Dame Ethel Smyth

Feminale of Music

A photograph with the portrait of an older woman.

Her most famous composition is probably her »March of the Women«, which became the anthem of the suffragettes, the English women's rights movement that fought for the introduction of women's suffrage at the turn of the century. Smyth became involved in this movement in the years 1911-13, which led to a two-month prison term in 1912.

Ethel Smyth was born in Kent, England on 23 April 1858. Throughout her life Ethel Smyth fights against resistance. It begins at home, where her father in particular wants to prevent her from studying composition in Leipzig. Ethel asserts herself, with drastic means, up to and including a hunger strike. At the Leipzig Conservatory, she soon realizes that the level does not meet her expectations. However, she finds a substitute in private lessons with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Especially to his wife Elisabeth a close friendship develops. In her salon she meets Clara Schumann, as well as Johannes Brahms, whose music she admires very much, but who is personally ironic and condescending towards her, as Ethel Smyth describes in her autobiographical writings.

During her studies in Leipzig she exclusively composed chamber music works, later also orchestral and choral works and operas. Her Great Mass in D major of 1891 does not premiere until two years after its completion, »after a long and tough struggle, only through the interventions of Empress Eugénie and an audition with Queen Victoria«, as the musicologist Melanie Unseld reports (MUGI, »Musik und Gender im Internet«)

She will have a similar situation with many other compositions, Smyth has to fight again and again for the performance of her works. On the other hand, she is also supported by influential conductors, among them Sir Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, Felix Mottl and Arthur Nikisch. Her works are performed in major opera houses and concert halls in Europe and the USA. Ethel Smyth's main compositional works are her six operas, which she composed between 1892 and 1924.

From 1913 onwards, an ear disease develops, which finally leads to complete deafness in 1939. For this reason the emphasis shifted from compositional to literary activity. Ethel Smyth's offensive handling of her lesbian disposition, of which she makes no secret, is still remarkable. The musicologist Susanne Wosnitzka, for example, reports that Ethel Smith was inspired by »one of her great loves, Pauline Trevelyan« to her »spectacular mass in D [...]«.

Music pieces

Serenade in D major for orchestra published by Classical Music goturhjem2 and performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra: Odaline de la Martinez (conductor), Sophie Langdon (violin), Richard Watkins (horn), Naxos of America (commissioned by Chandos)

Piano Trio in D minor, Allegro vivace published by and played by the Chagall Trio, to be found on »Ethel Smyth: Impressions That Remain«, 2009 meridian records.

The Wreckers: Overture released by and performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra: Sakari Oramo (conducting) released on »Smyth: Mass in D Major & Overture to The Wreckers«, 2019 Chandos, NAXOS of America.

March of the Women published by and sung by the Glasgow University Chapel Choir: Katy Lavinia Cooper (conductor), Harry Campbell (video)

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