About equality, and Dame Ethel Smyth

john_singer_sargent_dame_ethel_smythI find the quest for equality tiring sometimes. I am currently nearly fifty, and many of the same problems seem to exist as when I discovered gender inequality at the age of seven, during my campaign at junior school for girls to be allowed to carry chairs to and from the assembly hall on the same basis as boys (went down like a lead balloon with my female classmates, that). The continuing gulf between the genders was brought home to me last week when someone gushed that it was only a matter of time before I became a Regius Professor. ‘Ain’t going to happen” I replied. “Firstly, I am female, and if you have noticed, the statistics aren’t on my side. Secondly, I work in Education, which is seen as a Cinderella subject by many, so considered not worthy of such august academic titles” (UCL doesn’t seem to have any Regius Professors at all, being a mere parvenu, only founded in 1826).

Another issue that annoyed my seven-year-old self recently was the report in the New York Times that for the first time in a century, an opera composed by a woman was to be performed. A century, ladies and gentlemen. The Met is about to perform the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin”. The last time the Met deigned to put on an opera composed by a woman, it was Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903, an opera which smashed box office records. Since then, silence. The Met clearly believed that in over one hundred years not one single opera composed by a woman was worth staging.

This suggests unusually warm congratulations are due to to Kaija Saariaho on this remarkable achievement  of breaking the gender duck in New York. We should certainly all rush out and buy the CD, or download it, or whatever gives this remarkable composer the most handsome royalties. In the meantime, I thought it might be of interest to reproduce here the content of a talk I gave here on Dame Ethel Smyth, so we get a sense of how enormous her impact was at the turn of the 20th century, and how much we lost in the meantime. I hope you enjoy it.

There is only one theme tune that broadcasters reliably call upon when Suffragettes are mentioned, and that is a rousing tribute from 1910 known as March of the Women. This forthright ditty acted as a call to arms for a generation of activist women swathed in purple and green sashes. The first verse of their anthem urges us to


Shout, shout, up with your song!

Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;

March, march, swing you along,

Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.

Song with its story, dreams with their glory

Lo! they call, and glad is their word!

Loud and louder it swells,

Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!


Inspiring words indeed, with a melody that is more than worthy of the sentiment, yet comparatively little is known about Ethel Smyth, their composer-in-chief.

It would be fair to say Ethel was a colourful figure by the standards of any age. The daughter of an army officer, she was internationally recognized as an opera composer, author and suffragette. She allegedly showed Mrs Pankhurst the best way of throwing a brick through a plate glass window, in response to a chauvinistic remark made by Viscount Harcourt, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. She fell in love in her seventies, with Virginia Woolf, who described the experience as ‘being caught by a giant crab’. She kept sheepdogs (usually named Pan) and conducted her own works dressed in a kimono. By 1922 she had been made a Dame of the British Empire, in return for her services to music.

Ethel was in many ways a woman of her time, whilst also being a seer of a more egalitarian future. The fourth of eight children, she was the product of a private boarding school in Putney, in the early days of secondary schooling for girls. The curriculum was relatively broad, including chemistry and astronomy alongside two foreign languages and the ubiquitous (for then) sock darning. By the age of seventeen, however, she had focused her attention on music and persuaded her military papa to send her Leipzig to study it. Whether this was as a result of a governess arriving in the Smyth household who had studied there herself we do not know, but it seems more than likely. Yet later in life Ethel was to present this as a kind of adventure in which she had run away to Leipzig, perhaps so she could have been seen more seriously in terms of fighting the suffragette cause. The irony is, of course, that had she been a boy (as perhaps her father might have preferred), this opportunity would have been denied to her entirely and she would have been facing a military career rather than a musical one.

Once in Leipzig, Ethel felt a degree of disgust for the other women students, on the grounds that they were lacking ambition and only wanted to become music teachers. This period of fraternization with the female conservatoire contingent did not last for long, however. Soon she had been taken under the wing of the renowned composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who apparently taught her for nothing. Indeed over the years she was to become extremely close to Herzogenberg and his wife, Lisl (Elisabeth), as their domestic world seemed to have a lot in common with her own experiences of home life back in England. In years to come, Lisl was to write her tender letters, full of concern, and during an occasion of serious ill-health, Lisl would nurse Ethel back to health with great care and affection. Ethel in turn held Lisl in high esteem. She described her as a ‘musical genius’, especially appreciating Lisl’s ability to sight read from manuscripts. Her musical judgement, critical faculties and excellent all-round knowledge of music contrived to make her, in Ethel’s eyes at least, the perfect musician, even if Lisl’s performance lacked some passion and came across as rather cold. However there was another key aspect of the relationship that was to prove very important for Ethel in terms of the development of her career. This was the fact that the Herzogenbergs were close associates of a number of leading musical figures of the time, including Brahms and the Schumanns, as well as Lili Wach (born Mendelssohn-Bartholdy). This meant that Ethel was brought into contact with inspiring musicians on a regular basis, which was to have a profound effect on her.

The Herzonbergs contrived to bring Ethel into the Leipzig musical world. On one occasion, Lisl showed Brahms one of Ethel’s fugue exercises to look at, and he seemed quite absorbed in its analysis, which Ethel interpreted as Brahms forgetting the fugue was written by a woman. Ethel then ruined the moment by asking what she later described as a pointless question, namely whether it mattered if she wrote what she wanted as opposed to writing what her teacher expected. Brahms’ reverie was interrupted and according to Ethel, he became patronising. This probably tells us more about Ethel than it does Brahms, in that she clearly spent a great deal of time being aware of her gender, and feeling she must counteract it, very different to the approach of her musical near-contemporaries, such as Clara Schumann. Lisl and Ethel did manage to wreak a degree of revenge on Brahms on another occasion. Lisl showed him a two-part invention in the style of Bach that Ethel had written for Herzogenberg, and passed it off as a new find of the Bachverein, in the early days of J S Bach’s work being collated and revealed to a wider audience. In the piece she had incorporated an unusual harmonic device, unknown in Bach’s time, yet one within reason that he could have anticipated. Brahms exclaimed in delight, “The fellow is always hitting on something new!” Eventually the secret of the real composer emerged, and Ethel was praised. So we see a high degree of technical skill on her part, and perhaps feel a little more sympathy for Herr Brahms.

Other composers provided encouragement to her as well, including Grieg, who in 1879 described a set of variations she had written as ‘charming’ and said that he looked forward to her next piece. However it was Tchaikovsky who had the most significant impact on her work at this stage, encouraging her to study orchestration on her own. This led to a number of works including Serenade (1889), a four-movement overture for orchestra, which was praised by the composer Arthur Sullivan and performed at the Crystal Palace. This paved the way for her Mass in D (1891). The music analyst Donald Tovey included the Mass in his Essays in Musical Analysis alongside Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Joachim, Parry and Bantock, on the grounds that it was ‘God-intoxicated’. We must bear in mind that the scale of such an achievement is immense – this was at a time when other women composers could barely get their work published on the grounds of commercial and personal prejudice. Yet in spite of this, Tovey holds it up as an example of a locus classicus in choral orchestration. He even goes so far as to make parallels with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This seems justified to some degree, as it was indeed a bold and forthright work. At the time, Archbishop Benson remarked that in it, God was not implored, but commanded to have mercy, such was Ethel’s use of a large and enthusiastic brass section in the orchestra. This was a very far cry from the polite and relatively inoffensive parlour songs and piano pieces being written by many other women at the time.

Upon Ethel showing the Mass to Levi, he declared that she should write an opera. (Levi was another composer who had initially declared disbelief on hearing that pieces by Ethel had been written by a woman). Eventually Ethel would write Fantasio (1898), then Der Wald (1903), which was produced at Leipzig, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House, and particularly warmly received. It has remained the only opera written by a woman to be performed at the Met, over a century later. The peak of Ethel’s career was to come with her next opera, The Wreckers (1906), which is still occasionally produced today. The opera is set on the Cornish coast in the 18th century, around the time of the Wesleyan Revival. The people of the area believe that the wrecks on their shores are a direct gift from providence. However the ships have been passing by the dangerous coastline, and the people are near starving as a result, so they pray for sailors that they can murder and rob. There would be no pretty parlour romances here. In the opera, Ethel combines the Germanic tradition of composers such as Wagner with the English dramatic and musical characteristics. She does this cleverly, in the manner of Benjamin Britten with his opera Peter Grimes. This includes the use of chorus and off-stage singing as an accompaniment to the singers on stage, as well as portrayals of the sea in interludes, and the idea of someone in the community representing the ‘odd one out’. Sir Thomas Beecham was to acknowledge the vigour and rhythmic force of the music in The Wreckers, claiming that it equalled anything else which had been written in England at the time.

The Wreckers staged for Bard Summerscape, 2015  (Photo by Cory Weaver)

By 1910, Ethel’s friend and librettist (and perhaps her lover) Henry Brewster had died, and after losing direction, she turned to the suffragette movement, joining Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and abandoning her music activities for two years while she was devoted to the cause. It was during this period that March of the Women appeared, and it was during the two months Ethel spent in Holloway prison after WSPU activities that she was witnessed conducting other suffragettes singing the song out of her window with a toothbrush ‘in a Bacchic frenzy’, as reported by Sir Thomas Beecham after he visited her. Briefly returning to composition, Ethel wrote one more opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-1914), before her hearing started to fail. Ethel then turned to writing and produced ten mainly autobiographic books, kept a number of Old English sheepdogs and remained indominitable.

Normally it is unproductive to compare the work of women composers to that of men in an historical sense, because the structure of society at the time was such that it is hard to form a useful opinion about their perceived calibre. However in the case of Ethel, her music was certainly taken seriously and her legacy remains. Michael Hurd, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, puts it well, in describing her music as representing an important part of the new seriousness of purpose that characterized the renaissance of English music. Whether she would have been able to contribute more had she been male is open to question. We have to bear in mind that Sir Thomas Beecham announced “There are no women composers; there never had been, and there never will be”, yet at the same time Ethel’s work was being played internationally at leading opera houses. Audiences welcomed her music, despite the fact that they had grown wary of pieces by women on the grounds that they could be somewhat diffident in style, and perhaps of a lower standard. This was not likely to be due to any lack of talent, but instead related to the fact that many women had inferior access to the important educational and social networks that they needed in order to develop to an internationally recognized standard.  Domestic duties and childbearing also impeded artistic progress. Consequently women were expected to produce inferior work, but when they exceeded expectations, they were applauded just as men were. Any prejudice was therefore much more complicated that we might realise.

There is an important lesson here regarding funding for the arts (and perhaps academia) moving forward. Unless we allow women time and space to develop as composers in their own right, and on their own terms, they will never be able to compete on the same basis as men. The fact that it will have taken over a century for the Metropolitan Opera to produce another opera by a woman tells us a great deal about how little progress has been made in this regard. We must, therefore, continue to urge women to March! March!

Book tickets here for L’Amour de Loin, from $27















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