Ethel Smyth: An extraordinary ‘lost’ opera composer | Sunday Observer

Ethel Smyth: An extraordinary ‘lost’ opera composer

4 September, 2022

She was an unapologetic disruptor, a non-conformist – and a problematic bigot. As Smyth’s opera The Wreckers enjoys new acclaim, Beverley D’Silva explores the “scandalous” life of a complex, unstoppable radical.

A force of nature

She was a force of nature, a feminist composer of phenomenal talents, whose music set records and won great acclaim. She had passionate affairs with prominent women – including the celebrated suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst – and a married man, and a lasting friendship with Virginia Woolf. Her unstoppable spirit shocked polite society, her bigotry offended, her activism landed her in prison. She has been a figure of fun as well as adulation, and viewed as both problematic and brilliant.

An original and controversial voice

Ethel Smyth was one of the early-20th Century’s most original and controversial voices in classical music and social politics. Composer, conductor, author and suffragette, Smyth was famed for her operas and vibrant character. All her life she continued to fight to be heard and have her music performed in the face of misogyny and male critics who would dismiss her as a “lady composer”. Her defiant riposte was to write ‘masculine’ music and wear manly tweed suits.

After Smyth’s death towards the end of World War Two, her music all but died with her. But in recent years, there’s been a revival of her work, and interest in her unstoppable personality. There have been performances in 2018 of Smyth’s rousing suffragette anthem, The March of the Women – to mark the centenary of many women winning the right to vote – and a Grammy-award-winning recording of her 1930 opera The Prison. And crowning it all, her most impressive work, the opera The Wreckers, opened the prestigious Glyndebourne festival in May, to glowing reviews for, as The Times said, its “wild waves of passion”. The opera will also be performed at this summer’s Proms, with other of her compositions. Smyth is back in the limelight, just as she would have loved it.

Young disruptor and rebel

Smyth was a disruptor and a rebel from a young age. Born in Kent in 1858 into an upper-middle class family, she railed against the restrictions of her Victorian-era girlhood. Her father was a major general in the Royal Artillery, and strongly opposed her desire to study music – so she locked herself in her room and refused to eat or leave it until he capitulated. Having got her way, she went on to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, in Germany; there she met Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Grieg, and through a tutor was introduced to Brahms and Clara Schumann. Smyth began confronting the gender bias that would relegate her to performer-teacher instead of her career vision – a composer of full-scale works.


Dr Amy Zigler, assistant professor of music at Salem College, has presented research on Smyth since 2005. “The obvious answer is her gender,” she says, in response to why Smyth might have been under-appreciated. “In reviews of her music from the 1880s, 90s and early 1900s, at a time when she was building her career, there is almost always a comment about her gender.” It was not only Smyth who suffered discrimination: “For more than a century, the gatekeepers believed women weren’t capable of writing music on par with male composers.”. If Smyth and others wrote music that was “energetic, loud, forceful or ‘virile’” it was damned as “unnatural and unbecoming of a woman” says Zigler. If they wrote music that was “graceful, soft, lyrical or sentimental, it was deemed to be just ‘parlour’ music for young women to play at home – unimportant or inferior.”

While fighting sexist attitudes, Smyth won the support of conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham and patrons, to the extent that “almost everything she composed was performed” says Zigler. “She pursued her passions, in her music and personal life. She was ambitious and unapologetic. She didn’t seem afraid to knock on a conductor’s feminist musicologists door or smash in a politician’s window – both were the necessary course of action in her mind.”

Writings by feminist musicologists

Writings by feminist musicologists like Sophie Fuller and Elizabeth Wood have helped drive interest in Smyth’s and other women’s music, says Zigler, whose website is a wellspring on the composer. For those exploring her work afresh, she suggests the chamber pieces, songs, and huge choral and orchestral works: Smyth’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op 7 from 1887; the Kyrie from her Mass in D (1891), On the Cliffs of Cornwall from The Wreckers (1906); Possession for voice and piano, 1913; and the opening of The Prison (1930).

