Smyth, Dame Ethel (Mary)

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Smyth, Dame Ethel (Mary)

Smyth, Dame Ethel (Mary), eminent English composer; b. London, April 22, 1858; d. Woking, Surrey, May 8, 1944. She became a pupil of Reinecke and Jadassohn at the Leipzig Cons. in 1877, but soon turned to Heinrich von Herzogenberg for her principal training, following him to Berlin; her String Quintet was performed in Leipzig in 1884. She returned to London in 1888; presented her orchestral Serenade (April 26, 1890) and an overture, Antony and Cleopatra (Oct. 18, 1890). Her prestige as a composer rose considerably with the presentation of her Mass for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orch. at the Albert Hall (Jan. 18, 1893). After that she devoted her energies to the theater. Her first opera, Fantasia, to her own libretto in German, after Alfred de Musset’s play, was premiered in Weimar on May 24, 1898; this was followed by Der Wald (Berlin, April 9, 1902), also to her own German libretto; it was premiered in London in the same year, and then performed in N.Y. by the Metropolitan Opera on March 11, 1903. Her next opera, The Wreckers, was her most successful work; written originally to a French libretto, Les Naufrageurs, it was first performed in a German version as Strandrecht (Leipzig, Nov. 11, 1906); the composer herself tr. it into Eng., and it was staged in London on June 22, 1909; the score was revised some years later, and produced at Sadler’s Wells, London, on April 19, 1939. She further wrote a comic opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (London, Jan. 28, 1916); a one-act opera, described as a “dance-dream,” Fête galante (Birmingham, June 4, 1923); and the opera Entente cordiale (Bristol, Oct. 20, 1926). Other works are a Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orch. (London, March 5, 1927); The Prison for Soprano, Bass Chorus, and Orch. (London, Feb. 24, 1931); 2 string quartets (1884; 1902–12); Cello Sonata (1887); Violin Sonata (1887); 2 trios for Violin, Oboe, and Piano (1927); choral pieces, including Hey Nonny No for Chorus and Orch. (1911) and Sleepless Dreams for Chorus and Orch. (1912); songs; etc. Her music never overcame the strong German characteristics, in the general idiom as well as in the treatment of dramatic situations on the stage. At the same time, she was a believer in English national music and its potentialities. She was a militant leader for woman suffrage in England, for which cause she wrote The March of the Women (1911), the battle song of the WSPU After suffrage was granted, her role in the movement was officially acknowledged; in 1922 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She publ, a number of books in London, mostly autobiographical in nature: Impressions That Remained (2 vols., 1919; new ed., 1945), Streaks of Life (1921), As Time Went On (1936), and What Happened Next (1940). She also wrote some humorous essays and reminiscences: A Three-legged Tour in Greece (1927), A Final Burning of Boats (1928), Female Pipings in Eden (1934), Beecham and Pharaoh (1935), and Inordinate (?) Affection (1936).


C. St. John, E. S.: A Biography (N.Y., 1959); L. Collis, Impetuous Heart: The Story of E. S.(London, 1984).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire