Smyth, Ethel (1858–1944)

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Smyth, Ethel (1858–1944)

British composer whose six operas and many orchestral and choral works differ greatly from other British compositions of the period, and who now ranks among the top 20th-century composers. Name variations: Dame Ethel Smyth. Born Ethel Mary Smyth in Marylebone, England, on April 22, 1858; died in Woking, England, on May 9, 1944; daughter of a major-general in the British army; educated by governesses at home and at Putney before undertaking serious study of music at the Conservatory in Leipzig; never married; no children.

Began formal music training with Alexander Ewing (1875); began study at the Conservatory in Leipzig (1877); studied orchestration with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, the Austrian composer (1878); orchestral work "Serenade" given its first major performance at the Crystal Palace (1890); first of six operas, Fantasio, performed at Weimar (1898); Der Wald produced at Covent Garden (1902); The Wreckers produced (1906); participated in the women's suffrage movement and served a jail term for her activities (1910–13); honored with title Dame of the British Empire (1922).

Major works—operas:

Fantasio (1892–94); Der Wald (1899–1901); The Wreckers (1903–04); The Boatswain's Mate (1913–14); Fete Galante (1923); Entente Cordiale (1925); Soli, Chorus, and Orchestra Mass in D (1891).

Chorus and orchestra:

Hey Nonny No (1911); Sleepless Dreams (1912); A Spring Canticle (1926); The Prison (1930).

Chamber music:

String Quintet, Op. 1 (1884); Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 5 (1887); Sonata for Violin and Piano (1887); String Quartet (1902–12); Trios for Violin, Oboe, and Piano (1927).


"Five Short Chorale Preludes" (1913); "Prelude on a Traditional Irish Melody" (1939).

From an early age, Ethel Smyth demonstrated a directness and force of will that people around her learned to either admire or loathe. Although her family was not musical, she was influenced early by a governess who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, and at age nine she wrote in her diary that her ambition was "to be made a Peeress in my own right because of music." Despite the fact that her formal training in music did not begin until she was 17, it was a goal she would live to achieve.

Unlike many English composers of her era who chose pastoral themes, Smyth produced highly charged music of astonishing breadth and power. Her six operas and numerous symphonic and orchestral pieces are turbulent but melodious and masterful works. In her forthright way, she was also an outspoken suffragist who went to jail for demonstrating for women's right to vote, and the author of ten books whose well-written portraits of public figures of her day made them bestsellers.

Ethel Mary Smyth was born in Marylebone, England, on April 22, 1858, the fourth of eight children. Her father was a military man who served as a major-general in the Bengal Army, then returned from India after the mutiny and led a quiet, prosperous life. Her mother managed the large Victorian household, where the children were educated by governesses. Later, Ethel attended school at Putney where she studied music, drawing, French, German, astronomy, chemistry, literature, and "how to darn stockings."

Smyth's formal musical training began with Alexander Ewing. Two years later, in the summer of 1877, she was 19 when she overheard her parents making plans for her coming-out season of balls and beaux. Determined to have none of it, she decided on a course of action:

I quite deliberately adopted the methods used years afterwards in political warfare by other women, who, having plumbed the depths of masculine prejudice, came to see that this was the only road to victory. I not only unfurled the red flag, but determined to make life at home so intolerable that they would have to let me go, for their sakes. Towards the end I struck altogether, refused to go to church, refused to sing at our dinner-parties, refused to go out riding, refused to speak to anyone, and one day father's boot all but penetrated a panel of my locked bedroom door … [until] there was nothing for it but to capitulate.

That autumn, Ethel Smyth departed for Leipzig, to study music composition.

In Victorian England, music was considered the highest feminine accomplishment, but acceptable only so long as it was performed in the privacy of one's home; public performance remained a purely male domain. England's Royal Conservatory admitted women, but there was a tacit understanding that they were there to pursue careers in teaching. The study of composition was acceptable as long as a woman confined herself to lilting melodies suitable to gracing the drawing room. Smyth was out for something different.

In Leipzig, through her friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg , Smyth was drawn into the musical circle of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. As a student, she met Edvard Grieg, Antonin Dvorak, and Peter Tchaikovsky, but after a year she quit the conservatory in disgust because she could get no one to teach her orchestration. After Tchaikovsky advised her to study orchestration on her own, she engaged the Austrian composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg to teach her.

Always comfortable with expressing her opinions, Smyth occasionally found her relations with some of the world's best-known composers less than cordial. Once, in the presence of

Edvard Grieg, who had not been introduced to her, she was criticizing the compositions of Franz Liszt when Grieg demanded, "What the devil does a two-penny-halfpenny whippersnapper like you mean by talking like this of your betters?" Through further discussion, however, Grieg gained enough respect for her opinions to apologize for his outburst.

Smyth began composing in the late 1870s, when she was in her 20s, but by the mid-1880s, few of her works had been heard in public performance. On the rare occasion that her compositions reached an audience, critics typically found the works "deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer." In despair, Smyth wrote to the violinist Joseph Joachim that her gender was being held against her. Joachim wrote to reassure her, "If your creative instinct is genuine it will not perish on that account, which reflection should console us both." And to be fair, there were contemporary male British composers, like Frederich Delius, who had an equally difficult time obtaining performances of their work.

In 1890, Smyth's circumstances began to improve. Her Serenade, an orchestral work in four movements, was played at a Crystal Palace concert. The following year, she composed her Mass in D which was presented by the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall on January 18, 1893, under the direction of Sir Joseph Barnaby. Greater successes followed. In 1898, her first opera, Fantasio, premiered in Weimar, Germany. A second opera, Der Wald, was produced in Berlin and Covent Garden in 1902, and in New York in 1903.

Smyth had a gift for vocal composition and for large works, and in an era when Richard Wagner's revolutionary operas dominated the musical world, it is perhaps not surprising that she increasingly directed her talents toward opera. Between 1892 and 1925, Smyth wrote six operas, all of which reached the stage, an extraordinary feat for any composer.

One work she struggled to sell was The Wreckers, inspired by a visit to the Scilly Isles off the southwestern coast of England. On the island of Tresco, Smyth had visited a cave near the sea with a freshwater lake full of blind fish, known as the Piper's Hole. The lake, cave, and a boat chained "like Charon's ferry" made a deep impression on her, and became the inspiration for her story. The opera is set in a coastal village in Cornwall where the inhabitants earn a living by plundering shipwrecks, using false beacons to lure ships onto the rocks and their crews to certain death. Mark and Thirza are a star-crossed couple who are caught by the Wreckers while trying to thwart these nefarious activities. Chained together in a sea cave, they are left to be drowned by the incoming tide. "For five years," according to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, "Ethel Smyth, wearing mannish tweeds and an assertively cocked felt hat, had been striding around Europe, cigar in mouth, trying to sell her opera The Wreckers to timorous or stubborn impresarios." Finally, in 1906, she succeeded.

Beecham also reported on a backstage visit after a matinee performance of The Wreckers by King Edward VIII. According to the conductor, the monarch "was very gracious and he almost kissed Ethel. He certainly shook me by the hand. I don't think he actually succeeded in kissing Ethel. No man within my recollection ever has succeeded or did succeed in kissing Ethel." While she allowed few liberties with men, Smyth's most important personal relationship was with Harry Brewster, her companion and lover. When Brewster died in 1908, she "felt like a rudderless ship aimlessly drifting hither and thither."

Women were also central to Smyth's emotional life, as both friends and lovers, and she knew some of the most illustrious women of the era. Among her friends and supporters, some of whom provided the generous subsidies that allowed her music to reach the public, were Vita Sackville-West , Virginia Woolf , Empress Eugenie of France, the British feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst , Edith Somerville , and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget ). Wrote Smyth:

[A]ll my life, even when after years had brought me the seemingly unattainable, I have found in women's affection a peculiar understanding, mothering quality that is a thing apart. Perhaps too I had a foreknowledge of the difficulties that in a world arranged by man for man's convenience beset the woman who leaves the traditional path to compete for bread and butter, honours and emoluments…. The people who helped me most at difficult moments of my musical career … have been members of my own sex.

It was such close associations which probably made her involvement with the British suffrage movement inevitable. In the world of the arts, where she found no rules—only chances to be given or withheld—it was her experience that the chances were far more frequently withheld from women than from men. She was particularly infuriated, for instance, by the fact that women were excluded from performing in the leading orchestras. Women in music were subject to the double burden of having no political or public voice, and no strong musical traditions to nourish them. In her writings she often described the system of male dominance at work in the music world as "The Inner Circle," "The Male Machine," or "The Gang." In one particularly telling description of her situation, she wrote:

Year in and year out, composers of the Inner Circle, generally University men attached to our musical institutions, produced one choral work after another—not infrequently deadly dull affairs—which … automatically went the round of our Festivals and Choral Societies…. Was it likely, then, that the Faculty would see any merit in a work written on such different lines—written too by a woman who had actually gone off to Germany to learn her trade?

In 1910, Smyth stepped away from her work as a composer, which by then was flourishing, to work for the suffragist movement as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Friends like the critic Frank Howes and Thomas Beecham were rankled, feeling that Smyth was too talented to be wasting her time on politics. Smyth's response was to apply music to politics by composing "March of the Women," with words written by Cicely Hamilton, which became the "Marseillaise" of the suffrage movement. As demonstrations grew, "March of the Women" was heard increasingly in the streets throughout Britain, although it was rarely sung. Women preferred to shout the lyrics.

As demonstrations grew more heated, Emmeline Pankhurst asked for volunteers to smash the windows in the homes of politicians who opposed women having the vote. Smyth rose to the challenge by marching to the home of a Cabinet minister, "Lulu" Harcourt, where she gave Pankhurst a demonstration of how to break a window with a rock, and was promptly arrested. Beecham wrote of visiting her during her two-months' confinement in Holloway Prison:

I went to see her several times. But on this particular occasion when I arrived, the warden of the prison, who was a very amiable fellow, was bubbling with laughter. He said, "Come into the quadrangle." There were the ladies, a dozen ladies, marching up and down, singing hard. He pointed up to a window where Ethel appeared; she was leaning out, conducting with a toothbrush, also with immense vigor, and joining in the chorus of her own song.

Smyth was still in her 50s when she began to go deaf after 1913; by the end of her long life, she could not hear at all. Frustrated by composing, she turned to writing, penning many brilliant portraits of notable people of the day, including Johannes Brahms, Queen Victoria, Emmeline Pankhurst, Violet Paget, and Maurice Baring. Smyth could be vividly opinionated in writing about fellow composers, and showed her admiration in particular for the conductor Sir Henry Wood, as the first to start "mixed bathing in the sea of music and so successful was the innovation that many orchestras followed suit." She was unusually frank for the time about her own life and personal relations, and she continued to campaign for more equitable treatment in the music world, a position that she ultimately felt paid off. She wrote ten books in all, and became a bestselling author.

The whole English attitude toward women in art is ludicrous and uncivilized. There is no sex in art. How you play the violin, paint, or compose, is what matters.

—Ethel Smyth

In 1922, Smyth's childhood dream came true when she was honored for music with the title of Dame of the British Empire. Almost a decade later, Smyth was 73 when she became friends with the writer Virginia Woolf, who was many years her junior. Smyth was mesmerized by Woolf, who was somewhat taken aback at first by the older woman's fervor. (Despite Smyth's deafness, or perhaps because of it, contemporaries often found her to be "exhausting and obstinate, especially where, first, her own music, and second, women's rights were concerned.") Nevertheless, the two became friends, having a great deal in common, especially their writing. Although there were times when Smyth's force of character strained the relationship, many have felt that no one has described Ethel Smyth better than Woolf. In her private diary, an entry dated February 2, 1931, gives Woolf's picture of the composer at a rehearsal of her final work, The Prison, written for orchestra and chorus:

She stood at the piano in the window, in her battered felt, in her jersey and short skirt conducting with a pencil. There was a drop at the end of her nose…. She sang now and then; and once, taking the bass, made a cat squalling sound—but everything she does with such forthrightness, directness, that there is nothing ridiculous. She loses all self-consciousness completely. She seems vitalized; all energized…. What if she should be a great composer? This fantastic idea is to her the merest commonplace: it is the fabric of her being. As she conducts, she hears music like Beethoven's. As she strides and turns and wheels about to us perched mute on chairs she thinks this is about the most important event now taking place in London. And perhaps it is.

Smyth lived until 1944, when she died at age 86. In the late 20th century, as her powerful music was increasingly performed to new audiences, her genius was rediscovered. Ethel Smyth changed the pervading view of women in music. "She was a stubborn, indomitable, unconquerable creature," said Beecham. "Nothing could tame her, nothing could daunt her, and to her last day she preserved these remarkable qualities." In her willfully forthright manner, Smyth affirmed this view shortly before her death, when she told a companion, "I think I shall die soon, and I intend to die standing up."


Abromeit, Kathleen A. "Ethel Smyth, 'The Wreckers,' and Sir Thomas Beecham," in The Musical Quarterly. Vol. 73, no. 2, 1989, pp. 196–211.

Beecham, Sir Thomas. "Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944)," in The Musical Times. Vol. 99, no. 1385. July 1958, pp. 363–365.

Bernstein, Jane A. "'Shout, Shout, Up with your Song!' Dame Ethel Smyth and the Changing Role of the British Composer," in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950. Edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985, pp. 304–324.

Dale, Kathleen. "Dame Ethel Smyth," in Music and Letters. Vol. 25, no. 4. October 1944, pp. 191–194.

——. "Ethel Smyth's Prentice Work," in Music and Letters. Vol. 30, no. 4. October 1949, pp. 329–336.

Smyth, Ethel. The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth. NY: Viking, 1987.

Wood, Elizabeth. "Lesbian Fugue: Ethel Smyth's Contrapuntal Arts," in Musicology and Difference. Edited by Ruth A. Solie. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 164–183.

——. "Women, Music, and Ethel Smyth: A Pathway in the Politics of Music," in The Massachusetts Review: Woman: The Arts, 1983, pp. 125–139.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia