Ethel Smyth



Sandscape Publications is happy to contribute information about Ethel Smyth to internet audiences.
Read about this fascinating composer, writer, and political activist. The writings here include
liberal quotations by Ethel Smyth and other writers of her time.

In addition to writing many compositions, Ms. Smyth wrote 10 books that vividly
record her experiences. These texts, along with other writers' perceptions, leave a legacy of
enchanting images of the amazing Ethel Smyth and her accomplishments.


Ethel Smyth

by
Valarie Morris
©1996 Sandscape Publications


Table of Contents

A Renaissance Woman
Thoughts on Happiness
Musical Pathways
Dame of the British Empire!
A View from George Bernard Shaw
Mass in D
From the Eyes of Virginia Woolf
Words and Music
Egypt and Comic Opera
Suffrage Activist
Music for the Public at Large
Review in the Manchester Guardian
Later Years and Creative Acceptance




A Renaissance Woman

Ethel Smyth was a prolific writer of both music and words. Born on April 23, 1858 in England in Rectory (Middlesex), London, or Foots Gray (Kent), depending on the source, she lived an exciting and productive life as an independent woman who actively pursued her many talents.

A prolific composer, Ethel Smyth composed a wide variety of music including chamber music, chorals, instrumental music, and operas, as well as orchestral, piano, and vocal pieces. She conducted much of her music and even broadcasted some of it. Ethel Smyth also wrote many books, plays, librettos (some in German), articles, and essays.

An activist in the women's suffrage movement of the early 1900's, Smyth also composed the song used as the anthem for this suffrage movement, March of the Women. She developed deep friendships with many influential figures of her day including Virginia Woolf, Empress Eugenie, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Vita Sackville-West. Smyth even took time for sports, especially golf.


Thoughts on Happiness

Ethel Smyth explored ideas and philosophy with many friends, particularly with Harry Brewster, a writer and lifelong friend. She related her thoughts on happiness in her essay, What Matters Most in Life:

    ... the secret to happiness is to get your angle to life as sane as the imperfections of your nature will allow ... I think that to keep your spiritual balance true, to get out of yourself the very best result the Creator had in mind when you were planned, is what Voltaire meant when he told us to 'cultivate our garden.'

    Success and happiness are by no means synonymous, but I am certain that cultivating your garden is the sole way to be happy; only you must dig and plant with all your heart for doing things by halves is the most boring thing in the world.

    Quotations from Ethel Smyth's book, A Final Burning of Boats Etc., Longmans, Green, and Co. Ltd., New York, London, Toronto, 1928, p. 174.


Musical Pathways

Ethel Smyth's first memory in creating music was when, at an early age, she added seconds to some of the duets and accompaniments she performed with her sister. Like her mother, Ethel had a gift for transposing and playing by ear.

Already aware of her love of composing music, 12-year-old Ethel decided to study at the Conservatory in Leipzig when she was old enough to travel that far. At 17, she began studying harmony, composition, and repertory with Alexander Ewing, an Army Service Corps musician stationed near her home. Unfortunately, her father disapproved and these private lessons ended.

Smyth's musical pathways led her to various places where she met many influential people. When Smyth finally arrived at the Conservatory, she was disillusioned. She felt that the Conservatory was 'trading on its Mendelssohnian reputation.' Again, she chose to study privately, studying this time with Heinrich von Herzogenberg for many years. Later, she studied with George Henschel, who had connections to Brahms. Smyth recounts a brush with Brahms in this story.

    To my mingled delight and horror I learned, too, that Henschel had actually spoken to him [Brahms] about my work, telling him I had never studied, that he really ought to look at it and so on ... At that time Brahms was clean-shaven, and in the whirl of emotion I only remember a strong alarming face, very penetrating bright blue eyes, and my own desire to sink through the floor when he said, as I then thought by way of a compliment, but as I now know in a spirit of scathing irony, 'So this is the young lady who writes sonatas and doesn't know counterpoint!' I afterwards learned that Henschel had left a MS. of mine (two songs) with him, that he subsequently looked at them, and remarked to Frau Rontgen that evidently Henschel had written them himself!

    Quotation from Ethel Smyth's book, Impressions That Remained, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946, p. 158-159.


Dame of the British Empire!

Smyth was recognized with one honorary Doctorate of Music from Durham University in 1910 and another from Oxford University in 1926. In 1922, Smyth received the Dame of the British Empire (B.D.E.), the female equivalent of knighthood and considered a type of consolation prize. Those bestowing the B.D.E. award thought Smyth's compositions were of the highest quality achieved by a woman.

In spite of this recognition, Smyth had a hard time getting her compositions performed. This was and still is a common experience for women composers. Upon losing some competitions, Smyth felt that her identity had been leaked to the judges.

Information from Ethel Smyth's book, Impressions That Remained, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946, p. x.



A View from George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw addressed gender discrimination in a letter he wrote to his friend Ethel Smyth.

    You are totally and diametrically wrong in imaging that you have suffered from a prejudice against feminine music. On the contrary you have been almost extinguished by the dread of masculine music ... It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do man's work in art and all other things ... your Mass [Mass in D] will stand up in the biggest company! Magnificent!

