images of music manuscripts, letters, and associated papers, and tracing Poston’s work across multiple archives. Another task will be digitising surviving recordings, while a long-term aim is to produce professional recordings to be made available without charge.

MULTITUDE OF VOYCESNotes were often made on the first piece of paper to hand (for the unfinished Penguin Anthology of Folk Songs of the British Isles)

The physical material of most of the music (papers, photos and tapes) is being catalogued and conserved by the British Library, but Poston also left behind thousands of pages of letters and other documents, some of which is being stored at the Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies.

MoV’s responsibility is the management and administration of the intellectual copyright of this content, the publication of her music, and the continuation of research into Poston’s musical life and legacy. To date, the charity has been able to explore in person less than two per cent of the estate.

MULTITUDE OF VOYCESA review in Palestine Post in 1937

This work has been a labour of love, carried out by three of the charity’s regular contractors and volunteers. Mrs Stewart has discovered that there is “pitifully little funding available from the expected channels” to support it. “The ‘rediscovery’ or ‘recalibration’ of under-represented composers’ output is still such a new concept in the UK that grant-funding has not kept pace with the urgency of this work, and we are therefore reliant on the general public to support us,” she says.

The Poston Project is in some ways emblematic of a wider challenge, she suggests: hers is “one of many estates of women composers where funding is urgently required to enable the accurate cataloguing of such archives; without such investment much wonderful music is hiding in plain sight.”

Yet the work has the potential to meet a real demand, she observes: “Much has changed in the world of sacred music in last few years; our churches, cathedrals and schools have a wonderful opportunity ahead of them to continue to draw into their repertoires a more diverse range of music which better represents their community.”

Owain Park, director of The Gesualdo Six and Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers is among the young musicians excited by the Poston Project, having already worked with MoV on recordings (News, 22 November 2019), including Poston’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb (“really beautiful, very simple, perfect for Christmas and for children’s choirs”).

He believes that the project will enable church choirs to “quite quickly” add Poston to their repertories, and suggests her Te Deum or “Salve Jesus”. “It doesn’t take weeks of rehearsal; it will be music that people can pick up and sing,” he says. “But there are also pieces that will take time.” Her work would be a “perfect pairing” with Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor or works by Gustav and Imogen Holst, he suggests. “Then you create a programme which has that representation but is also interesting, as this music hasn’t really been heard for so many years.”


MULTITUDE OF VOYCESA score to be conserved by the British LibraryADDITIONAL challenge when it comes to the Poston estate is that some of the work remains not only unpublished, but missing. An example is the 1957 Concertino da Camera on a Theme of Martin Peerson, for recorder, oboe d’amore, gamba and harpsichord, composed by Poston in 1957 and dedicated to a friend and recorder player, Marilyn Wailes. Before her death Poston wrote to Wailes requesting back a copy of what she believed to be the only copy of her manuscript (“I am trying very hard to put together writing I count of any value and leave it tidily while I am still alive and not forgetting”).

It was after her death that Faber Music produced a copy, which eventually found its way into the hands of the recorder player John Turner. He recorded it with other musicians for “The Rose Tree”, a collection of music in memory of Basil Deane, published by Prime Facie. Poston’s music — “totally memorable” and “stunning” — should be more widely known, he says.

“We know that some musicians took the only copy of some scores home with them after premiere performances and some may still have them in boxes in their attics,” Mrs Stewart says. The charity is also hoping to track down letters linked to commissions and performances, programmes, photos, and recordings. “Above all, we want to learn more from those who remember her personally.” MoV would particularly like to hear from those who had professional associations with Poston, such as performers, commissioners of new works, broadcasters, and publishers.


THE charity’s first focus will be on Poston’s sacred works, of which many original manuscripts remain to be located and may be in private hands or church archives. In June, the Bristol Choral Society delivered the first public performance of Poston’s Festal Te Deum at Bristol Cathedral under Hilary Campbell. Commissioned by St Matthew’s, Northampton for its patronal festival in 1959, it was lost until 2018, when one of the church’s choristers, William Miller, found the score in the records office in Northampton, in one of about 20 uncatalogued boxes relating to the church.

Professor David Holton sang in the first performance in Northampton as a 13-year-old chorister, alongside his brother, Paul. “What I remember most vividly is the opening trumpet solo, imitated by the treble entry on a top G,” he says. “The first two pages are still imprinted in my memory, nearly 64 years later. We must have rehearsed them at least 50 times.” “Miss Poston” met the choir afterwards, wearing a large broad-brimmed hat.

Mrs Stewart says that MoV would love to reunite more original commissioning churches with their works. A key composition is Poston’s Magnificat, composed for the Oxford Summer School in 1962: a carefully labelled box thought to contain a recording was found to be empty.


BACK in Salisbury, painstaking work continues on resurrecting Poston’s work, including careful work by MoV’s typesetter, Anna Williams. Mrs Stewart wants to protect the integrity of Poston’s presentational style, making editorial changes “only where absolutely necessary”.

There is a nice symmetry in this work of preservation and revival; for Poston herself was committed to protecting the integrity of the traditional songs that she discovered on her travels. MoV’s broader commitment to supporting under-represented and marginalised groups, which has included publishing three volumes of “Sacred Music by Women Composers”, might also have appealed to Poston (News, 22 November 2019).

MULTITUDE OF VOYCESElizabeth Poston as performer of Ralph Vaughan William’s work in a concert in aid of the Red Cross and Prisoners of War Fund 1943

In a letter to a friend, in 1966, she wrote of being “bombarded with requests to write a work for girls which would give them the same chances and enlarge the repertory in the same direction as the [Benjamin] Britten Ceremony of Carols does for boys — i.e. to get right away from the conventional clichés meted out to girls.”

Three years before her death, Poston composed Celebration at my Death, an intriguing set of verses in which she imagined returning to her house after death (“Now I am outside looking in, am each sill and hinge and latchet”). Her last work, A Settled Rest — a choral setting of an 18th-century paraphrase of Psalm 23 — was being composed and prepared for publication with her publisher, Simon Campion, in the weeks before she died.

In a long letter to Joan Littlejohn in 1979, she wrote: “In my opinion, any composer who can leave behind him a lifetime’s contribution of 12 good songs, accepted, wanted, and sung, has done a worthwhile job.’” She also once opined that she would “rather have the favourable verdict of players and audiences than laudatory notices and no performances”.

In the coming years, it is hoped that many more people will have the opportunity to deliver their own verdict.


To contact the Poston Project, please email: poston@multitudeofvoyces.co.uk

Donations can be made at cafdonate.cafonline.org/22923.

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