Born in 1858, the life of composer Ethel Smyth coincided with the vastly changing social landscape of Britain. Smyth is best remembered as an active contributor to the suffragette movement and as one of the most notable female composers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Smyth was born in Sidcup, Kent to a large family on April 22, 1858. She began her interest in music under the tutelage of Alexander Ewing, where she closely studied the works of Wagner and Berlioz. Breaking convention, Smyth committed to becoming a composer and continued her studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. During this time, she met Dvorak, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Clara Schumann.
The works of Smyth were often greeted by mixed reviews. Sometimes, she received criticism for being a female composer, yet, made major strides as a respected artist in Britain. Smyth was awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922, becoming the first female composer to receive the honor. In 1910, Smyth joined the Woman’s Social and Political Union and subsequently entered an affair with famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
A year later, she wrote “The March of the Women,” the anthem of the suffragette movement in Britain. For two years, Smyth set aside music to join the movement and was even arrested on occasion. Sometimes, she brought her friend and colleague conductor Thomas Beecham along on strikes and demonstrations.
After ending the affair with Pankhurst, Smyth also fell in love with writer Virginia Woolf, who remained a friend toward the end of her life. She died in the town of Woking in 1944 at age 86.
Most Famous Works
Smyth is best remembered for her compositions such as the Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orchestra, the Mass in D, and “The Wreckers,” today considered a major work in British operatic history.
“The Wreckers” premiered in Leipzig in 1906 and was finally brought to Britain in 1909 under the support of Beecham. The Overture from the opera remains particularly famous, though a complete recording of “The Wreckers” was performed at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Philharmonic in 1994.
Smyth’s other well-known opera, “Der Wald,” premiered in Berlin in 1902. Today, it is perhaps most famous for being the first (and for over a century, the only) opera written by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera. The second opera written by a woman, “L’Amour de Loin” by Kaija Saariaho, premiered at the Met in 2016. Upon its first showing, the opera was criticized for being “feminine” by major New York critics. Her final opera, “The Prison,” was first performed in 1831 and is being recorded for the first time for the music label Chandos.
Excerpts from “The Wreckers,” at Bard SummerScape, 2015
“The Prison,” as explained by the Cecilia Chorus of New York and Johnstown Symphony Orchestra
Suffragette Anthem, “March of the Women,” Glasgow University Chapel Choir