    Quotation from Ethel Smyth's book, A Final Burning of Boats Etc., Longmans, Green, and Co. Ltd., New York, London, Toronto, 1928, p. 35.


Mass in D

The Mass in D was called Smyth's masterpiece. She dedicated this composition to her friend Pauline Trevelyan. Considering the climate of her time, Smyth was fortunate that the Mass and many of her other works were performed. With persistence and with the support of Lady Ponsonby, Empress Eugenie, and conductor Levi, the Mass went into rehearsal with the Royal Choral Society for its first performance on January 18, 1893.

    It was felt that it was emphatically worth while to sing in the first performance of a major work by a woman composer (a unique event), at which it was known many Royal Personages had promised to be present. Chorus and orchestra were intensively rehearsed, and they needed to be, as Ethel's score made demands on their technique to which they were unaccustomed. She became increasingly depressed with the score during the orchestral rehearsals, realizing all the mistakes she had made ...
    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 85.

Ethel wrote about her reaction to hearing parts of the Sanctus.

    ... a quartet of soft brass; in the vast empty Albert Hall they sounded like husky mosquitoes. No sooner was the rehearsal over than armed with music-paper, scissors, stickphast, and all the accursed paraphernalia of composers, I ensconced myself in the bowels of the edifice and re-scored the Sanctus, as if it were at the cannon's mouth.

    Quotation from Ethel Smyth's book, As Time Went On ..., Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1936, p. 167.

Smyth's dedication and focus paid off once more. The first performance of Mass in D played to a full house and the audience received it with wild enthusiasm. J.A. Fuller-Maitland, music critic of The Times, reported:

    This work definitely places the composer among the most eminent composers of her time, and easily at the head of all those of her own sex. The most striking thing about it is the entire absence of the qualities that are usually associated with feminine productions; throughout it is virile, masterly in construction and workmanship, and particularly remarkable for the excellence and rich colour of the orchestration.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 86.

Referring to the period after completing her Mass, Smyth recalled:

    I was no longer the good Churchwoman I had been; writing the Mass seemed to have sweated religious, or at least dogmatic fervour out of me.

    Quotation from Ethel Smyth's book, As Time Went On ..., Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1936, p. 211-212.

It was 31 years from the first performance of Mass in D until its second performance on February 7, 1924 in Birmingham. Several revivals followed the next year.


From the Eyes of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf gave us several visual images of Smyth. Her first impression of Smyth comes from a letter dated October 12, 1940:

    I suppose I told you how I saw you years before I knew you? -- coming bustling down the gangway at the Wigmore Hall, in tweeds and spats, a little cock's feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy, so that I said, 'That's Ethel Smyth!' -- and felt, being then a mere chit, she belongs to the great achieved public world, where I'm a nonentity. You reminded me of a ptarmigan -- those speckled birds with fetlocks.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 235.

Woolf presented this picture of Ethel during a rehearsal of Smyth's opera, The Prison, composed in 1930.

    On Monday I went to hear her rehearse. A vast portland Place house with the cold wedding cake Adams plaster: shabby red carpets; flat surfaces washed with dull greens. The rehearsal was in a long room with a bow window looking on, in fact in, to other houses ... a barren brick outlook ... Ethel stood at the piano in the window, in her battered felt, her jersey and short skirt, conducting with a pencil. There was a drop at the end of her nose ... Ethel's pince nez rode nearer and nearer the tip 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 ... As she strides and turns and wheels about to use perched mute on chairs she thinks this is about the most important event now taking place in London. And perhaps it is.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 225.

Woolf enjoyed Ethel Smyth's books and, as an admirer of this talent, encouraged Ethel to write more.

    How you do it, God knows -- I mean I can't see how it's done -- how face after face emerges when there is apparently so little preparation, no humming and hawing, all so inconsecutive and unpremeditated -- all the roads winding this way and that, streams running, winds intersecting ...

    What you must do is to continue. You can't in justice to posterity and the present let your great fountain bottle itself up. To tell you the truth I'm obsessed with the desire that you should paint me: not a thing I often feel ...

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 230-231.


Words and Music

Smyth lived her beliefs, constantly developing her interests and talents. In her operas and vocal pieces, she intertwined words with her music. She wrote her own words at times and also worked with the words of other librettists. An extremely adaptable woman, writing became her main creative medium later in her life after she lost her hearing.

Neville Cardus praised the music Smyth composed for The Prison. She created the musical expressions best suited for the words of librettist Harry Brewster.

    Dame Ethel achieves the perfect style for Brewster. A closer wedding of words and music could hardly be found. The idiom is the composer's own, save for a dash of Brahms in the dark orchestral scoring. The language, the technique of expression, the whole colour, accent and rhythm are unlike anything else in contemporary music ...

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, p. 216.


Egypt and Comic Opera

Ethel Smyth's loss of hearing began around 1912 at age 54. When she began hearing a singing noise in her ears, Ethel visited an aurist in Paris. Then, a friend in Paris recommended that Ethel visit Helouan, a city in Egypt, for a change of scenery. It was there that Ethel continued her work on The Boatswain's Mate, a comic opera.

