Chandos Records Announces World Premiere Release of Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Prison’

By Chris Ruel

Chandos Records announced the August 7th release of British composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison.”

The recording features such soloists as soprano Sarah Brailey and baritone Dashon Burton backed by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of James Blachly.

The release date coincides with the 100th anniversary of the enfranchisement of women after the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. “The Prison” is Smyth’s only symphony and last composition.

“The Prison,” has been referred to as an oratorio or a cantata. The 64-minute run time is split into two parts, “Close on Freedom” and “Deliverance,” and is akin to the vocal symphonies of Mahler in scale and breadth.

“The Prison” text is based upon a philosophical work of Henry Bennet Brewster in which he details the writing of a man in a solitary cell, reflecting on his past life and preparing for death. The last words of Neo-Platonic philosopher, Plotinus, also informed Smyth’s work. On the title page of “The Prison,” she quotes the 3rd-century Hellenistic philosopher, writing, “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and merge it in the universally divine.”

Smyth (1858-1944) was a well-known figure in the music world. Working with Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she won the esteem of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvořák.

Smyth was also the first woman composer to have her work presented at The Metropolitan Opera in 1903. It took until 2016 for the Met to stage its second female-composed opera, Kaaija Saariaho’s “L’amour de loin.”

Despite her accomplishment, Smyth fought the entirety of her career to have her music evaluated on its merits rather than on her gender, facing significant discrimination with her music often being referred to as “too feminine,” “too masculine,” and “a remarkable achievement—for a woman.”

She was a vigorous proponent of the Suffragette movement in England, something critics grabbed hold of, further imperiling her work from serious consideration.

Produced by the Grammy Award-winning Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror, and recorded in February 2019, the recording features Surround Sound and available as a Hybrid CD.