Composer of the Week: Ethel Smyth

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Donald Macleod introduces the life and work of an unsung heroine of the music world

 

Dame Ethel Smyth (1859-1944) did much to advance the status of women, both as composers and in everyday life.

Born to an upper-class Victorian family, Smyth defied her father, Major-General of the British army, when she expressed her desire to study music and become a composer. She persisted and pursued seven years of study in Germany where she mixed with Brahms among other important figures. Her early music therefore consists largely of songs and chamber works permeated by a Brahmsian voice.

Despite going on to write two major choral works, several orchestral pieces, six operas and numerous chamber compositions, Smyth remains a little known composer. Her gender was almost certainly one reason for this, but it was also her tendency to take part in a number of other time-consuming activities, including travelling, writing and supporting Emily Pankhurst’s ‘right to vote’ campaign, that prevented her from being taken seriously as a composer.