The latter, a choral symphony, was conceived by Smyth and Brewster as a philosophical dialogue between a prisoner and his soul. It was her final major work, and its first performance was in Edinburgh, February 1930, with Smyth conducting, It was acclaimed – but it would be nine decades before it was recorded. When it was, in 2020, by Chandos (a record company noted for reviving hidden gems), Zigler attended at the invitation of conductor James Blachly.

A Grammy

“I think The Prison winning the Grammy in 2021 definitely drew attention to Smyth,” she says, but she feels interest surged in 2018 when various organisations were performing March of the Women, and looking at what else Smyth composed.

Dr Leah Broad agrees Smyth faced “an awful lot of obstacles in her life because of gender”. She is writing a radical feminist history of four women “trailblazers” (out in the spring of 2023); Smyth is one of the four, with other composers Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen. “I love them all,” muses Broad but feels Smyth “is probably the one I would most loved to have met – provided we didn’t talk about politics.”

Strong political views

Broad tells BBC Culture that Smyth “had some very strong political views that she liked to hold court about… She was a staunch conservative, and held a number of opinions that, while popular in her day, are less so now.” Broad told the Guardian that Smyth was “very much a woman of her time, in that she held problematic views about race, and subscribed to the then-popular belief in white English superiority.” She may also have “inadvertently made life harder for female musicians coming after her. Smyth certainly forced many of her critics to confront their own gender prejudices, but she did little to actively uplift or support other female composers.” Still, Broad found her “the most fun to write about”. She enjoyed the story of an interviewer who went to meet Smyth to find she had tied herself to a tree: “She explained it was to help improve her posture as a conductor… she didn’t have a sense of self-awareness like many other people.”

Smyth’s vitality found an outlet in sport as a young girl, and in adulthood she loved mountaineering, tennis, long country walks and a round of golf. She was nearly always accompanied by a pet dog. She could arrive unannounced, expecting to be entertained, as she is said to have done once to Virginia Woolf, who was in bed in her pyjamas. Her rambunctious persona, ripe for parody, was a model for EF Benson’s Dodo novels (1893-1921) about a frivolous society figure, and also inspired Dame Hilda Tablet, in comedy radio plays by Henry Reed in the 1950s.

And then there was her much-discussed sexuality. There was a long list of lovers, including Pauline Trevelyan, Lady Mary Ponsonby, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, Winnaretta Singer, the Empress Eugenie and Pankhurst. Her only male lover is said to have been Henry Brewster, a philosopher friend and the librettist of some of her operas. She had an intense bond with Brewster lasting decades, and affairs with his wife, Julia, and sister-in-law, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. In 1892, Smyth wrote to Henry: “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex more passionately than yours. I can’t make it out, for I am a very healthy-minded person.”

Age did not wither Smyth’s passion. At 71, she met the writer Virginia Woolf, and was smitten: “I don’t think I have ever cared or anyone more profoundly,” she wrote in a diary. She was 25 years older than Woolf, who wrote “an old woman has fallen in love with me. It’s like being caught by a giant crab”. But she later wrote: “How we differ! Our minds are too entirely and integrally different: which is why we get on,” and their friendship endured to Woolf’s death in 1941.

Last decades

In her last decades, Smyth lost her hearing and suffered tinnitus; she turned from music to writing, producing 10 mostly autobiographical tomes. She died in Woking, Surrey, in 1944, aged 86.

Leah Broad recalls a passage in Smyth’s diary: “She says the one thing she’s most scared about in dying is that she will no longer be able to control her musical legacy. She worried that when she goes, her music would die with her. And that sort of did happen, but that’s changed, it’s resurfaced now. And I’m so glad of that for her.”

A semi-staged version of Glyndebourne’s production of The Wreckers was performed at BBC Proms recently, which also featured a number of works by Ethel Smyth during their season. A live recording of the Wreckers will be released on Glyndebourne Encore, Glyndebourne’s streaming platform, in August 2022.