Peter Frost remembers one of Britain’s greatest composers who, after nearly a century of being ignored by history, is beginning to get the recognition she deserves
This year Dame Ethel Smyth finally became Radio 3’s Composer of the Week in the run-up to the celebration of International Women’s Day. The recognition has been a long time coming.
But that is only to be expected if, like Smyth, you don’t just write six fine operas and an array of chamber, orchestral and vocal works but also upset the Establishment by throwing stones through the window of the colonial secretary.
It didn’t stop with breaking windows. She also stormed 10 Downing Street itself to hammer out the her Suffragette anthem the March of Women on prime minister Herbert Asquith’s piano while the Cabinet was still in session.
These militant activities saw her, with 200 sister Suffragettes sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison. Sir Thomas Beecham went to visit her in jail and afterwards told this story.
“I arrived in the main courtyard of the prison to find the noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.”
Smyth led a fascinating and unconventional life. She overcame opposition from her army father in order to enrol at the Leipzig Conservatorium in 1877 where she won respect from Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Edvard Grieg and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky, rather sexist and patronising, said of her: “Miss Smyth is one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.”
Back in England in the late 1880s, her music attracted much attention from influential figures including Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Henry Wood and George Bernard Shaw praising her work.
Smyth became a leading and militant Suffragette in the early 1910s. She met, and became enchanted by, Emmeline Pankhurst, and they eventually became lovers.
Openly bisexual, usually dressed in men’s tweeds and deerstalker cap, Smyth flaunted convention by having affairs, not just with Pankhurst but with Virginia Woolf, her married opera librettist Henry B Brewster and a number of other notable men and women of the time.
She shared a Surrey cottage with three famous sisters Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Agnes Garrett.
She still remains the only female composer to have had an opera performed at the New York Met.
Her most famous opera, The Wreckers, has been compared with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes but it is rarely performed. The last recording was made over 20 years ago.
Smyth wrote some of her best music for the Votes for Women cause. Her March of the Women came to be adopted as the Suffragette anthem. It still has the power to inspire today.
Later in life increasing deafness curtailed her composing and she turned to writing a series of revealing autobiographies.
In 1939, when war had shut down BBC music and concerts, Smyth was still showing her political sympathies.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph she suggested that a programme of free concerts broadcast from provinces “would lift up the hearts of many … and ease the situation of a class of unemployed the thought of whom gives one perpetual heartache.”
In 1937 she gave an interview to the BBC describing her Suffragette stone-throwing. You can still hear it here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8314.shtml
This article first appeared in the Morning Star International Women’s Day Supplement March 8 2015