Extraordinary composer Ethel Smyth is still fighting for her due.
When Ethel Smyth died in 1944, she was remembered as being “magnificent: a militant, unself-conscious original in the great tradition of the eccentric nineteenth-century Englishwoman.” One of her friends observed that “everyone has his own Ethel Smyth story, and they are mostly true.” The composer was just as famous for her outlandish dress (tweeds, always), outspoken political views (conservative), and dynasty of sheepdogs (all called Pan) as she was for her six operas, 11 books, and three honorary doctorates in music.
In both Britain and the United States she was known as the composer of the suffrage anthem “The March of the Women,” which was sung everywhere by women’s rights campaigners, from private homes to the steps outside the Capitol. This song was central to one of the most enduring Ethel Smyth stories: during her two-year involvement in the suffrage campaign, she was jailed alongside her friend, movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and when a colleague went to visit, he found Smyth leading her fellow inmates in a rousing rendition of the March, conducting from her cell window with a toothbrush.
Everything about Smyth was extraordinary. It had to be for her to make any headway in music at all. When Smyth was born in 1858, composition was considered a man’s domain. Women were accepted as interpreters, but many believed it not only improbable but biologically impossible for a woman to become a great composer. The female mind was simply thought incapable of mastering the kind of abstract reasoning needed to create complex musical forms. Broadly speaking, music was only deemed useful to a woman insofar as it improved her prospects on the marriage market.
In this climate, Smyth was the first woman to have an opera performed at both the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Covent Garden in London, the first woman to be awarded a DBE for services to music, and the first woman to conduct her own orchestral compositions at the Proms in London. The prejudices against women composers were so strong that she would never have achieved any of this without, as she put it, “a fair share of fighting spirit.” When her father banned her from traveling to Leipzig to study composition, she embarked on a campaign of domestic guerrilla warfare until he relented. If conductors rejected her scores without reading them, she turned up on their doorsteps and forced them to listen to her. And when critics dismissed her with the derogatory “woman composer” label, she fought back by responding with savagely entertaining newspaper articles rather than shrinking in the face of adversity.
Even though Smyth had to battle for every scrap of recognition she got, she composed some of the most exciting music of the early twentieth century. She herself felt that The Wreckers (1904) was “the work by which I stand or fall,” and its first reviewers declared it “a composition of great power.” It was an opera nearly 20 years in the making—she first had the idea for an opera set in Cornwall in 1886, while on a Cornish walking holiday. Smyth always had a flair for the theatrical, and was captivated by the gruesome local legends of poverty-stricken communities luring ships on to the rocks to plunder the wreckages. It wasn’t until 1902, however, that she felt ready to do justice to the magnum opus that she had envisaged while standing on the windswept Cornish coast. “I feel awfully full of power,” she wrote to her librettist as she composed: “Deadly sure of what I am doing.”
The man who provided the opera’s text was the writer and philosopher Henry Brewster, with whom Smyth was in a long-standing partnership. Their relationship had not been an easy one—it began as a spectacularly messy love triangle after Smyth fell in love with both Henry and his wife, Julia. Despite Henry’s pleading and protestations, Julia refused to countenance an open marriage, sparking years of pain and debate as her husband tried to negotiate the three-way relationship that he wanted. Eventually Henry did leave Julia for Smyth, and by the time they collaborated on The Wreckers they had been openly but discreetly co-existing for years as romantic partners.
Traces of this personal drama surface in the opera—it’s no coincidence, for example, that there is a love triangle between two women and a man at the heart of the story. Smyth herself identified with Thirza to the extent that Henry sometimes referred to her as “beloved Thurza” in his letters, casting himself as the hero, Marc (using the original French names). Avis was therefore presumably, at some level, a rather unkind shadow of Julia, although she also bears some resemblances to another of Smyth’s amours, the American heiress Winnaretta Singer.
With some composers, the relationship between life and works can be oblique and difficult to determine. But Smyth very much wore her heart on her staves. Her music and the major events in her life form a continuous counterpoint. The Wreckers wasn’t the first time that her relationship with Henry had provided inspiration for her music. Smyth’s first large choral work, a cantata called Song of Love (1888), was penned when they were separated and still wrangling with Julia. With their future seeming bleak and uncertain, Smyth poured her anguish into the piece, setting extracts from the Song of Songs that alternate between despair and cautious hope. She tried to get this work performed by choral societies, but they were unwilling to take a risk on an unknown woman composer—it has yet to receive its world premiere.
The Wreckers is both a wonderful and historically significant opera, but it represents just one aspect of her multi-faceted output. Smyth’s works range from intimate, heartbreaking songs to comic operas, demonstrating such stylistic versatility that her contemporary reviewers sometimes found it difficult to categorize her. Her British breakthrough came in 1890, when her orchestral Serenade in D was premiered at the Crystal Palace in a series of concerts that showcased new British compositional talent. It’s an exuberant work, vivacious and carefree, with less of the intensity that characterizes The Wreckers. Then at the other end of the spectrum are pieces like her final large-scale work, a symphonic cantata called The Prison (1930). Setting a philosophical text that ponders the nature of reality and meaning of existence, this powerfully introspective masterpiece baffled reviewers when it was first performed. Deciding that it displayed “little evidence of real musical talent,” they judged that it would never have been performed “had its composer been a man and not a woman.” It took nearly a century for The Prison to be recognized for the exceptional work that it is. The world premiere recording was made in 2020, a full 76 years after Smyth died—and it won the composer her first Grammy.
