Who was Ethel Smyth?

Jeremy Siepmann rediscovers this redoubtable eccentric who fought 19th century convention – and won.

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Who was Ethel Smyth?
Ethel Smyth (Getty)
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‘A woman preaching,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ And a woman composing? 

In the kind of upright ‘country’ family to which Ethel Smyth was born in 1858, the very idea was inconceivable. Nevertheless, from the age of 12 there was no doubt in Ethel’s mind that a composer was what she was going to be.

Naturally, her parents – particularly her father, a Royal Artillery general – opposed the idea. At 19 she announced that she was going to study composition in Leipzig. Again she was opposed. ‘I determined at once,’ Ethel later confessed, ‘to make life at home so intolerable that my parents would have to let me go, for their own sakes. I refused to go to church, refused to sing at family dinner parties, refused to go out riding, refused to speak to anyone. And one day my father’s boot all but penetrated a panel of my locked bedroom door.’

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It was only a matter of time before the General waved the white flag. Not long afterwards, Ethel was ensconced at Leipzig under the watchful eye of the elderly Frau Professor Heimbach. Almost at once she spied that a work she particularly wanted to hear was being played at the Rosenthal Restaurant. Again opposition loomed: ‘Frau Professor, alas, insisted that no young girl could go to a place like that by herself, so I hit upon a plan, which this capital old lady somewhat reluctantly fell in with. I hired grey corkscrew curls and a large pair of horn spectacles, borrowed her thickest veil and gown… Having finally painted in the appropriate wrinkles, I sallied forth, stooped and hobbling.’ Setting herself down, she laid her knitting on the table and in a quavering voice ordered a beer.

A taste for adventure and a sense of fun were typical of Smyth throughout her life, but though she frequently surrendered to them, they never obscured her unwavering sense of purpose. In Leipzig she settled down to intensive hard work and soon became friendly with some of the greatest musicians of he time, including Clara Schumann, Greig and, most importantly of all, her idol Brahms (whose music left a permanent stamp on her own).

As a counterbalance to her musical activity, she found a special exhilaration in physical pursuits. A keen tennis player and later an indefatigable golfer, she also became an experienced mountaineer.

Danger wasn’t something that Smyth actively courted, but neither did she go out of her way to avoid it. From very early on, she saw risk as one of life’s spices, and timidity as the denial of experience – an outlook which informed her life and music in   equal measure.

After seven years in Leipzig, where she both spoke and composed like a native, she fulfilled a lifetime’s longing and set off as a lone woman of 26 to explore the countryside of Italy. Her only luggage was a camel’s-hair cape, a comb and toothbrush, a bar of soap, an iron-shod stick, an ordnance map – and a revolver. Returning safe and sound to Leipzig, she formed a warm friendship with Tchaikovsky who, like herself, was an inveterate traveller. Against the tide of Leipzig opinion, he encouraged her to develop her skill at orchestration. This she did, to a degree acknowledged as masterly even by her detractors (the orchestral fabric of her finest work is a sometimes curious cross between Wagner and Brahms, richly coloured and often strenuously contrapuntal). What most alarmed the orthodox Germans who nurtured her talent, however, was her determination to succeed as an opera composer.

As Ethel beavered away in Leipzig, her works began to get a hearing back in England.

A Serenade for Orchestra was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1890 and her overture Antony and Cleopatra was featured at George Henschel’s London Symphony Concerts. What really hailed her arrival as a force to be reckoned with, however, was the large-scale Mass in D, unveiled at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1893. Here she confounded all expectations of properly ‘feminine’ deportment: the work is a major undertaking by any standards (a fact acknowledged by Donald Tovey, who proclaimed it a ‘masterpiece’, whilst recognising its conspicuous debt to Beethoven). Bold in conception, masterly in construction and richly orchestrated, it established Smyth’s reputation as the foremost woman composer of her time.

By the turn of the century, she had finally launched herself as an operatic composer with the comedy Fantasio, mounted at Weimar in 1898, and again at Karlsruhe three years later. Der Wald was staged in 1902 in Berlin and twice at Covent Garden (where it scored a great success) and 1903 also saw its production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The same decade saw her work taken up by Bruno Walter on the continent, and by Thomas Beecham, who introduced English audiences to her crowning achievement, the three-act opera The Wreckers. The opera deals with the activities of piratical saboteurs alongside the Cornish coast in the early 1800s, and its music vividly reflects the ruggedness of the landscape and the bardic, sometimes savage character of the tale. A quarter of a century passed before Smyth attempted anything else on a similar scale. In 1930, with The Prison, an imposing if somewhat arid symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra, she provided the third pillar on which her reputation as a composer now rests.

Two decades earlier Smyth had experienced the reality of prison from the inside.

As one of Britain’s most colourful suffragettes, she attained her greatest fame in 1911, not with her symphonic or operatic endeavours but with her March of the Women, a tub-thumping anthem which she once defiantly conducted with a toothbrush through the bars of her jail cell. Despite her stint as a guest of His Majesty, and widespread gossip about her evident bisexuality (she had fallen in love with Anglo-American writer Henry Brewster in Italy and was rumoured to have had relationships with Virginia Wolfe and Princess Edmond de Polignac), the erstwhile crone of the Rosenthal Restaurant was made a Dame of the Empire in 1922, having in the meantime discarded her borrowed shawl and rented curls for a brisk, Miss Marple-like ensemble of tweeds.

At the time of her death in 1944, aged 86, her most successful works were slipping from the repertoire. However, over 70 years on, they have enjoyed something of a modest revival. With a US premiere of The Prison scheduled to be performed in New York later this year, it is clear that Smyth’s works have not quite been forgotten. Nevertheless, even her stoutest defenders – increasingly an endangered species – acknowledge that Smyth was a highly erratic composer, who rarely achieved a distinctive style of her own. The influence of Brahms and Wagner often jostles incongruously with that of Sullivan and a somewhat contrived, folk-like naivety. From a 21th-century vantage point, some of the ditties in The Boatswain’s Mate, like the once over-worked March of the Women, sound irretrievably banal. But, before we grow too smug, we should remember that this was a composer who engaged the interest and admiration of some of the greatest figures in 19th - and 20th century music.

Dame Ethel’s final years were afflicted with distortions of hearing which must have been a torment, but her creativity was far from spent. Well before deafness put a stop to her composition, she had demonstrated a talent for writing prose which, in the view of many, exceeded her gift for music. Her several volumes of autobiography remain a joy to read, not only for their lively, sometimes infuriating, often illuminating content, but for the sheer idiosyncratic brilliance of their style and the light they shed on an age now long gone.

This article was first published in the print edition of BBC Music Magazine. 

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