The life and work of Ethel Smyth: a trailblazer for women
Posted on 14th April 2023 at 12:27
Photo credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), restored by Adam Cuerden
22nd April 2023 sees the 165th anniversary of the birth of Dame Ethel Smyth. Smyth is perhaps best known as the composer of the March of the Women, which became the anthem of the Women's Social and Political Union, part of the Suffragette movement.
She was a radical, outspoken character who was not afraid to go against the grain – openly bisexual in a period where society was far from accepting, and battling to gain recognition as a female composer in a profession dominated by men.
Smyth was born in London to Major-General John Hall Smyth and Emma Struth Smyth, a wealthy bourgeois couple. Her father did not support her choice of a musical career, but in 1887 Smyth travelled to Leipzig to study at the Conservatory. Although she was only at the Conservatory for a year, she stayed in Leipzig and studied with composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg. During this time, she met many notable composers of the era including Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Edvard Grieg, Clara Schumann and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
In 1890, Smyth returned to England where she met Sir Arthur Sullivan, who encouraged her work. Her debut as a composer of orchestral music was made at the Crystal Palace Concerts with her Serenade in D. From 1893 to 1910, Smyth spent much of her time and creative energies working on a series of operas. Unusually for a female composer at the time, her operas met with some success in Europe and North America. In 1898 Fantasio was premiered in Weimar, with Der Wald being premiered in Berlin in 1902 before being performed at the Royal Opera House, London.
One of Smyth’s most well-known works today is The Wreckers. The opera, which focuses on a coastal community plundering shipwrecks, was inspired by a trip to Cornwall in 1886, with the setting chosen as a symbol of an isolated Britain. Smyth shared her notes of the trip with Henry Brewster, who wrote the libretto in French, as it was thought the work would be more likely to obtain performances in France or Belgium than in Britain. In the end, Smyth was unable to arrange a performance in France and so it was premiered in Leipzig as Der Standrech, in German translation by John Bernhoff. It was performed again in Prague in 1906, before being performed in English in London under the baton of Thomas Beecham in 1909, at Her Majesty’s Theatre. It was performed at Covent Garden the following year – the first opera by a female composer to be performed there. However, for each of these, Smyth had to work tirelessly to obtain performances. The work only premiered in the US in 2007 and the original, French libretto was finally performed by Glyndebourne Opera in England last year – nearly 12 decades after it was first written.
A ‘woman composer’
Smyth struggled to achieve the acclaim she deserved as she was termed a ’woman composer’. This was a double-whammy of a label: it meant that her powerful music was deemed too masculine and her smaller-scale works were dismissed for not being as ‘good’ as her male colleagues’. Smyth was well acquainted with the challenges women faced at this time, as a key member of the Women's Social and Political Union, and she gave up music to devote herself to the cause for 2 years. She took an active role in the fight for suffrage, leading to her being imprisoned in Holloway for 2 months. It was reported that while imprisoned she conducted the suffragettes singing her March of the Women, leaning out of a window and using her toothbrush as a baton. In 1930, 2 years after women were finally granted the same voting rights as men in the UK, Smyth conducted the Metropolitan Police Band at the unveiling of the statue to Emmeline Pankhurst in London.
During World War I, the suffragette movement suspended its activities and although Smyth disagreed with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel’s support of the war, she trained and worked as an assistant radiologist in a French military hospital in Vichy from 1915 to 1918. These years were particularly difficult for her, as she became increasingly deaf. This impacted her composition work, so she concentrated much of her efforts on writing, and became a prolific author of memoirs. The first of a total of eight volumes, entitled Impressions That Remained, appeared in 1919.
In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, in 1922, Smyth became the first female composer to be made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). She also received honorary doctorates in music from the Universities of Durham and Oxford.
In May 1928, to celebrate her 70th birthday, the newly-formed BBC broadcast two concerts of Smyth’s music – one of chamber music and the other, conducted by the composer, of choral music. Her 75th birthday was celebrated by Sir Thomas Beecham with a festival at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Sadly, by this time, Smyth was nearly deaf and could not hear the performance or the applause of the audience.
Smyth continues to be recognised for her compositions, her writings and her role in the Suffrage movement. Judy Chicago’s work The Dinner Party, exhibited in 1979, is widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork and includes a place setting for Smyth.
Smyth was immortalised in a statue, unveiled in celebration of International Women's Day in 2022 in Duke’s Court Plaza, Woking. The statue, by Christine Charlesworth, shows Smyth conducting. Charlesworth commented:
“Ethel stands, wearing her usual tweed skirt, enthusiastically conducting passers-by with her over-sized baton, as presented to her at the Royal Albert Hall by Emmeline Pankhurst.
“Her jacket is half open, her arms are beating out the time and her eyes are full of concentration as she battles with her hearing loss, which went completely in her 50s.
“Also detailed in her pocket is a sheaf of paper which could be ideas for a new opera, or maybe notes for a new book, as well as sketches and polemical essays.”
With renewed focus on her work in recent years, she will surely be an inspiration for a new generation of musicians and composers – both for her music, and for her determination to pursue the causes that mattered to her.
You can find a collection of articles and more information about Smyth at: https://www.ethelsmyth.org/category/new-scholarship/
Imogen Tilden explores the background to The Wreckers for the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/may/19/suffragette-ethel-smyth-opera-the-wreckers
You can learn more about Glyndebourne Opera’s staging of The Wreckers in their short film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqxY33MSA2U
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