How did you first come across the music of Dame Ethel Smyth?
I was looking at the suffragettes a couple of years ago, and I thought it was an area of female history that I didn’t know very much about. I knew maybe a couple of the women. Immediately Smyth and her March of the Women came to the fore. She’s an extraordinary woman, and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about her.
What did that inspire you to do?
I had already performed a piece about the contralto Kathleen Ferrier, and I thought Smyth would fit the model of storytelling with music very well. She became my next victim. I immediately listened to her Mass, which actually the BBC Symphony Orchestra is performing at the Barbican on 15 November, and was blown away. I thought it was absolutely up there.
How do you go about telling her tale?
We tell the story all with her own words. I’ve taken words from her autobiographies, letters and articles, and I’ve edited them into a dramatic form that is effectively her reflecting back on elements of her life. There are also texts by other people – George Bernard Shaw, Virgina Woolf, Peter Sackville West – on what they thought about her. Smyth was passionate and honest about her struggles, her life, her journey. She had a brilliant turn of phrase and was very witty.
And which pieces of her music will you and your pianist Elizabeth Marcus be performing?
In the first half we have parts of her Mass and her opera, The Wreckers. Smyth used to tuck her scores under her arm and go around Europe trying to get her works performed. She turned up in Vienna and sang the whole of The Wreckers to the conductor Bruno Walter, who was Mahler’s second in command. She would sit at the piano and sing all the parts. The Wreckers is a brilliant opera, and I’ve no idea why it’s not in the repertoire. It’s a great story and the music is really stirring.
What happens in the second half of your show?
The first twenty minutes of Act II is the militant suffragette phase of Smyth’s life, including when Emily Davison went under the King’s horse. It includes a piece of information that no one really knows. There was outcry after that and a lot of the public was horrified that anyone would do that. But Smyth says that at Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral some years later, the jockey of the King’s horse brought a wreath, and the inscription was ‘To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison’.
Then we go into the post-war stage, when Smyth was very well known, her operas were being put on and she had been made a dame. There was also the regret that even though five of her operas had been put on in England since 1900, a comprehensive guide to English opera had just been published by the brother of a good friend, and Smyth hadn’t the slightest mention.
Even though she was famous at that point, her music was then largely forgotten and it’s only really in recent years that we’re rediscovering it. Why do you think she fell out of the public consciousness?
I think it’s because she didn’t have anyone to champion her. Not that it could have been bought at the time, but I bought ethelsmyth.com. I feel she wasn’t taken as seriously in her lifetime as if she had been a man. That’s the root of it. She was ridiculed. She was a larger than life character. She was also a brilliant writer, and a journalist at the time said it was too difficult for the public to grasp that she was both a brilliant writer and composer. She demanded recognition. She was pushing the boundaries of what people felt comfortable with women and success.
Lucy Stevens performs her play Grasp the Nettle at Milton Court Concert Hall on Wednesday 3 October at 7.30pm as part of the City of London’s Women: Work & Power season
Kate Kennedy explores the formidable achievements and indomitable spirit of the British composer and militant suffragette Ethel Smyth in the November issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale on Thursday 4 October