Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, DBE (/smaɪθ/, to rhyme with Forsyth; 23 April 1858 – 8 May 1944) was an English composer and a member of the women’s suffragemovement. Smyth was born in London, as the fourth of a family of eight children. Her father, J. H. Smyth, who was a Major-General in the Royal Artillery, was very much opposed to her making a career in music.
Undeterred, Smyth was determined to become a composer, studied with a private tutor, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where she met many composers of the day. Her compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas.
She lived at Frimhurst, near Frimley Green for many years, but from 1913 onwards, she began gradually to lose her hearing and managed to complete only four more major works before deafness brought her composing career to an end. However, she found a new interest in literature and, between 1919 and 1940, she published ten highly successful, mostly autobiographical, books.
In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922. She died in Woking in 1944 at the age of 86, and at her own request, after cremation at Woking Crematorium, her ashes were scattered in the woodland next to the golf course. Smyth received honorary doctorates in music from the Universities of Durham and Oxford.
Portrait of Ethel Smyth, 1901,
John Singer Sargent
Her life in music
She first studied privately with Alexander Ewing when she was seventeen. He introduced her to the music of Wagner andBerlioz. After a major battle with her father about her plans to devote her life to music, Smyth was allowed to advance her musical education at the Leipzig Conservatory, where she studied composition with Carl Reinecke. She left after a year, however, disillusioned with the low standard of teaching, and continued her music studies privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. While she was at the Leipzig Conservatory, she met Dvořák, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. Through Herzogenberg she also met Clara Schumann and Brahms.
Smyth’s extensive body of work includes the Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra and the Mass in D. Her opera The Wreckers is considered by some critics to be the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.” Another of her operas, Der Wald, remains the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York’sMetropolitan Opera.
Recognition in England came somewhat late for Ethel Smyth, noted conductor Leon Botstein at the time he conducted theAmerican Symphony Orchestra’s US premiere of The Wreckers in New York on 30 September 2007:
On her seventy-fifth birthday in 1934, under Beecham’s direction, her work was celebrated in a festival, the final event of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Heartbreakingly, at this moment of long-overdue recognition, the composer was already completely deaf and could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.
Overall, critical reaction to her work was mixed and, as noted by Eugene Gates:
Smyth’s music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, but as that of a “woman composer.” This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession, and, coupled with the double standard of sexual aesthetics, also placed her in a double bind. On the one hand, when she composed powerful, rhythmically vital music, it was said that her work lacked feminine charm; on the other, when she produced delicate, melodious compositions, she was accused of not measuring up to the artistic standards of her male colleagues.
Other critics were more favourable: “The composer is a learned musician: it is learning which gives her the power to express her natural inborn sense of humour… Dr. Smyth knows her Mozart and her Sullivan: she has learned how to write conversations in music… [The Boatswain’s Mate] is one of the merriest, most tuneful, and most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage.”
Involvement with the suffrage movement
In 1910 Smyth joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a suffrage organisation, giving up music for two years to devote herself to the cause.
Her “The March of the Women” (1911) became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement. When the WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, called on members to break a window in the house of any politician who opposed votes for women, Smyth was one of the 109 members who responded to Pankhurst’s call. She served two months in Holloway Prison for the act. When proponent-friend Thomas Beecham went to visit her there, he found suffragettes marching in the quadrangle and singing, as Smyth leaned out a window conducting the song with a toothbrush.
Smyth had several passionate affairs in her life, most of them with women. Her philosopher-friend and the librettist of some of her operas, Henry Bennet Brewster, may have been her only male lover. She wrote to him in 1892: “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can’t make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person.” th was at one time in love with the married suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library
At age 71 she fell in love with writer Virginia Woolf, who, both alarmed and amused, said it was “like being caught by a giant crab”, but the two became friends. th’s relationship with Violet Gordon-Woodhouse is depicted satirically in Roger Scruton’s 2005 opera, Violet.
Smyth was actively involved in sport throughout her life. In her youth she was a keen horse-rider and tennis player. She was a passionate golfer and a member of the Ladies section of Woking Golf Club near where she lived and her ashes were scattered in the neighbouring woods.
Ethel Smyth featured, under the name of Edith Staines, in E. F. Benson’s Dodo books (1893–1921), decades before the quaint musical characters of his more famous Miss Mapp series. She “gleefully acknowledged” the portrait, according toPrunella Scales. was later a model for the fictional Dame Hilda Tablet in the 1950s radio plays of Henry Reed.
She was portrayed by Maureen Pryor in the 1974 BBC television film Shoulder to Shoulder.
The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Ethel Smyth.
Impressions That Remained: Memoirs (1919)
Streaks Of Life (1921)
A Three-Legged Tour in Greece (24 March – 4 May 1925)(1927)
A Final Burning of Boats, etc. (1928)
Female Pipings in Eden (1933)
Beecham and Pharaoh (1935)
As Time Went On … (1936)
Inordinate (?) Affection: A Story for Dog Lovers(1936)
Maurice Baring (1938)
What Happened Next (1940)
Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 7, Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 5, String Quintet in E major, Op. 1, String Quartet in E minor (1912): Renate Eggebrecht, violin, Friedemann Kupsa cello, Céline Dutilly piano, fanny mendelssohn quartet, TRO-CD 01403 (2-CD-Set).
Double Concerto in A for violin, horn and piano (1926): Renate Eggebrecht violin, Franz Draxinger horn, Céline Dutilly piano; Four Songs for mezzosoprano and chamber ensemble (1907): Melinda Paulsen mezzo, Ethel Smyth ensemble; Three songs for mezzosoprano and piano (1913): Melinda Paulsen mezzo, Angela Gassenhuber piano, TRO-CD 01405.
Cello Sonata in C minor (1880): Friedemann Kupsa cello, Anna Silova piano; Lieder und Balladen, Opp. 3 & 4, Three Moods of the Sea (1913): Maarten Koningsberger baritone, Kelvin Grout piano, TRO-CD 01417.
String Quartet in E Minor and String Quintet op. 1 in E Major. Mannheimer Streichquartett and Joachim Griesheimer. CPO 999 352-2.
Complete Piano Works. Liana Serbescu. CPO 999 327-2.
Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra. BBC Philharmonic, cond. Odaline de la Martinez. Chandos Chan 9449.
Mass in D. Eiddwen Harrhy, The Plymouth Music Series, Pilip Brunelle. Virgin Classics VC 7 91188-2.
The Wreckers. Anne-Marie Owens, Justin Lavender, Peter Sidhom, David Wilson-Johnson, Judith Howarth, Anthony Roden, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Annemarie Sand. Huddersfield Choral Society, BBC Philharmonic, Odaline de la Martinez. Conifer Classics.
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