Without question, love was Smyth’s strongest compositional motivation. She composed at her best when inspired by a muse, who was usually one of the very many women with whom she fell hopelessly in love over the course of her life. She referred to these women as her “passions,” the “shining threads in my life,” and they included authors Virginia Woolf and Edith Somerville, and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. They offered her differing levels of reciprocation—Smyth and Woolf were close confidantes for 11 years, but the famously scathing writer nonetheless likened being the object of Smyth’s amorous affections to “being caught by a giant crab”! Her relationships with Somerville and Pankhurst were based in more mutual romantic feeling, and they left behind volumes of intimate correspondence that bear witness to how much these women meant to one another.
It’s possible that Smyth and Pankhurst were lovers; Woolf later confided to her nephew that “Ethel used to love Emmeline—they shared a bed.” Whether or not their relationship was physical, though, it was romantic and passionate, and inspired an outpouring of music. For two years Smyth was at the heart of the U.K. campaign for women’s suffrage as Pankhurst’s right-hand woman. They were frequently seen at public events together, and after Pankhurst began hunger-striking during periods in jail, she convalesced at Smyth’s house in Woking when she was released. Even though Smyth supported Pankhurst with all her heart, watching the woman she loved waste away from starvation took a heavy toll on the composer. Knowing that she would never be able to stop Pankhurst from hunger-striking, in the winter of 1913 Smyth removed herself from the situation by traveling to Egypt, where she could clear her head and focus on composition.
In a hotel on the banks of the Nile she wrote her fourth opera, a comedy called The Boatswain’s Mate (1914), with Pankhurst providing the model for the heroine. She also completed the only string quartet she deemed worthy of publication (countless previous attempts had been discarded), declaring that if the fourth movement was anything at all, it was “Suffragette”! Her feelings for Pankhurst also gave rise to one of the most tender pieces that Smyth ever wrote, a song called “Possession.” Dedicated to Pankhurst, it is a searingly beautiful, contemplative work about letting go of someone you love so that both can thrive.
Smyth’s profile as a suffragette certainly brought her notoriety and boosted her already considerable public profile. Between the First and Second World Wars she became one of the most famous women in Britain. Her name was constantly in the newspapers, and in 1929, when the BBC launched a new series called “Points of View” that gave celebrities a platform to talk about a subject meaningful to them, Smyth was the only woman invited to contribute. She earned a reputation as a lovably eccentric but straight-talking, no-nonsense figure, an image that was helped by the many volumes of memoirs that she published from 1919 onward.
Smyth’s autobiographies (which the author Vita Sackville-West wryly commented might well have been titled “Me One, Me Two, Me Three, and so on”) began as a project to cope with the progressive hearing loss that beset her from the First World War onward. Smyth had struggled with hearing difficulties for many years, and never gave up hope that she would find a cure to restore her hearing. By 1919, however, it became quite clear that her hearing was deteriorating, and that it might impact her ability to compose in the future. Ultimately Smyth kept composing even when she was assailed by constant noises that sounded as though a sail was flapping inside her head, but she also turned her hand to literature, in the hope that she could drum up publicity for her music through her writing.
Her plan almost worked. The books were so popular that they ran into multiple editions, and readers wanted to hear the music produced by this larger-than-life personality. But musical organizations remained less willing to accept a successful woman than the literary world. Even when Smyth’s music proved popular with audiences and received positive critical responses, music publishers dragged their heels, and conductors opted to play her smaller pieces rather than committing to larger works. So despite the success of her books, performances of her music increased only a little. This wasn’t exclusively about gender, though. Smyth was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. English opera was in a dire state in Smyth’s lifetime. It was extremely difficult for any English composer, male or female, to get their operas performed. Smyth argued all her life for opera to receive a national subsidy, but this wasn’t brought in until World War Two, by which time it was too late for Smyth—it was Benjamin Britten who benefited and became known as the English opera composer.
It may be that now is the time for Smyth to finally come into her own. In the years immediately after her death, Smyth’s notoriety was a double-edged sword. Skeptics used her exploits as a way to brush her off as an oddity and an eccentric, giving rise to the popular refrain that “she would have made a stronger mark in the artistic world had she stuck more closely to the job of composing.” Critics came to her music with pre-formed opinions based on their understanding of her personality, and decreed that her works were only performed as “a kind of special pleading on behalf of a great-hearted woman who was also a popular public figure.” But we are now far enough from the Smyth legends that new productions and recordings can let her music speak for itself. Perhaps there is a new Ethel Smyth story that needs to be told, that puts her in her rightful place as a crucial figure in the history of 20th-century music. ∎
Dr. Leah Broad is a music historian at Oxford University. She is currently writing a book on four female composers, including Dame Ethel Smyth.