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The First Female Writer of an Opera at The Met– Do You Know Her?

Dame Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 in Sidcup, Kent. While her actual birthday was April 22nd, the Smyth family chose to celebrate on April 23rd, as they enjoyed the connection to William Shakespeare’s birthday. Ethel was the fourth of eight children.

Her father, Major General John Hall Smyth, was vehemently opposed to Ethel pursuing an education in music, but she refused to quit. At 17, she began studying privately. Her persistence gained her entry to the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of 19, where she studied composition. Here she met and became acquainted with Dvořák, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. It was during this time that she was also introduced to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Brahms famously demeaned her efforts at composition. Fortunately, she persisted.

Her first major success was a performance at the Royal Albert Hall of her “Mass in D”, written in 1893 during a period when, heartbroken over the end of her affair with her teacher’s wife, she briefly embraced religiosity. She met Queen Victoria and played the entire Mass for her. Victoria, quite impressed, helped secure its first performance at her husband’s brand new hall in London.

“There are no women composers, likely never will be, except Ethel Smyth.” –Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham

In 1910, Ethel joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a British organization devoted to women’s suffrage. Along with Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffrage movement in Britain, Ethel threw rocks at homes belonging to politicians who opposed female suffrage and was arrested. She spent two months in Holloway Prison. Thomas Beecham, conductor and friend, visited her there, and found suffragettes marching in the quadrangle singing “The March of the Women”, a piece by Ethel, as Ethel leaned out a window conducting with a toothbrush. “The March of the Women” became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement, and the only piece for which Ethel has been remembered until recently. In recognition of her dedication to this cause and her support of it through her music, Ethel has a symbolic place setting in Judy Chicago’s 1979 feminist art installation “The Dinner Party.”

Ethel amassed an extensive body of work over the course of her life: six operas, some string quartets, lieder, songs for voice and chamber groups, a number of chamber pieces, two symphonic works, and a grand mass. She also wrote a variety of unpublished works for solo piano, organ, and chamber ensembles, which have become more popular in recent years. In 1922, the Illustrated London News commented on her opera The Boatswain’s Mate: “The composer is a learned musician: it is learning which gives her the power to express her natural inborn sense of humour... Dr. Smyth knows her Mozart and her Sullivan: she has learned how to write conversations in music... [The Boatswain's Mate] is one of the merriest, most tuneful, and most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage."

Ethel broke many barriers in the world of music. Der Wald, performed in 1904, was the only opera by a female composer produced by the New York’s Metropolitan Opera until 2016. In 1922, she also became the first female composer to be named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and received honorary doctorates in music from the Universities of Durham and Oxford.

“Smyth's music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, but as that of a ‘woman composer.’ This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession." –Music historian Eugene Gates

Ethel was also an accomplished memoirist, writing several very popular books about her time and the people she met. Her political exploits are described in these memoirs, as are details about her romantic life. Although she never married, she did have several extended relationships; the most long-standing of which was her deep friendship with philosopher/poet Henry Bennet Brewster who wrote many of her libretti, The Prisoner among them. Some of her most notable female partners include suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and writer Virginia Woolf, who once wrote that being with Ethel was like being with a giant crab. Ethel’s relationship with keyboardist Violet Gordon-Woodhouse received a satirical depiction in the 2005 opera Violet by Roger Scruton.

Ethel died in England in 1944 at 86 years old. Although her compositions were largely forgotten in the decades following her death, there has lately been a renaissance of her works. In 2018 Cappella Clausura performed Amelia LeClair’s upcoming edition of the “Mass in D” with the Clerici string quartet. You can watch a recording below.

During her lifetime, Ethel received mixed feedback about her compositions. Music historian Eugene Gates explained, “Smyth's music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, but as that of a ‘woman composer.’ This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession [...] when she composed powerful, rhythmically vital music, it was said that her work lacked feminine charm; on the other, when she produced delicate, melodious compositions, she was accused of not measuring up to the artistic standards of her male colleagues.” Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, no friend of women, wrote, “There are no women composers, likely never will be, except Ethel Smyth.” Beecham conducted many of her works and remained her friend and proponent, writing her an extensive and laudatory obituary.

Want to learn more about Ethel’s life and works? Check out this website, run by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.

Let us know what you found most interesting about Ethel’s life in the comments! Feel free to check out our previous articles on Fanny Mendelssohn, Vittoria Aleotti, and Rebecca Clarke as well.

“Do You Know Her” is Cappella Clausura’s newest educational initiative. With this series, we hope to expose our audiences to a range of female composers throughout history and celebrate their often overlooked achievements. By the end of August, we’ll have shown a spotlight on four remarkable women from history.

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