Dame Ethel Smyth

Learn about the life and legacy of Dame Ethel Smyth: A Woman's Voice Heard

Dame Ethel Smyth (1936) by Neville Stephen LyttonRoyal College of Music

Dame Ethel Smyth was a female composer born in 1858 at a time when musical composition was almost entirely male-dominated. From an early age Ethel challenged the societal norm, even convincing her father to let her study music in Leipzig at the age of 19. According to The Musical Times (an academic journal of classical music founded in 1844), he was reluctant to agree but after being treated to ‘a long course of deliberate sulks’ eventually relented!

Tchaikovsky Peter Icyich 1840-1893, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Brahms Johannes 1833-1897, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Schumann Robert Alexander & Clara 1810-1856, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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During her time at the Leipzig Conservatory she became acquainted with composers including Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. She also met Clara Schumann who too was forging a successful career as a concert pianist and composer. After a year of studying she left the Leipzig Conservatory as she was unhappy with the tuition.    

Smyth Name Ethel Murray 1858-1944LIFE Photo Collection

Supporting Women's Suffrage

By 1910, Smyth dedicated much of her time to supporting a cause close to her heart, the women’s suffrage movement. 

Wimbledon WSPU suffrage banner (1908)Original Source: LSE Library

Smyth joined the Society of Women Musicians in 1911, a British organisation which ‘aimed to provide a focal point for women composers and performers to meet and enjoy the benefits of mutual cooperation.’

Emmeline Pankhurst in prison uniform, knitting, c. 1909, Original Source: LSE Library
Wom Move Suffragettes 2 Of 2, 1900, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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For some time, the suffragette campaign was met with closed ears and minds within parliament. When it seemed as if peaceful protests were having no affect, some took to more unorthodox methods of getting the attention of the government, Ethel included. She was sent to Holloway prison for throwing a brick into the home of Lewis Harcourt, Secretary of State to the Colonies. Many suffragettes endured time in prison, including leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, pictured above left.

Kensington shop front, Topical Press Agency (photographic agency), 1910, Original Source: LSE Library
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In Smyth's choral symphony The Prison (1930) an innocent man, jailed and awaiting execution, engages a conversation with his own soul. The text was written by her close friend and mentor Henry Brewster. “Who doesn’t have a prison?” the Prisoner asks in Brewster’s Dialogue. 

The Suffragette/ Victoria and Albert Museum (1914) by Christabel PankhurstNational Women’s History Museum

Ethel Smyth wrote The March of the Women (1910) which became the anthem of the Women's Political and Social Union's during the suffrage movement. The tune was influenced by an old folk song which Smyth heard during her time in the Abruzzi, Italy. Whilst in prison,  Smyth conducted this piece through the bars of her cell as fellow prisoners marched and sang in the yard beneath.

"Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner and hope is waking." - The March of the Women

Smyth Name Ethel Murray 1858-1944LIFE Photo Collection

Ethel Smyth and the Royal College of Music

Many of Ethel Smyth’s works were performed at the Royal College of Music and some were even conducted by Smyth herself. These included her operas Fête Galante and Entente Cordiale

Dame Ethel Smyth, Antonio Mancini, 1900, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
Page from The RCM magazine 65/3, Royal College of Music, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
Copy of letter from Dame Ethel Smyth, Ethel Smyth, 1939, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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The Royal College of Music collections and archives hold many treasures relating to Smyth's life. The college magazine captures Ethel in a more relaxed mode, having just played tennis with conductors Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood (of Proms fame). Her desire for promoting women in music is evident in her personal correspondence with the Society of Women Musicians.

Page from The RCM magazine 21/3, Royal College of Music, 1925, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
Page from The RCM magazine 21/3, Royal College of Music, 1925, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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On 4th August 1925, Smyth noted in her diary that the soloists in the RCM production of Entente Cordiale were "quite first-rate", however "chorus (women) very bad. Not trained sopranos, merely gigglers."

Ethel Smyth (circa 1901) by John Singer SargentRoyal College of Music

Der Wald (The Forest)

Ethel’s passion for the plight of women shone through in her music.

Title page of 'Der Wald' (1902) by Ethel SmythRoyal College of Music

In one of her lesser known operas, Der Wald (The Forest), Ethel centres the plot around a powerful female character Iolanthe, believed to be a witch. The peasants who live in the forest fear her, and quite rightly too as she threatens to kill Heinrich, a woodcutter, unless he leaves his home to be with her. Smyth used a familiar storyline but flipped the traditional gender roles to instead use a woman as the villainess and central character.

Smyth Name Ethel Murray 1858-1944LIFE Photo Collection

Not all performances of Der Wald went smoothly. Ethel’s producer, Georg Pierson, helped her to organise performances in Berlin. Sadly he died unexpectedly and the cast were reluctant to perform it owing to the fact it was written by an English person. She recounted this later to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was shocked to hear the tale and even referred to his own opera house as a ‘pigsty’! Listen to Ethel Smyth talk about Der Wald here

Der Wald was subjected to highly gendered criticism.
'Utterly unfeminine... [lacking] sweetness and grace of phrase.' The World
'[She] writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to be the special gift of the rougher sex.' The Telegraph

In a letter to Henry Brewster, Smyth stated, “I feel I must fight for Der Wald…because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to be put out to sea.”

Dame Ethel Smyth (1928)Royal College of Music


Ethel Smyth ensured her voice was heard through her music, and paved the way for other women to do the same.

Ethel Smyth Ethel Smyth (1930) by LNA PhotoOriginal Source: LSE Library

Undeterred by the expectations of society and her own family, Ethel forged her own musical path. In 1922 she became the first ever female composer to be awarded a damehood. . Until 2016, she was the only female composer ever to have had a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Der Wald in 1903).

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