The first act of the opera included words and music; the second act only music. Her biographer Christopher St. John stated that although she used an unorthodox mixture of styles, it was the most popular of Ethel Smyth's compositions.

Smyth derived the libretto for this opera from a short story by W.W. Jacobs, and commented in a letter to one of the Pankhursts that she was:

    ... enjoying it hugely, especially writing the lyrics, mostly comic verses, a long way after W.S. Gilbert, but not bad I think. I look at the books of words of some of our musical comedy writers, but it's all stark convention. Quite funny sometimes but all to pattern as to psychology, versification and form. So I just go my own way ... I have to manipulate the story with musical blocks and this requires strategy of a high order.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 163-164.


Suffrage Activist

Around 1910, Smyth took two years off from music to become politically active in the women's suffrage movement. Part of her participation involved joining other activists in an act of civil disobedience. The group decided to throw stones into the windows of conservative politicians' homes. Ethel threw stones, then was arrested and taken to Holloway prison where she served a two-month term. Sir Thomas Beecham told this story of visiting Ethel at Holloway.

    I arrived in the main courtyard of the prison to find the noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war-chart [March of the Women] while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 155.

St. John recorded a view of Smyth from the perspective of Sylvia Pankhurst, a leader in the suffrage movement.

    Individualized to the last point, she had in middle age little about her that was feminine. Her features were clean cut and well marked, neither manly nor womanly; her thin hair drawn plainly aside, her speech clear in articulation and incisive rather than melodious, with a racy wit. Wearing a small mannish hat, battered and old, plain-cut country clothes ... she would don a tie of the brightest purple, white and green, or some hideous purple cotton jacket, or other oddity in the W.S.P.U. colours she was so proud of, which shone out from her incongruously, like a new gate to old palings.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 154-155.


Music for the Public at Large

During this later stage of her composing career, Smyth was committed to writing contemporary comic operas. She felt that Grand Opera should be balanced with non-Grand Opera. It was always her wish to write for the public at large. Her views on comic opera:

    And what I try to do in my comedies is to bring out the human side, pathetic or funny as the case may be, just as it comes along in our twentieth century; not dressed up, either, but in its ordinary workaday clothes ... my object is to set life to music as I myself have seen and overheard it, in trains, in buses, in my own village, on my own golf course.

    Quotations from Ethel Smyth's book, A Final Burning of Boats Etc., Longmans, Green, and Co. Ltd., New York, London, Toronto, 1928, p. 201.


Review in the Manchester Guardian

Neville Cardus wrote this review about The Prison in the Manchester Guardian.

    To-night homage has been done to a great Englishwoman ... Dame Ethel's genius goes beyond music; it is a genius of character, and it expresses itself in all the ways of her life ... The Prison is one of the most remarkable works of our time. The beauties of it are not common. Dame Ethel writes from convictions not shared by the crowd. She measure her art against big subjects. Not for her the male pipings which nowadays are to be heard in too many British works that apparently cannot run a dozen bars without making a noise like a cuckoo ...

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 216.

When Smyth was 75, Queen Mary honored Ethel with an invitation to join her in the Royal Box during the Jubilee Celebration Concerts. The Prison was performed at this event.


Later Years and Creative Acceptance

    Financial support came from Smyth's admirers. Late in her life, Mary Dodge took a strong interest in Ethel and provided a wonderful room with great acoustics at Warwick House for Ethel to use for rehearsals and private concerts. When Ethel could no longer afford her own home, Dodge gave her money to buy land and to build a house in England.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 140.

Ethel remained active in her later years. It was during this time that she prepared an adaptation of The Boatswain's Mate for broadcast.

    ... and made some broadcasts herself. One on her eightieth birthday showed no deterioration in her mental faculties. It was in this broadcast that she recommended 'creative acceptance' as the best attitude in old age. 'If you find your former activities impossible, you must not be passively resigned to that, but find other activities that are possible.'

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 239.

Ethel Smyth died at age 86 on May 8, 1944 in Woking, Surrey after two years of illness, finally succumbing to pneumonia. Her biographer St. John recorded his last memories.

    It seemed such a short time ago since we had seen her vigorously conducting the Metropolitan Police Band at the unveiling of the statue of Mrs. Pankhurst; since, after the performance of The Wreckers at Sadler's Wells, she had made a candid and amusing speech from the stage, telling the audience how much she had enjoyed seeing the performance she could not hear ... Strange that she should be dead.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 243.

Kathleen Date, a neighbor of Smyth's in her later years and a musician who studied her works, noted that Ethel's music:

    ... mirrors some of the composer's most characteristic personal traits: her love of intellectual reasoning is reflected in persistently strenuous counterpoint; her zest for life, in rhythmic lilt and drive; her interest in the unusual and the exotic, in vivid orchestration; and her passion for 'being herself', in an obstinately perverse sense of harmony.

    Quotation from Christopher St. John's book, Ethel Smyth: A Biography, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1959, pp. 303.


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