Ethel Smyth, composer with a cause

Ethel Smyth wrote six operas and a large body of instrumental and vocal music. What audiences may not know is that she went to jail for her militant involvement in the suffragette movement. Portrait of a composer who deserves to be better known.

Ethel Smyth was the first... The first women to study composition at the Leipzig conservatory, the first woman composer to have her opera (Der Wald) performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera, and probably the first musical figure to get as involved as she did in a political movement: women's suffrage, in her case.

Ethel Smyth was born in London on 22 April 1858. She was taught music from a very young age by her governess and said she had made up her mind by the age of 12 to be a composer. Her taste for music ran counter to parental authority: her father, a Major-General in the Royal Artillery, objected to her choice of profession and wanted her to become a governess.Ethel Smyth nevertheless ended up getting her way in 1877, when she left for the Leipzig conservatory. In Germany, she met Brahms, Clara Schuman and Tchaikovsky, who advised her to study orchestration. In his Memoirs, Tchaikovsky wrote about her:

« Miss Smyth is one of the few women  composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation... She had (...) written several interesting works, of which the best one is a Violin Sonata that I later heard her play (...) in a very fine performance. It is a work of great promise, which shows that she has the potential to become a very serious and gifted composer. »

Ethel Smyth's promising career gained momentum after her return to England in 1890. Her Serenade in D Major was played in the Crystal Palace and the composer was given the opportunity to sing a few excerpts from her Mass in D for Queen Victoria. The work was performed in 1893 at the Royal Albert Hall with the support of the Empress Eugénie.

From 1893 to 1910, Ethel Smyth's musical career was quite successful. In 1898, her opera Fantasio was staged in Weimar. Four years later, her second opera, Der Wald (The Forest) was performed in Berlin, then at the Royal Opera House in London, just as her opera The Wreckers would be in 1910.

Ethel Smyth's commitment

In 1911, Ethel Smyth made a pledge to the Women's Social ad Political Union (WSPU) that she would devote the next two years of her life to the women's suffrage cause. The organisation, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, differed to the existing movements (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Franchise League) in that it made greater use of provocation, and also hunger strikes.

Ethel Smyth's commitment to securing the vote for women was soon put into action. She composed The March of the Women, which became the WSPU's anthem in 1911, and conducted the piece during a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 1912, the composer was sentenced to two months' jail for breaking a window at the home of the Secretary of the State for the Colonies during a protest. While serving her sentence at Holloway Prison, she received a visit from the famous conductor Thomas Beecham, who left an amused record of the episode:

« When I arrived, the warden of the prison... was bubbling with laughter. He said, 'Come into the quadrangle.' There were... a dozen ladies, marching up and down, singing hard. He pointed up to a window where Ethel appeared; she was leaning out, conducting with a tooth-brush, also with immense vigour, and joining in the chorus of her own song. »

When World War I broke out, the suffragette movement suspended its political activities in order to support the British government at war. Ethel Smyth joined the 13th division of the French Army and supported the war effort at the military hospital in Vichy. During this period, she also commenced writing the first book of her memoirs.

The influence of this stay in France can be seen in Ethel Smyth's activity once the war was over. In 1922, her French song cycle was a resounding success at the Salzburg Festival. Two years later, the composer finished a sixth opera, Entente Cordiale, a light opera on the misadventures of a British soldier with a poor  understanding of French.

Ethel Smyth et Virginia Woolf
Ethel Smyth et Virginia Woolf

More importantly, though, this last period of Ethel Smyth's life brought her recognition. That of the nation, first of all: in 1922, the composer was made Dame of the British Empire, an honorific title in recognition of her services to music. In 1926, the University of Oxford granted her an honorary Doctorate in music.

By Guillaume Decalf

In 1930, her choral symphony The Prison was premiered in London under the baton of Adrian Boult. The composer, then aged 71, fell in love with Virginia Woolf. Woolf was amused, but remained friends with Ethel Smyth until her suicide in 1941. After a long illness, Ethel Smyth died on 8 May 1944 at the age of 86.

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