In 1922, when she became the first female composer ever to be knighted by the British crown, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) solidified a reputation she’d fought for her whole career. The knighthood was official acknowledgment that she was equal to her male countrymen. Recent recordings of some of Smyth’s instrumental and vocal works give us plenty of proof to back that claim.
Smyth defied her wealthy parents’ wishes by going to Leipzig Conservatory; they did not want their daughter to be a musician. While she wasn’t happy at the school and dropped out after only a year, she remained in that vibrantly musical city, taking private lessons in theory and counterpoint and rubbing elbows with the likes of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Clara Wieck Schumann. She impressed Tchaikovsky so much that he mentioned her admiringly in his memoir. For ten more years, she exercised her compositional and networking skills all over Europe, finally returning to England in 1890, where she began to get noticed in the London music scene.
Those who were threatened by Smyth’s musical prowess were no more comfortable with her activism as a suffragette. In 1912 she was arrested during a voting-rights riot. Reportedly, she spent her time in prison organizing the other hundred or so feminist detainees into a choir.
Although in the UK she became known for large-scale works like her Mass in D and her operas – particularly The Wreckers, an eerie story about a village that survives only by causing ships to crash near their shores so they can be looted – she also composed a fair amount of chamber music. That output includes six string quartets, two string quintets, and a handful of trios and duo sonatas.
Violinist Tasmin Little recorded Smyth’s Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 7, as part of her new collection on Chandos. Accompanied by pianist John Lenehan, Little put together an all-female powerhouse lineup: Smyth, Amy Beach, and Clara Schumann.
You can hear in this opening Allegro moderato movement that Smyth was solidly trained in all the harmonic and contrapuntal techniques you might expect in the music of the Schumanns or Brahms (whom she also knew). She was still in Leipzig when she composed this in 1887, so those influences were thick around her. The movement revels in deep sonorities and interesting twists and wanderings. Little and Lenehan attack its challenges with gusto.
Smyth constructed her four-movement work with the scherzo before the slow movement, typical of the Romantic approach, allowing a dramatic buildup to the finale. That crucial dramatic pivot movement is marked “Romanze: Andante grazioso.” Little’s playing is unabashedly emotional, even if its effect is somewhat undercut by her relentlessly tight vibrato. A stronger commitment to rhythmic clarity in certain passages would have made for better contrast with the sweeping freer sections.
Not surprising, given her era and the amount of time she spent in Europe, Smyth wrote a number of art-song cycles for solo voice. Pieces like these would often have been performed for friends in the homes of educated Germans, who viewed such salon recitals as a mark of civility. None of Smyth’s songs were originally in English – her texts come from a range of European poets in French and German – but she prepared English versions during her lifetime. This is largely what contralto Lucy Stevens has recorded on her new album, Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads, on the British indie label SOMM Recordings.
Pianist Elizabeth Marcus accompanies Stevens for the 5 Songs and Ballads, Op. 3, and the Lieder, Op. 4, with the former sung in English translation and the latter in the original German. “The Lost Hunter,” from Op. 3, sets a text by the great German Romantic poet Eichendorff. Stevens’ voice is as rich as Marcus’ playing is lush. These beautiful songs should be performed more often.
It’s interesting to compare that Op. 3 collection with Smyth’s 4 Songs (no opus number), written 20 years later. Not only is there a maturation of style, but the accompaniment is scored for ensemble rather than piano. The instruments are played here by the Berkeley Ensemble under the direction of Odaline de la Martinez. The second song, called “The Dance,” uses a poem by Henri de Régnier, an important French Symbolist. The flute and tambourine dominate the orchestration as the text conjures sultry and exotic images:
Despite creating a large corpus of intimate works, Smyth was (and is) mostly celebrated for her large pieces for voices and orchestra. These include six operas and a dozen pieces for chorus, both sacred and secular. The last of the secular oratorios – in fact, the final orchestral work Smyth completed – is The Prison, which until 2020 had never before been recorded. Premiered in 1931, it has finally been released on Chandos by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by American maestro James Blachly. The soloists are soprano Sarah Brailey and baritone Dashon Burton.
Smyth referred to this piece as a choral symphony. Setting the words of philosopher Henry Bennett Brewster, The Prison deals with the experiences of a solitary man contemplating death. Burton represents the man (called The Prisoner) and Brailey voices His Soul. In this clip you can hear the delicate interplay between Burton’s searching lines and the wide-ranging colors of the orchestra. One can see why a master orchestrator like Tchaikovsky saw enormous potential in this composer when she was young.
The writing for chorus is intensely dark and beautifully sung. This next excerpt showcases some exquisite choices in orchestration, including the pairing of French horn with the baritone’s voice. I hope that Experiental’s skillful, ethereal recording helps to establish this stunning work as a standard part of the choral repertoire.
Smyth is without question a composer who deserves more attention. But her fan base is growing. Lately I find it instructive to check in on how COVID-19 is affecting various composers’ footprints on YouTube. Smyth is among those making surprising headway, thanks to her stirring choral composition “The March of the Women.” The text is by fellow suffragist Cecily Hamilton, and its newfound popularity marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Here’s a recent, socially distanced performance as part of the Allison Charney: Season of Hope series:
Portrait of Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent.