In this, the centenary of at least some women gaining the vote in Britain, I have been surprised and disappointed than none of our major national opera companies have revisited the works of Ethel Smyth who was both one of our greatest, yet most ignored, British opera composers, but also a major fighter in the battle for votes for women.
Why is her work and contribution being ignored? Maybe it is as simple as because she was a woman and female composers always had a major struggle to make their way in a man’s world? They were so often not taken seriously at all.
Or was it because her political activities so upset the establishment that she never received the recognition she deserved? After all she did throw stones through the window of the colonial secretary and it didn’t stop with breaking windows. She also stormed 10 Downing Street itself to hammer out her Suffragette anthem the March of Women on Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s piano while the Cabinet was still in session. Some things are not easily forgiven even after a hundred years.
Her militant activities saw her, with 200 sister Suffragettes, sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison. Sir Thomas Beecham went to visit her in jail and afterwards told this story.
“I arrived in the main courtyard of the prison to find the noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.” That alone was quite enough to get Ethel in the bad books of the establishment.
Or perhaps it could have been her exceedingly unconventional life as a very public lesbian and bisexual who had many long and short term relationships with some well known women and perhaps men of the time, not something designed make her a popular figure.
She stormed 10 Downing Street and hammered out her Suffragette anthem on Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s piano while the Cabinet was in session
Openly and obviously bisexual she usually dressed in men’s tweeds and deerstalker cap. Soon after she became a suffragette in the early 1910s she met and fell in love with Emmeline Pankhurst, they eventually became lovers. It would be a relationship that would last, on and off, as long as they both lived.
She also had affairs with writer Virginia Woolf as well as her married opera librettist Henry B Brewster. Brewster was an American author who wrote books on anarchy and lived most of his life in France and Italy.
After a century of being largely ignored by history, Ethel Smyth is beginning at last to get a little of the recognition she deserves with fragments of her work being played at the Proms this year.
While the National opera companies continue to boycott her works I was delighted to discover that the small Buckingham-based Arcadian Opera will be presenting her wonderful opera The Wreckers at the Roxburgh Theatre at Stowe School, Buckingham.
The opera, fully staged and with a fine cast, will be performed on the October 27 and 28. The brave people to be thanked for putting the work on are musical director Justin Lavender and stage director Alison Marshall and their enthusiastic company.
Lavender himself trained with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten and has sung with opera companies all over the world including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He sang in the 1994 production of The Wreckers at the BBC Proms.
He told the Morning Star: “I got tired of waiting for a major opera company to produce The Wreckers so I decided to put it on with my own Arcadian Opera”.
Coincidentally this summer there was a very rare performance of The Wreckers in New York State, the first in the US for many years. One American critic, Polly Guerin, described the work as “...a rich orchestral score that swells to heights of high drama with the grandiosity of Wagner and a hint of Bizet's Carmen, and at every nuance the music emulates the ensuing tragic tale”.
American director Thaddeus Strassberger added: "The themes of mass hysteria and populist justice should find powerful echoes in today's world events." In fact the opera addresses issues that still resonate with audiences today.
Smyth found an interest in music early in life but she had to overcome opposition from her army father in order to enrol at the Leipzig Conservatorium in her late teens in 1877, where she won respect from Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Edvard Grieg and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky, rather sexist and patronisingly, said of her: “Miss Smyth is one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.”
Back in England in the late 1880s, her music attracted much attention from influential figures including Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Henry Wood and George Bernard Shaw praising her work. She was the first female composer to have had an opera performed at the New York Met.
The most famous of her six operas, The Wreckers, has been compared with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Indeed we know that Britten studied the Wreckers very closely while working on Peter Grimes and there is much in Peter Grimes inspired by The Wreckers. Still, The Wreckers is rarely performed. The last commercial recording was a quarter of a century ago.
Smyth wrote some of her best music for the Votes for Women cause. Her March of the Women came to be adopted as the suffragette anthem. It still has the power to inspire today.
Later in life increasing deafness curtailed her composing and she turned to writing a series of revealing autobiographies.
In 1939, when war had shut down BBC music and concerts, Smyth was still showing her political sympathies. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph she suggested that a programme of free concerts broadcast from provinces “would lift up the hearts of many … and ease the situation of a class of unemployed the thought of whom gives one perpetual heartache.”
Bookings for the Arcadian Opera performance of the Wreckers can be made at www.arcadianopera.com/tickets
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