Skip to main content

Ethel Smyth: The Complex Composer

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Rebellious Ethel Smyth

A woman with an extraordinary mind refused to be bound by the conventions of Victorian behaviour. She railed against gender bias and fought for votes for women. She shocked society with her sometimes outrageous views and broke into the male-only world of music composition.

Ethel Smyth in 1922.

Ethel Smyth in 1922.

Ethel Smyth's Early Years

People like Ethel Smyth don't come along very often. The daughter of a major general, she had an upper-middle class life after her birth in 1858 in southern England.

She was a rebel from the get-go. At an early age, she decided she wanted to study music and this did not sit well with her father, the military man. To persuade him to see things differently, she locked herself in her room and went on a hunger strike. Her father relented and she went to study at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany.

There she met the likes of Dvořák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. What a treat for someone passionate about classical music. However, she still faced a brick wall of prejudice that relegated her to the roles of performing and teaching.

No, no young lady, composing music is not for you. Only men can do that.

A portrait of Ethel Smyth in 1901.

A portrait of Ethel Smyth in 1901.

Ethel Smyth's Musical Career

Ethel Smyth didn't care that she was considered to be the wrong gender to compose music. She just went ahead and did it—six operas, a ballet, numerous chamber pieces, and a mass.

She, of course, ran into misogyny among the fraternity of music critics, composers, and conductors. When she wrote music that was bold and expressive it was deemed not feminine enough. When she wrote music that was more lyrical and emotional it was dismissed as lightweight and of little importance.

Eugene Gates of Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music wrote that “Smyth's music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, but as that of a 'woman composer.' This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession . . .”

The Wreckers

Eventually, she found a champion in the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Having seen her opera The Wreckers received with mixed reviews in Germany and Austria in 1907, she returned to England.

She caught up with Beecham and, the way he told the story, she virtually ambushed him. “She came to me in a very excited state,” wrote Beecham. “She said, ‘You have got to conduct my opera The Wreckers . . . Will you come and see me, and I will go through it with you?’ She played the whole piece through, mostly the wrong notes, but with a vigour and elan that was really very inspiriting.”

Beecham agreed to conduct Smyth's opera and the performances in London in 1909 were a critical success.

With Sir Thomas Beecham's stamp of approval, Smyth's work began to garner huge popularity. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the equivalent for women of a knighthood) in 1922. Then, the public lost its appetite for Smyth's music and productions became rarer and rarer.

However, in recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Ethel Smyth's music and major opera companies have begun mounting productions of her work.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Spinditty

The March of the Women

When Smyth wasn't cajoling conductors and impresarios into featuring her operas she was passionately involved in female suffrage. She even gave up her music career for two years to join the fight for the right of women to vote.

One of her most famous compositions was The March of the Women, which she wrote in 1910. The lyrics were written by feminist, actor, and writer Cecily Hamilton.

Shout, shout up with your song!
Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking.
March, march swing you along,
Wide blows our banner and hope is waking,
Sing with its story, dreams with their glory,
Lo! They call and glad is their word!
Forward! Hark how it swells
Thunder and freedom, the voice of the Lord!”

The song became the rallying cry for suffragettes in Britain. Smyth joined her sisters on marches, she gave speeches, and she hurled a brick through a cabinet minister's window. For the latter activity she was locked up in Holloway women's prison for a couple of months.

Sir Thomas Beecham went to visit her there. Later, in a tribute to Smyth, he wrote “On this particular occasion, the warden said: ‘Come into the quadrangle.’ There were a dozen ladies, marching up and down, singing hard. He pointed up to a window where Ethel was leaning out, conducting with a toothbrush, also with immense vigour and joining in the chorus of her own song The March of the Women.”

Ethel Smyth with her dog Marco. She always had large dogs as companions.

Ethel Smyth with her dog Marco. She always had large dogs as companions.

Ethel Smyth's Unconventional Lifestyle

A woman of great complexity, Ethel Smyth refused to succumb to the norms and marry a man, have children, and settle down to a life domesticity—a casserole in the oven awaiting hubby's return from the front lines of commerce. In fact, Ethel was bisexual with a very distinct preference for her own gender.

She wore tweed suits and male hats and boasted of having more than 100 female lovers, among them were the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, writer Virginia Woolf, and a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, Lady Mary Ponsonby.

However, Henry Brewster was also a long-time friend—with benefits. He was the librettist for many of Smyth's works and their on-again, off-again sexual relationship lasted for many years.

In 1892, she wrote to Brewster about her sometimes conflicted feelings: “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.”

She was quite open about her sexuality and didn't give a damn about the tut-tuttings of disapproval. As she had been throughout her life, she was unconventional and an unapologetic rebel. She died in 1944 at the age of 86.

A statue of Ethel Smyth unveiled in Woking, England in 2022.

A statue of Ethel Smyth unveiled in Woking, England in 2022.

Bonus Factoids

  • There was a special concert of Ethel Smyth's work at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1934. She attended, as did the Queen. Sadly, by then, she was profoundly deaf and heard nothing of the music nor the ovation that followed the performance.
  • According to Oxford University music historian Dr. Leah Broad the 2019-20 season of orchestral music concerts featured only 8.2% of works by women.


© 2022 Rupert Taylor

Related Articles