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!
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.’
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Concept: Emily Rooke
With special thanks to: Lydia Baldwin, Carola Darwin and Richard Martin.
BBC Sounds. Dame Ethel Smyth talks politics in 1937. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p02kygyx
Fuller, Sophie. The Society of Women Musicians
Fuller, Sophie. Grove Music Online. Society of Women Musicians
May, Thomas. Metropolitan Opera
Service, Tom. Ethel Smyth - a wrecker with a cause https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2009/oct/28/ethel-emyth-suffragette
Smyth, Ethel. Abr. Ronald Crighton.The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth. Viking: England,1987.
St. John, Christopher. Ethel Smyth, a biography. 1959. p188.
Wise Music Classical. https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/composer/1471/Ethel-Smyth/