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Ethel Smyth
(1858 - 1944)

Ethel Smyth was the sort of person who never does anything by half-measures. As a teenager, having decided that she wished to study music in Leipzig, she locked herself in her room and generally made her parents lives miserable until they gave in and allowed her her wish, - no mean feat in those days when it was considered an almost unacceptable thing for a girl of her class to do. This passion is reflected in her music which is highly Romantic - warm, rich and expressive. Her interest in orchestration was sparked off by a conversation with Tchaikovsky and a meeting with Brahms was also an important moment in her life. Her first major works were for orchestra and she wrote a "Little Symphony" whilst she was a student in Leipzig. It consists of just one movement in classical style but it already displays some of the idioms and characteristics that she was to display in her later works. Despite help from Queen Victoria in getting her Mass performed, Ethel Smyth found it very difficult to get her works accepted for performance in England. So she turned her hand to writing Opera e.g The Wreckers and The Forest for which there was an insatiable demand in Germany. However, once again her plans were snookered by the onset of war. From 1910 she gave up her musical activities for two years in order to do her bit for The Womens' Movement and composed very little during this period apart from The March of the Women which she wrote for the Suffragette Choir and famously conducted with a toothbrush out of a third floor window in Holloway prison. After her two she returned to music and, never one to give up, decided that the English were more suited to comic opera so she composed The Boatswain's Mate and Entente Cordiale to her own libretti during a sojourn in Egypt. There has been something of a resurgence of interest in her compositions in 2008, the 150th anniversary of her birth. The Double Concerto for Violin & Horn (1927), is a mature work which reveals her worth as a composer and it was given a performance at the Proms in 2008. Then in September 2008 , I had the great pleasure to be at a performance of "The Prison", last major work. It had lain forgotten for some 75 years until the Berliner-Cappella , under the baton of Kerstin Behnke , gave it an excellent performance in the Konzertshaus, Berlin. Given her crusading efforts to achieve equal status for women in the world of professional music, Dame Ethel would, no doubt, have been delighted by the presence of a woman on the rostrum. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, although the ending (the Last Post) has always been an area of controversy and certainly does make a strange ending. But it is worthy of many more performances. Smyth's style owes much to her interest in instrumentation and the scoring of The Prison is a kaleidescope of orchestral colours that weave together. Stylistically, it lies closer to Debussy than to her early influence, Brahms. She has her own style, a composing voice with passionate directness and honesty which also forshadows the later English composers Tippett and Britten. The work’s title refers to the nature of life and death and concerns a man’s inner discussion with his soul. Smyth had been planning to write the work for almost 20 years before she finally laid pen to paper, since the death from cancer of the poem’s author, Harry Brewster, her lover and artistic collaborator. The work is scored for chorus, two soloists and orchestra. Smyth considered this her finest “the only one of all my works with which I am even moderately satisfied”. It received its premiere in Edinburgh in February 1931 under the baton of Dame Ethel herself. Subsequently it was performed in London (rather badly, by all accounts, with a sick Boult at the helm) and then again in Manchester as part of the Smyth 75th Birthday concert series.

For more information on how to book an entertaining and illustrated talk entitled
Dame Ethel Smyth, getting beyond the name’ contact Roz Trubger by email or telephone 0441202884196

... I was delighted to be asked by the BBC to speak about Smyth's music at the Proms event in 2008. Sadly there was too little time to talk about all the many interesting aspects of her life and music...and since that occasion I have come across the answer to the meaning of the title of the 2nd movement of the Double Concerto "In memoriam" ... (Roz Trübger)