(b. 1858, London, England; d. 1944, Woking, England)
Ethel Smyth was a twentieth-century British composer and a champion of women’s rights and female musicians. During her lifetime, she composed symphonies, choral works (musical pieces written for a choir), and operas including The Wreckers,1906, and is most well known for The March of Women, an anthem for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1922, she was named a Dame of the British Empire.
She studied Brahmsian musical composition (the romantic style of lyrical and classical music developed by the German composer Brahms) and music theory at Leipzig Conservatory in Germany beginning in 1877 and her sophisticated music elicited rave reviews. In 1889, she returned to London and developed talents in multiple areas of composition, culminating in an oeuvre that included orchestral pieces, choral arrangements, chamber music, and six operas. She earned acclaim for her performance of Mass in D, which was enthusiastically received in London in 1893. Despite this success and her immense talent, she struggled to find musicians to perform her works because she was a woman.
In 1910, Smyth met Emmeline Pankhurst, an ardent feminist, one of the founders of the British suffrage movement, and head of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant all-women’s activist group founded in 1903 that campaigned especially for women’s suffrage. Due, in part, to Pankhurst’s influence, Smyth took two years off from her music career to devote her time to women’s rights and suffrage activism. During this time, she wrote The March of Women, 1911, a piece that later became the battle cry for the British Women’s Movement. In 1912, Smyth and Pankhurst were arrested in London, along with 100 other suffragettes, for throwing stones at the houses of suffrage opponents; she was imprisoned for two months. While in Holloway prison, Smyth led the women in a rousing rendition of The March of Women, conducting them with her toothbrush, in what would become the most famous performance of the song.
Smyth began to lose her hearing in 1912. After visiting an aural specialist in Paris, she went to Egypt, where she began work on The Boatswain’s Mate, a comic opera. This became one of the most revolutionary pieces she completed, due in part to her unorthodox style and method—the first half of the opera contained both words and music, but the second half was entirely instrumental. The Boatswain’s Mate, a more accessible and light-hearted piece for the general public, was partially in response to the Grand Opera style of the time, which emphasized splendor and sophistication.
In spite of several distinguished awards and recognitions, she continued to have difficulty getting her music published and performed because of her sex. She ultimately gave up her music career due to her increased hearing loss. Smyth wrote about her life in several biographies, Impressions that Remained, 1919, and the memoir Streaks of Life, 1921, which captured her experiences in music, activism, and as an open lesbian, discussing her romantic involvements with famous women of her time, including Lady Pauline Trevelyan; the Empress Eugénie; heiress Winnaretta Singer; Lady Mary Ponsonby; writer Edith Somerville; and writer, Virginia Woolf. Smyth died in England in 1944 at the age of 86. She remains a highly regarded female composer and a strong musical and political voice of the early twentieth century.
Ethel Smyth at The Dinner Party
Smyth’s place setting for The Dinner Party represents her role as both musician and activist for women’s rights incorporating musical motifs as well as a tailored suit, her preferred style of dress.
The plate is created as a grand piano complete with raised lid, painted keys and a stand with notations from Smyth’s famous opera The Boatswain’s Mate. The plate represents Smyth’s immense musical talents and its three-dimensionality can be interpreted as her attempt, with both her music and her open sexuality, to push the confines of a society unable to open fully to women. The unorthodox arrangement of the piano keys may also be a reference to Smyth’s unique life, unorthodox in early 20th century society.
Musical elements are also carried into the runner that, on the front, depicts a musical staff in which the capital letter “E” in “Ethel Smyth” is incorporated into the image of a G-clef. A metronome, an instrument used by musicians to help keep perfect time, can be found on the back of the runner.
The runner is made to represent a tweed suit that has been cut open and laid out, as if being tailored. Chicago describes the suit having being “‘taken in’ to fit the confines of the runner’s dimensions, a metaphor for the tragic containment of Smyth’s immense talent” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 139). The suit is a direct reference to Smyth’s preference for wearing masculine tailored suits, a style that was scandalous at the time. Running up one length of the suit is a tape measure, which alludes to the word “measure” used in both music and tailoring.
The pockets on the front of the runner are a reference not only to the pockets on men’s suit coats, but also to the over-sized pockets worn by women around their waists to carry items such as needlework or keys in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Impressions That Remained (1919)
Streaks of Life (1924)
A Three-Legged Tour in Greece (1927)
A Final Burning of Boats Etc. (1928)
Female Pipings in Eden (1934)
Beecham and Pharaoh (1935)
As Time Went On ... (1936)
Inordinate (?) Affection (1936)
Maurice Baring (1938)
What Happened Next (1940)
Operas (Music and Libretto by Ethel Smyth)
The Boatswain’s Mate (1916)
The Wreckers (1916)
Der Wald (1920)
Fete Galante (1923)
Entente Cordiale (1926)
Mass in D, chorus and orchestra (1891)
Four Songs, one voice and ensemble (1908)
Songs of Sunrise, voices: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (1911)
Hey Nonny No, chorus and orchestra (1911)
Sleepless Dreams, chorus and orchestra (1912)
Three Moods of the Sea, one voice and orchestra (1913)
Three Songs, one voice and orchestra (1913)
Dreamings, voices: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (1920)
A Spring Canticle, from Der Wald, chorus and orchestra (1926)
The Prison, soprano and bass voices, chorus and orchestra (1930)
Serenade, D (1890)
Antony and Cleopatra, overture (1890)
The March of Women (1911)
Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orchestra (1927)
On the Cliffs of Cornwall, from The Wreckers (1928)
Two Interlinked French Melodies, from Entente Cordiale (1929)
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary Thomas, eds. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Collis, Louise. Impetuous Heart: The Story of Ethel Smyth. Ontario, Canada: Irwin, 1985.
Collis, Rose. Portraits to the Wall: Historic Lesbian Lives Unveiled. New York: Cassell, 1994.
Jezic, Diane Peacock, and Elizabeth Wood. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. 2nd ed., New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994.
Kertesz, Elizabeth. Issues in the Critical Reception of Ethel Smyth’s Mass and First Four Operas in England and Germany. PhD thesis. Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne, 2000.
St. John, Christopher. Ethel Smyth, a Biography. New York: Longmans Green, 1959.
Solie, Ruth A. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Place Setting Images
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Valerie Morris’s detailed Smyth biography
Literary Encyclopedia : Smyth, Ethel