The Kennedy Center

(Mary) Smyth Dame Ethel


Although English composer and conductor Dame Ethel (Mary) Smyth (1858-1944) was often neglected by the musical establishment of her time, she was an important voice of what is known as the British musical renaissance. In fact, she later did receive critical acclaim for her music as well as for her autobiographical and controversial writings. In those writings, she demanded recognition for herself and other female musicians. Her body of work reflects her special fondness for vocal music; among her compositions are six operas. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1922.
Despite her father's opposition to women studying music as a professional career, in 1877 young Ethel entered Germany's Leipzig Conservatory, where she concentrated on composition. By the next year, however, she had become disenchanted with both staff and students and left the conservatory. She remained in Leipzig, pursuing harmony and counterpoint lessons. Through her involvement in the city's musical circles, she received encouragement from such musicians as Brahms, Grieg, and Clara Schumann.
For more than 10 years, Smyth was based in Europe. By 1890, when she made her orchestral debut in London with her Serenade and Antony and Cleopatra overture, she had returned to England to settle. Both these debut works received favorable reviews from the British press, who were surprised to find that E.M. Smyth was a woman. Her next work, the zestful Mass in D, first performed in 1893, did not receive such a warm reception, however. The fervor of this Mass was inspired by her attachment to the devout Catholic Pauline Trevelyan. Smyth made no effort to hide her attraction to women, and her many passionate relationships influenced her music.
Smyth's true ambition was to compose opera. In 1892, she began work on Fantasio, which was eventually performed in Weimar in 1898. Her next opera, Der Wald (1899–1901), was first given in Berlin in 1902 and repeated that year in London.
Her subsequent opera, The Wreckers (1902–4), which also received its premiere in Germany (1906, Leipzig) was more coherent in style and structure than her previous works. It was admired by well-known conductors Bruno Walter and Thomas Beecham (the latter conducted the work at London's Covent Garden in 1909). Smyth's other opera compositions are the comic work The Boatswain's Mate (London, 1916), which was her most frequently staged work, and two one-act operas, Fête galante (Birmingham, 1923) and Entente cordiale (London, 1925).
Smyth's also composed choral works and wrote a concerto for horn, violin, and orchestra (1927). Her musical style, though varying between extremes of conservatism and experiment is, at its best, remarkable and original. The finest music in her operas, especially The Wreckers, has a distinctive elegance new to early 20th century British opera.
Smyth's passionate attachment to women's suffrage gave rise to the anthem she composed in 1911, March of the Women. Her militant behavior led to her imprisonment for two months. Her dramatic, excitable disposition can be seen in a number of interesting volumes of writings; six of these are autobiographical, four are partly so. Her lively writing style and vivid depiction of the people and adventures of her life were popular with the public and provided a welcome source of income when her hearing deteriorated and prevented her from composing.
Smyth's determination and astute political awareness ensured that she remained a feminist icon even when her music ceased to be heard after her death.
(Mary) Dame Ethel