‘Englishmen are congenitally incapable of judging a woman’s work…’: how Ethel Smyth shook up opera

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Defiant: Ethel Smyth, c.1925 - Getty
Defiant: Ethel Smyth, c.1925 - Getty

“The whole English attitude towards women in fields of art is ludicrous and uncivilised,” wrote Ethel Smyth in her glorious memoirs Streaks of Life, in 1921. “There is no sex in art … I believe Englishmen to be congenitally incapable of judging a woman’s work at all. They may try, but this sex-bogey is between them and it.”

Smyth’s voice is unmistakable: stentorian, argumentative, uncompromising. Born in 1858, she was the first female composer in this country to achieve an international reputation, with operas performed in Weimar, Berlin, Leipzig and, eventually, London. The most famous of them, though neglected since, is the Cornish melodrama The Wreckers, dominated by the power of the sea, with which Glyndebourne boldly launches its season this weekend.

Writing music was a surprising career path for Smyth to propose to her privileged army family. She persuaded her father to let her study in Leipzig, where she made an impression with her early works. But she hated the conservatoire teaching: “I was never able as most of them were to admire every single page Bach ever wrote…”

Instead, she learned from a host of leading composers including Brahms (with whom she unwisely argued when he criticised a fugue of hers, causing him to treat her “with kindly contempt”) and Grieg (to whom she boldly denounced Liszt). Smyth established herself in this country with the strong support of conductors, notably Thomas Beecham, who praised her “almost unscrupulous capacity to accomplish the purpose in hand”.

She moved in high social circles, and was evidently fun, if rather exhausting, to know. She railed against clichés about women in music, especially the idea that women’s music should be “feminine” and “lyrical”. Smyth hated it when a piece of hers was praised for being “of a strength we do not expect to find in a woman’s work”. Her own Violin Sonata was said to be “deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer”. Any hint of weakness in her work was, however, swept aside by her huge choral Mass in D, with its Beethovenian echoes, that premiered at the Albert Hall in 1893, and which will be revived there in this year’s Proms.

Smyth conducts the Police Band during the ceremony to unveil the Pankhurst Statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, 1930 - Getty
Smyth conducts the Police Band during the ceremony to unveil the Pankhurst Statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, 1930 - Getty

Smyth has become a poster figure for the advancing feminism of the early 20th century. This is not only because of her resilience in battling to get her music heard and her refusal to hide her lesbianism under a cloak of marriage, but most notably because in 1910 she briefly gave up her career to devote herself to the suffragette movement as the result of an intense dedication to Emmeline Pankhurst.

She wrote The March of the Women as an anthem for the movement; she joined violent protests, throwing a brick through a politician’s window, and ended up in Holloway Prison for two months. There Beecham (in a doubtlessly polished anecdote) observed her conducting the assembled women in the March from her cell window “in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”.

Smyth’s emotional world was turbulent, and she had passionate affairs with both men and women. She was deeply attached to Henry Brewster, who wrote the libretto for The Wreckers under her guidance, and their private correspondence strongly suggests they were lovers. At the age of 70, she fell in love with Virginia Woolf, writing: “I don’t think I have ever cared for anyone more profoundly, and it is I think because of her genius.” They formed a close bond that lasted until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. It was not an entirely equal partnership. Woolf initially reported: “An old woman has fallen in love with me. It is like being caught by a giant crab.”

But she became increasingly affectionate and was fascinated because Smyth (unlike Woolf) did not conceal her female passions by marrying. Woolf encouraged her to write volumes of highly entertaining memoirs, mostly autobiographical and self-justificatory, but including skilful pen portraits of leading figures, with a confessional streak that reminds one of Alan Clark.

Opera was the art form to which Smyth aspired above all. But she despaired of the state of opera in England, then hampered by a hopeless lack of organisation, training and money.

Moreover, it was dominated by men, so she sought premieres and performances abroad. Arthur Nikisch undertook to put on The Wreckers in Leipzig, but then left his post. It was staged there in 1906, but in a cut and altered version that roused Smyth to a perverse act of self-destruction, personally removing all the orchestral material from the theatre after the first night so that it could not be repeated.

Smyth at a meeting of the WSPU in London, 1912 - Alamy
Smyth at a meeting of the WSPU in London, 1912 - Alamy

Beecham mounted it in London in 1909 (and revived it in 1910, when it was overshadowed by Strauss’s Elektra). Although it was staged at Sadler’s Wells in 1939 (interestingly, the last pre-war opera put on there before the post-war success of Peter Grimes), and performed in concert at the Proms in 1994, it has not been regularly revived – so will the Glyndebourne staging help to establish it in the repertory?

Smyth’s continual criticism of male “composers of the Inner Circle, generally University men attached to our musical institutions” has overshadowed some extremely sensible arguments she made to improve the state of music in this country.

She did not argue against a system of state funding; on the contrary, she argued for the creation of a sophisticated infrastructure, a “Machine”, as she called it, especially to deliver support for new work: “The Machine is not a thing you can vamp up in a year or two”, needing “publishers, abundance of schools for the exclusive training of dramatic singers, and several subsidised opera houses.”

Prophetically, some of what Smyth demanded has come to pass with the system of subsidy that has been established in the UK since the Second World War. But not on the level of Germany – and not enough for Smyth.

The later stages of Smyth’s life, as her deafness worsened and she concentrated on producing her copious writings from an isolated base near Woking, saw the beginnings of real progress for female composers. By the time she died aged 86 in 1944, there had been the pioneering Macnaghten-Lemare series of women’s concerts in the 1930s, and the emergence of significant composers such as Elisabeth Lutyens.

Lutyens memorably recalled Smyth at the end of her life as “vastly entertaining, with enormous vociferous vitality for which one needed to be in exceedingly rude health”, misusing her ear trumpet to amplify her speech to an unbearable volume.

In the belated, overdue but ever-growing groundswell of support for the work of female composers today, we should surely feel the constant influence of Ethel Smyth, leading the march of the women from the front.

The Wreckers is in rep at Glyndebourne from Sat until June 24; glyndebourne.com

The Mass in D major is at the Proms on Aug 22; bbc.co.uk/events

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