If there’s one word that springs to mind to describe Ethel Smyth, it’s passionate. Passionate about friendship, about intellectual stimulation, about having her voice heard (and rightly so), and about the power of her music to communicate emotion. She could be overwhelming, perhaps sometimes brash, but never insipid.
Yet Smyth wasn’t always as neglected as she is now. Just before the turn of the last century, when she and Elgar were both in their early forties, she was the name on everyone’s lips, and he was merely up and coming.
Smyth wrote six operas, a mass and a great deal of chamber music. But it was by no means easy to be taken seriously as a female composer, and despite her formidable temperament Smyth struggled, along with her other female counterparts.
Her dramatic Violin Sonata in A minor, written in the early years of her career, had fallen foul of critics for being ‘deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer.’
Heavily involved in the Women’s Suffrage movement, Smyth would pen its anthem – The March of the Women – a year after joining. It’s a stirring tune was taken from her opera The Boatswain’s Mate.
Five unmissable works by Ethel Smyth
Serenade in D (1890)
Written after she returned to England from Germany, this striking four-movement orchestral Serenade is influenced by Brahms. Premiered at the Crystal Palace, the work brought Smyth public success.
Mass in D (1893)
This substantial six-part Mass was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall and was, George Bernard Shaw came to believe, ‘magnificent’. Yet after writing it, Smyth lost her religious (High Anglican) faith.
The Wreckers (1902)
Thomas Beecham conducted the English premiere of Smyth’s salty Cornish opera in 1909, after the opera’s earlier turbulent start in Leipzig. It went on to be staged at Covent Garden in 1910.
The Boatswain’s Mate (1914)
This comic two-acter was Smyth’s most successful opera in her lifetime. The sparkling score features the tune that became The March of the Women.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1928)
By the time Smyth penned this concerto, she was dealing with deafness. The craggy opening movement leads to a lyrical Elegy and a dancing finale.
Original text by Kate Kennedy