History Hunt: Dame Ethel Smyth

This week on History Hunt, we’re staying in England and moving forward a few decades to meet a woman with many talents and a great deal of stubbornness: Dame Ethel Smyth.

Smyth was born on April 23, 1858, in London, England. Her mother, Nina Struth Smyth, was described later by her daughter as being “one of the most naturally musical people I have ever known.” (Gates) Her father, on the other hand, was the complete opposite: he despised artists of all types, thinking they were all immoral people (in spite of never having met a single artist in his life). He also was convinced that women should only be mothers, and the only place for them was at home.

Needless to say, adventurous Smyth didn’t agree with him at all. When she was introduced to classical music by one of her governesses when she was twelve, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: she wanted to compose and make music just as beautiful as the composers who had gone before her. She would attend the Leipzig Conservatory, a music school in the German town of Leipzig, where many famous composers had lived and worked in the past.

Her father was extremely discouraging when she told her parents what she was determined to do, but Smyth held onto her dream. When she was seventeen, she started taking music and composition lessons–but not for long. Her father became convinced her music teacher was up to no good and cancelled the lessons. And when she was nineteen, open warfare between father and daughter began. Smyth locked herself in her room and refused to come out or speak to anyone until her father agreed to let her go to Leipzig…and at last, he gave in. Smyth had finally won.

But the Leipzig Conservatory wasn’t what Smyth had hoped for, and so she left after only a year to study with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg. It was during this time that she fell in love for the first time, with von Herzogenberg’s wife, Lisl.

It was also during this time that Smyth got her first taste of what was to become a lifelong battle for her. When she had arrived in Leipzig, Smyth had brought some of her compositions with her, hoping to find a publisher. What she found instead was the attitude that “Everyone knows women can’t compose.”

This wasn’t the only example of sexist thinking that Smyth ran up against, either. Later on, whenever she composed strong, forceful music, critics accused her of writing “like a man” and thought it made her “unattractive.” When she wrote delicate, soft music, critics dismissed her music as being “feminine” –as if being feminine were a bad thing! Few seemed to understand that these criticisms were nothing more than sexist nonsense, something that frustrated Smyth to no end.

Still, in spite of these barriers, while she was in Germany, Smyth had two of her works performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, a concert hall. One performance was when she was twenty-six and one was when she was twenty-nine. A few years later, after becoming reasonably well-known in Germany, she returned to England…where she had to start all over again!

It didn’t take her long, though, to gain a following in England in spite of her constant struggle against sexism. Her works began to be played at famous concert halls of the day: the Crystal Palace and the Royal Albert Hall–with a little help from her friend, Empress Eugenie of France!

Afterwards, Smyth composed her first opera, Fantasio, for a contest. On the advice of a friend, she submitted it under a male pen name, so she wouldn’t have to worry about sexism ruining her chances. Out of the 110 operas submitted, Fantasio placed in the top seven!

Her next opera met with even more success. In fact, it was performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1903–the first opera written by a woman ever performed there! In fact, as of now, she’s the only woman to have a single work performed at The Met. That’s scheduled to change in the 2016-2017 opera season, when L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho is slated to be performed. Sexism, unfortunately, is not something confined only to the past.

Smyth went on to write four more operas–her most famous, The Wreckers, debuted three years later. But not long after that, Smyth’s attention turned to something very important: helping women earn the right to vote.

For most of Smyth’s life, women were not allowed to vote–they only fully gained the right in the United Kingdom in 1928, when Smyth was 70. But in 1910, Smyth fell in love with the cause of claiming this important right–as well as a leading figure in the fight, Emmeline Pankhurst. She became a fierce supporter, writing an anthem for the movement called “The March of the Women.”

The March of the Women

The cover of the sheet music to “THe March of the Women.”

She also went to jail for two months for breaking an opposing politician’s window! While in jail, she didn’t despair, but kept up her spirits and those of the other women who had gone to prison for fighting for their rights. In fact, when one of her friends visited her, it was to find Smyth conducting her fellow inmates in singing “The March of the Women” by leaning out of her cell window…using a toothbrush instead of a baton!

Sadly, later in life, Smyth went deaf, and so she could no longer compose. Instead, she turned to writing books. She wrote ten in all, as well as a large number of magazine and newspaper articles. For the rest of her life, she fought for the rights of her fellow female musicians and composers–a fight that continues to this day.

Listen below to “The March of the Women,” as well as the first movement of her Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor, Op. 5:

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To Learn More (Sources):
Dame Ethel Smyth: Pioneer of English Opera, by Eugene Gates in The Kapralova Society Journal
Five facts about Dame Ethel Smyth, by Christopher Wiley on Oxford University Press’s blog
Ethel Smyth on Spartacus Educational.com
Dame Ethel Smyth: Composer, suffragette, sportswoman and resident of Woking on Exploring Surrey’s Past
Metropolitan Opera Adds Three Composers to New-Works Program, Commissions Operas by Thomas Adès and Osvaldo Golijov on Opera News.com
List of compositions by Ethel Smyth on Wikipedia.org
Women’s suffrage on Wikipedia.org

4 thoughts on “History Hunt: Dame Ethel Smyth

  1. “Her father, on the other hand, was the complete opposite: he despised artists of all types, thinking they were all immoral people (in spite of never having met a single artist in his life). He also was convinced that women should only be mothers, and the only place for them was at home.”

    What a bigoted an nasty piece of work Ethel’s father was- hurrah for Ethel that she went her own way.


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