Dame Ethel Smyth

Music Period: Romantic
Location: London, United Kingdom
Claim to Fame: composing the “The March of the Women” theme for the suffragette movement, and fighting for the right for women to play in orchestras.

Dame Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 to an upper-class family who lived just outside of London. In 1867, the family decided to move near to Aldershot in Surrey, and it was here that Ethel became interested in music. It so happened that one of her governesses had studied music at the Conservatory in Leipzig and had captivated Ethel with her piano playing. She had entranced the little girl so much that 10-year-old Ethel decided that she too would one day study music in Leipzig. Ethel started to learn the piano, and composed hymns and chants along the way. The idea, however, faced severe opposition from her father, and it would not be until she was 19 years old that Ethel was finally granted permission to go.

The time Ethel spent studying in Leipzig Conservatory was short-lived. She found the teaching disappointing, and dropped out to conduct private studies with Heinrich von Herzogenberg instead. Through her links with the family, Ethel soon became part of a musical circle that included Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who took to calling her “the Oboe”. It was whilst with the family that Ethel fell passionately in love with Lisl Herzogenberg, Heinrich’s wife. This started the first of many affairs she would have with women.

Whilst in Leipzig, Ethel began making a name for herself as a composer. Ethel wrote several piano works at this time, including Variations on an Original Theme (of an Exceedingly Dismal Nature) and had collections of her music published. Yet critics were decidedly unimpressed with her works. They found them “deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer”.

In early 1890, Ethel started work on what many consider her masterpiece, Mass in D. This work had been inspired by the devout Catholicism of a friend, and was played to Queen Victoria in the autumn of 1891. At the performance, Ethel played the piano, and impressed her audience by singing as many of the parts as she could. The piece was then performed at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1893 where it impressed critics a great deal. Empress Eugenie enjoyed it so much she even paid for the piece to be published.

For Ethel, the next step was to realise her dreams and start work on an opera. The result was Fantasio. She wrote this work with Harry Brewster, whom she had met in Leipzig a few years before. The two soon become lovers and the relationship lasted until 1908 when Harry died of cancer. Harry would be her only male lover. Ethel always refused to marry Harry, explaining to a friend that she must have “[n]o marriage, no ties. I must be free.‚Äù The pair would collaborate on many projects, including Das Wald, which Ethel described as ‚Äúthe only really blazing triumph I have ever had‚Äù. Another was The Wreckers, an opera based on an old fishing legend that Ethel had heard whilst on holiday in Cornwall in the 1880s. This powerful work was described by one critic as ‚Äúone of the very few modern operas which must count among great things in art‚Äù. Despite this praise, Ethel struggled to get her works published with many taking years to be given a performance in some countries.

As time moved forward, Ethel started adding lighter textures and impressionistic harmonies similar to contemporary French composers of the time. Even Claude Debussy admired her new musical style when he heard a performance at a private party in London. Many others admired Ethel’s compositions, and in 1910, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Durham University. This was the same year that Ethel met Emmeline Pankhurst.

Ethel devoted the next two years to the militant suffragette campaign after falling in love with Emmeline. Part of her contribution to the cause was the rousing chorus, “The March of the Women”. The piece of music soon became something of an anthem sung by all suffragettes at mass marches and processions. At one mass demonstration in March 1912, Ethel threw a stone through the window of the Colonial Secretary’s house and was arrested. She spent the next two months in Holloway Prison. After her release, Ethel cut down her involvement with the suffragette campaign, and concentrated instead on telling messages through her music.

It was about this time that Ethel started to hear ringing and booming in her ears, and when the war ended, Ethel knew that she was losing her hearing. Knowing this, she turned to writing her extraordinary memoirs, Impressions that Remained. Ethel also saw increasing recognition during the 1920s with many of her works revived, and in 1922, Ethel received a DBE for her contributions to the music world. This trend of recognition continued through the 1930s when her music continued to be heard in concerts and broadcast on BBC Radio. Ethel developed an intense relationship with Virginia Woolf by this point, and published her fourth volume of the autobiography in 1940.

Ethel was a woman of incredible strength, sticking to her guns, no matter the odds. Until her death in May 1944 at the age of 86, Ethel made powerful contributions to both music and women’s rights. She played a key role in the campaign to obtain the right for women to vote, and for women to play in orchestras. It was no secret that Ethel had relationships with women, and many of these women played an important role in her life, the life of a women who poured endless passion into her music and fought continuous battles to get her music heard.

Listen to Dame Ethel Smyth talk about politics and her struggle to get Das Wald performed in the BBC3 series Women Composers in their Own Words.

For more information on Dame Ethel Smyth, check out these useful websites:

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.


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