Dame Ethel Mary Smyth attained prominence as one of the most accomplished female composers in a male dominated environment, and as one of the main representatives of the suffragette movement.
Early life and education
Smyth was born to a wealthy bourgeois family, daughter of Major-General John Hall Smyth and Emma Struth Smyth.
Against her father’s wishes she decided to pursue a musical career. In 1887 Smyth entered the Leipzig Conservatory, staying for one year only after becoming disenchanted with the tuition and staff. Remaining in Leipzig, Smyth then took harmony and counterpoint lessons with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. During this period she met many of the most significant composers of the day, including Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Clara Schummann and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The latter was especially encouraging, describing Smyth in his memoirs as ‘one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation’.
Over the following decade Smyth lived and worked in several countries around Europe, gaining a breadth of experience that invested her compositions with a distinctly European character. In 1882 while in Florence, she met French American philosopher and poet Henry B. Brewster (1850–1908), who would become one of her closest friends and collaborators.
Return to England and operas
In 1890 Smyth returned to England, making her debut as a composer of orchestral music with a Serenade in D at the Crystal Palace Concerts, while her Mass in D (1893) brought her wide public recognition.
From 1893 to 1910, Smyth focused much of her creative energies on composing a series of operas, which were performed with some success in Europe and North America – a considerable achievement for a female composer at that time. In 1898, her first opera Fantasio was first performed in Weimar. Four years later, Der Wald was heard first in Berlin and then at the Royal Opera House in London. Der Standrecht was performed in Leipzig and Prague in 1906 before being performed in English translation as The Wreckers in London under the baton of Thomas Beecham in 1909. However, for each of these works Smyth had to work tirelessly to obtain performances.
From 1911 to 1913 Smyth was closely involved with the English suffragette movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928). One of her compositions, The March of Women, was adopted as the anthem to The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
She was one of more than 100 feminists arrested for breaking windows in March 1912, for which she served two months in Holloway Prison. When her friend Thomas Beecham paid her a visit, he found her directing a memorable performance of The March of the Women, sung by fellow suffragettes.
Illness and later years
During the First World War the suffragette movement suspended its activities and Smyth worked as an assistant radiologist in a French military hospital in Vichy from 1915 to 1918. These years were particularly difficult as she became increasingly deaf. She then concentrated much of her efforts on writing, becoming a prolific author of memoirs. The first of a total of eight volumes, entitled Impressions That Remained, appeared in 1919.
This last period of Smyth's life also saw her receive several notable accolades, in recognition of her achievements as a composer. In 1922, she was appointed D.B.E. for services to music, becoming known as Dame Ethel Smyth. She was also the recipient honorary degrees from the universities of St. Andrews (1928) and Manchester (1930), while in 1926 she became the first female recipient of an honorary doctorate in music from Oxford University.
Further information about the life of Ethel Smyth can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Sophie Fuller
- Music and place, Music and words, Music for stage and screen, Music, politics and society, Performance and reception
Sophie Fuller discusses the history of the Society of Women Musicians and some of its leading members