Q: Who was Ethel Smyth?
A: Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was a pioneering composer, author, and suffragette. She challenged traditional notions of the place of women within music composition internationally through her six operas (including Der Wald, The Wreckers, and The Boatswain’s Mate), Mass in D, double concerto for violin and horn, her oratorio The Prison, and many other chamber, orchestral, keyboard, and vocal works. In her later years she developed a secondary career as a writer of memoirs, biographical sketches, and polemical essays on the music profession and the status of women with it, publishing a total of ten books between 1919 and 1940 including her autobiographies Impressions that Remained, As Time Went On…, and What Happened Next, as well as her most overtly feminist text, Female Pipings in Eden. In the early 1910s she pledged two years’ service to the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, having heard a speech delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst, the charismatic leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Smyth became a close friend of Pankhurst, who was once even arrested at Smyth’s house, where she was convalescing in 1913 during the time of the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. She received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham, Oxford, and St Andrews, and was awarded the DBE in 1922.
Q: How did her music influence her politics and vice versa?
A: Smyth continued to compose while in the service of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and her music of this period bears the hallmarks of her suffragette activity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her song ‘The March of the Women’, which was quickly taken up by the suffragettes as the much-needed anthem they could call their own. Her song ‘Laggard Dawn’ was in part a commemoration of the suffragettes who died as a result of imprisonment and hunger striking, while her operetta-style ‘1910’ addressed the events of the so-called Black Friday (18 November) of that year, when the police responded to a suffragette protest with violent force. She dedicated the songs ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’ to Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, respectively; the latter incorporates a tongue-in-cheek quotation of ‘The March of the Women’ at its close. A more famous quotation of ‘The March of the Women’, as well as ‘1910’, occurs during the overture of The Boatswain’s Mate, the opera Smyth composed upon resuming her compositional career in earnest following her time as a suffragette. In using these songs as the basis for her overture – which would have been expected to present a medley of themes from the opera, rather than tunes that were entirely unrelated to it – Smyth simultaneously broke with musical convention and made a bold political statement.
Q: What was her local significance?
A: Smyth lived the majority of her life in three properties in the Surrey Heath and Woking area, all within ten miles of the University of Surrey. Having spent her formative years in Sidcup (then part of Kent), her family moved in 1867 to Frimhurst in Frimley Green, now known as Frimhurst Family House and home to the charity ATD Fourth World, which supports families in extreme poverty. When she relocated to Germany as an early adult, Frimhurst remained Smyth’s familial home, where she stayed when subsequently visiting her native country. Returning to England permanently in 1889, five years later she moved to a nearby property in Frimley upon the sale of Frimhurst following the death of her father. Now a Toby Carvery and popular drinking establishment, until recently it still bore the name she gave it: One Oak, after the ‘one special oak-tree standing up on a mound just in front of the house’. Then in 1910 she moved again, to Hook Heath, near Woking, adjacent to the golf course – fittingly enough, given her passion for the sport. Her house was built specially with funds donated by one of Smyth’s most important patrons, the American heiress Mary Dodge, and she gave it the name Coign (it has since been renamed Brettanby Cottage, and continues to be privately owned). She remained there until her death in 1944.
Q: What sort of social circles did Smyth move in?
A: Smyth’s remarkable capacity to network widely with luminaries of her time has ensured that she remains a person of interest to many communities both within and beyond music. She moved to Continental Europe in 1877 initially with a view to training at the Leipzig Conservatorium, being based in Germany for over a decade and coming into contact with Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Chaikovsky. Returning to England in the late 1880s, she elicited attention from influential figures including Empress Eugénie (the exiled widow of Napoleon III, then living at Farnborough Hill just a couple of miles from Smyth’s family home), Queen Victoria, and Princesse de Polignac, herself a well-known patron of the arts. Later in her life, she was to find a particularly powerful musical ally in Thomas Beecham, as well as Donald Tovey, who, as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, compared her Mass in D favourably to the Missa Solemnis in the same key by her lifelong favourite composer, Beethoven. Smyth’s works also came to the attention of the conductors Bruno Walter and Adrian Boult, as well as George Bernard Shaw, in his capacity as music critic.
Q: As a composer, author, and suffragette, which of Smyth’s activities were ultimately the most important?
A: History tends to remember Smyth chiefly as a composer, and secondarily as a writer and suffragette. That’s not to say that her activities in these other areas weren’t significant – and certainly not to downplay those achievements, for which she would doubtless be remembered even were it not for her musical career. But she herself acknowledged, in her memoirs, that music was her first ‘string’ and literature her second. It’s important to bear in mind that Smyth broke substantial new ground at a time when it was all but unheard of for a woman – let alone a British one, prior to the ‘musical renaissance’ of the generation that included Elgar and Vaughan Williams – to have successfully pursued an international career in music composition. Famously, in 1903 she became the first female composer to have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, when her Der Wald was presented there (as The Forest); this was an accomplishment that remained altogether without parallel until the production of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin as recently as December 2016.
Q: Why is it important that we remember individuals such as Smyth, especially today, on the centenary of women being granted the right to vote in the UK?
A: Toronto-based company Opera 5 made an excellent point in writing recently that ‘Not many composers can claim that their work directly affected the rights and freedoms of millions of people’. Many of us have probably never heard of Ethel Smyth as a composer, and even fewer of us will have heard her music. But through her contribution to the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and through writing the musical anthem that the suffragettes sang loudly and proudly at demonstrations as well as to bolster morale during periods of arrest and imprisonment, she played a significant part in bringing about major political change. That’s why it’s important to continue to remember both Smyth and her involvement with the movement that led to the enfranchisement of over four million women in the UK on 6 February 1918. Smyth was fortunate enough to live to see women receive the vote on equal terms to men in 1928, unlike Emmeline Pankhurst, who tragically had passed away just a couple of weeks previously. It’s rather fitting that Smyth, in her last official act for women’s suffrage, conducted the Metropolitan Police Band in a chorus of ‘The March of the Women’ in 1930 at the unveiling of the statue to Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, where it may still be seen today.