Nicola LeFanu was born in Wickham Bishops, Essex, England, to William LeFanu and Elizabeth Maconchy (also a composer, later Dame Elizabeth Maconchy). She studied at St Hilda's College, Oxford, before taking up a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard. In 1972 she won the Mendelssohn Scholarship. She later became Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School (1975–77), taught at King's College London (1977–1995, as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Professor), and then a Professor of Music at the University of York where she was Head of Department from 1994 to 2001. She retired from teaching in 2008.
She earned a Doctorate in Music from the University of London in 1988 and holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham and Aberdeen and from the Open University. She is active in many aspects of the musical profession, as composer, teacher and director.
LeFanu has written around sixty works, including music for orchestra, chamber groups and voices, as well as six operas. These have been widely played and broadcast, and many are available on CD. Her music is published by Chester Novello and Edition Peters.
Her operas are:
- Dawnpath, a chamber opera (1977),
- The Story of Mary O'Neill, a radio opera (1986)
- The Green Children, a children's opera to a libretto by Kevin Crossley-Holland (1990), based on the Green children of Woolpit
- Blood Wedding (1992, libretto by Debra Levy after Federico García Lorca)
- The Wildman, another collaboration with Crossley-Holland, commissioned by the Aldeburgh Foundation and first performed in June 1995
- Light Passing (libretto by John Edmonds, BBC/NCEM, York, 2004), which played to sellout audiences and received critical acclaim
Some of her recent works are:
- Echo and Narcissus for two pianos
- Concertino for chamber orchestra
- Catena for eleven solo strings (2001)
- Amores for solo horn and string orchestra (2003)
- Piano Trio (2003)
- Songs without Words for clarinet and string trio (2005), dedicated to Ian Mitchell and the Ensemble Gemini.
- Songs for Jane for soprano and viola (2005), "written for my cousin Jane Darwin" and dedicated "for Carola to sing to Jane"
- ‘LeFANU, Prof. Nicola Frances’, Who's Who 2013, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2013; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012 accessed 24 Dec 2012
- "Elizabeth Maconchy DBE". Retrieved 4 March 2015.
- Europa Publications, ed. (1993). International Who's Who in Classical Music (19 ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-1-85743-174-2.
- University of York Department of Music "LeFanu archive". Archived from the original on 10 February 2008. Retrieved 15 August 2015.
- Additional biographical details from programme note to Purcell Room concert 1 March 2007
- Purcell Room programme note 1 Mar 2007
- Purcell Room programme note for the concert on 1 March 2007, their first public performance; they had first been sung (in private) at Jane's 70th birthday party. Jane is the mother of novelist Emma Darwin and soprano Carola Darwin, who sang Songs for Jane on both occasions.