This week, I had a bit more of a hunt than usual. I’d thought writing about the first British woman to compose a symphony would be easy. But after looking through three of my history textbooks and coming up empty-handed, followed by combing through the internet, I learned that I was wrong. Even musicians responsible for important firsts can disappear, it seems.
Alice Mary Smith was born in London, England, on May 19, 1839. She was known as “Mary” to her family, which was made up of her mother, father, and two older brothers. When she was a young woman, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She was only eighteen when her first composition was published, to very good reviews.
When she was twenty-four, Smith achieved her famous first: she composed her Symphony in C Minor and had it performed at the Musical Society of London, which she had joined two years earlier. No matter how prejudiced people were in her time against women who composed large-scale works like symphonies, listeners recognised her brilliance. Her work was singled out as being “among the most remarkable” works at the concert. It was seen as proof, by one reviewer at least, that the idea that women couldn’t compose was nonsense.
The C Minor wasn’t her only symphony, though–she also wrote the Symphony in A Minor for the 1876 Alexandra Palace competition, which was open to British composers of symphonies. Unfortunately, she didn’t submit it, and so the prizes went to others instead. (Including another woman, Oliveria Prescott, who also ignored the people who said that women shouldn’t compose symphonies and came in third place with her “Alkestis” Symphony!)
In 1867, Smith took a break from composing to marry and have two daughters. But in two years, she was back at it–not even raising two young children could slow her down for long! She wrote large-scale vocal works (also considered “inappropriate” for women of her time), overtures, music for piano and for string instruments, and more. Not only was she well-known in Britain, but she also had a following in America as well!
As History Hunters, though, we can learn an important lesson from Smith. The conductor William Ganz said that Smith’s music “will forever remain a lasting memorial of her talent and genius.” (Chandos Records) And yet until this year, I’d never heard of her–and I’m a music teacher! We can’t assume that because a composer or artist is famous now that they’ll be famous forever. Don’t forget to share your love of your favourites, or they might just need to be tracked down by History Hunters of the future!
With that in mind, here’s the final movement, Allegro, from Smith’s Symphony in A Minor.
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To Learn More (sources):
Alice Mary Smith: Symphonies, ed. Ian Graham-Jones
Smith: Symphonies, by Ian Graham-Jones at Chandos Records
Repertoire to Know: Alice Mary Smith at Feminist in the Concert Hall
Alice Mary Smith at Wikipedia.org