Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was an English composer and suffragette. A leading musical figure of her era, she became the first female composer to be awarded a damehood, while her March of the Women became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union,
Determined to have a career in music, despite the wishes of her father, Smyth’s studies took her to the Leipzig conservatory at the age of 17. There, she studied with Reinecke, and met composers including Dvořák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann and Brahms.
Smyth wrote everything from songs and piano works to orchestral pieces and large-scale works, while her operatic success saw her become the first woman to have an opera performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She was also a gifted writer, publishing works of non-fiction and autobiography.
But where should you begin with getting to know her music? Here are six of the best pieces by Ethel Smyth.
Variations on an Original Theme (Of an Exceedingly Dismal Nature) in D flat (1878)
This is one of Smyth’s earliest surviving works, dating from her time at the Leipzig Conservatory (1877-78). One of the variations is a humorous depiction of her spirited horse, Phyllis, who once threw Smyth into a ditch – an event illustrated in pencil on the score by the composer.
If the title suggests this is not an altogether serious work, Smyth’s writing already shows a mastery of both light, fluent melody and a flair for drama.
Listen to the full piece here:
String Quintet in E, Op. 1 (1883)
For her Opus One, Smyth turned to chamber music. Her String Quintet in E was first heard in public at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, a five-movement Brahmsian work rooted in her training at the conservatory.
As with her other early chamber works, the Quintet shows an assured approach to form, while it has a winning expressiveness that is most telling in the slow movements.
Serenade in D (1890)
The Serenade in D was Smyth’s first orchestral work. It was premiered by conductor August Manns at the Crystal Palace and, along with the Overture to Anthony and Cleopatra, brought Smyth’s music to London audiences for the first time.
The general belief in that era was that women were not able to compose as well as men – something that Smyth was determind to disprove. Her genial, large-scale work is cast in four movements and is symphonic in scope.
Mass in D (1891)
Smyth’s Mass in D helped put her on the map, as one of her first pieces with a distinctive individual style. It dates from a period in her life when she experienced a renewal in her religious belief, thanks to her close friend Pauline Trevelyan, to whom the Mass is dedicated – although she later said that writing the Mass ‘sweated religious or at least dogmatic fervour out of me’.
Its premiere took place at the Royal Albert Hall in 1893, and the piece was described by George Bernard Shaw as ‘magnificent’.
The Wreckers (1902-4)
Smyth believed that English composers were well suited to writing light opera, so it’s perhaps no surprise that one of her best known works falls into this category.
The Wreckers is a lyrical drama that tells the tale of a Cornish community whose livelihood depends on luring ships onto rocks during storms and collecting the bounty.
Intertwined within this narrative is a love story between Mark, who wants to save the ships and the lives of those on board, and Thirza, who wants to protect Mark from the disapproving villagers.
Thomas Beecham conducted the English premiere of Smyth’s Cornish opera in 1909, after the opera got off to a stormy start, in German translation, in Leipzig.
Although Mahler was reputedly considering the piece for Vienna State Opera before he was fired it was never staged there, but it did make it Covent Garden in 1910.
The March of the Women (1911)
As well as being a musician, Smyth was also a suffragette who devoted herself to the cause for two years, giving up her music in order to focus on it completely. In 1911, her piece The March of the Women became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.
The piece became a symbol of the movement, and was sung not only at rallies, but also in prisons when the women were on hunger strike. The Votes for Women newspaper described the song as ‘at once a hymn and a call to battle’.
To hear more of Smyth’s work, see our Best of Ethel Smyth playlist here: