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Ethel Smyth: 'Always completely herself'

To mark LGBT History Month 2022, Professor Sophie Fuller takes a look at the life of ‘life-long disruptor’ Ethel Smyth...

To mark LGBT History Month 2022, Professor Sophie Fuller takes a look at the life of ‘life-long disruptor’ Ethel Smyth, and asks if the composer’s passion for her female friends and lovers can be heard in her music…

British composer Ethel Smyth (1857-1944) was a lifelong disruptor: demanding a hearing for her complex and compelling music, fighting for the rights of women orchestral players, breaking windows alongside other suffragettes and conducting her own works in a blue kimono at a time when women conductors were few and far between. The viola player Bernard Shore once wrote of Smyth: ‘Magnificently untroubled by what anyone thinks, she is always completely herself’ (The Orchestra Speaks, 1938, p.148).

It was music that led her to her first defiant, disruptive act, refusing to perform the role of the dutiful daughter (going to church or playing after dinner music) until her major general father relented and allowed her to go to Leipzig to study music. Music was the central passion of her life and her catalogue of powerful orchestral compositions, opera, chamber works and songs is gradually receiving the acclaim and recognition that it deserves. In 2021 she posthumously won a Grammy for the debut recording of her momentous orchestral vocal work The Prison (on the Chandos label by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus conducted by James Blachly,). This summer Glyndebourne is mounting a long-awaited, fully staged production of her most significant work, the glorious, heartfelt three-act opera The Wreckers.

Smyth was also defiantly queer, as open as anyone of her generation could be about the intense, and sometimes sexual, relationships with women that drove so much of her often-turbulent life. Many of these women were, and still are, well known: the Parisian music patron Winaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac (1865-1943); leader of the suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928); writers Edith Somerville (1858-1949) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), to name just a few. As Smyth herself wrote in her memoirs Impressions That Remained: ‘My relations with certain women, all exceptional personalities I think, are shining threads in my life’ (1919: 2, p.6). Many of these women belonged to notable queer circles. Polignac, for example, was once described by Woolf as someone who had ’ravaged half the virgins in Paris’ and her lovers included painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970), pianist Renata Borgatti (1894-1964) and writer Violet Trefusis (1894-1972).

Image: Ethel Smyth. George Grantham Bain Collection; Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Smyth also had one relationship with a man, the cosmopolitan American writer Henry Brewster (1850-1908), with whom she collaborated on several of her six operas, including The Wreckers. But Smyth always refused to bow to convention, to marry or set up home with Brewster. Writing to him she once asked ‘I wonder why it is so much easier for me, and I believe for a great many English women, to love my own sex passionately rather than yours?’ and later quoted this letter in one of her volumes of memoir, As Time Went On… (1936, p.156).

Can Smyth’s passion for her female friends and lovers be heard in her music? The leading Smyth scholar, Elizabeth Wood, certainly believes so and has written compelling essays about the ways in which lesbian desire can be heard in Smyth’s work. In ‘Sapphonics‘, an essay in the ground-breaking 1994 collection Queering the Pitch, Wood writes about Smyth’s queer use of the ambivalent ‘border-crossing’ female voice, something heard in the mezzo-soprano role of Thirza, strong-minded, resilient heroine of The Wreckers. This was a role that the French singer Emma Calvé (1858-1942) had wanted to perform. Smyth knew Calvé, probably through Polignac, and admitted in her memoirs What Happened Next (1940) that she had written the role with Calvé in mind. It was for this reason, and the hope of a production at Covent Garden with its French director André Messager, that Smyth and Brewster’s initial libretto was written in French, as it will be heard at Glyndebourne. The original title was Les Naufrageurs, later translated into German – Strandrecht – and then English – The Wreckers.

Another powerfully moving vocal work, albeit on a much smaller scale is Smyth’s song ‘Possession’ (1913), a setting, dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst, of a poem by the working class poet Ethel Carnie. Smyth and Pankhurst were remarkably close, particularly in the two years that Smyth decided to devote to the suffragette cause and Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. Woolf once wrote to her nephew Quentin Bell: ‘In strict confidence, Ethel used to love Emmeline —they shared a bed’.

‘Possession’ is a love song about the dangers of possessing the beloved. It includes the lines:

There came to my lonely soul
A friend I had waited for long;
And the deep chilly silence lay stricken and dead,
Pierced to death by our love and our song

Go out when thou wilt, O friend —
Sing thy song, roam the world glad and free;
By the holding I lose, by the giving I gain,
And the gods cannot take thee from me

Image: Emmeline Pankhurst. Copyright by Matzene Chicago. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smyth’s setting plays with any strophic expectations (using the same music for each verse of the text) that a listener might have. In its calm and beautiful way, this song, with its unexpected harmonies, is quietly disruptive.

In the later 20th century Smyth was better known as an eccentric, well-connected lesbian than for her music. She found a place at The Dinner Party (1974-79), an art installation by feminist artist Judy Chicago. Smyth’s setting at the table offers a piano as a plate, together with score quotations from her most feminist opera The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) and a pattern for the masculine tweed suits which she frequently wore and which, for future generations, was to be one of the clear markers of her queerness.

A few days after Smyth’s death, the queer writer Vita Sackville-West, lover of both Trefusis and Woolf, published a vivid eulogy to her friend in The Observer:

Wild welcomer of life, of love, of art
Your hat askew, your soul on a dead level,
Rough, tough, uncomfortable, true,
Chained to the iron railings of your creed,
Strange that you should be dead.

Listening to Smyth’s vivid and momentous musical legacy, whether it is ‘Possession’, The Prison or The Wreckers, we know that death is irrelevant for this wild and uncomfortable woman whose disruptive voice continues to ring out, loud and clear.

Written by Professor Sophie Fuller, lecturer in music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance


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