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Ethel Smyth

1858 - 1944

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British composer Dame Ethel Mary Smyth was a composer, conductor, author, and Suffragette. Raised during the Victorian age, Smyth fought against societal restrictions that said a woman should not have a profession. She insisted on an education, she insisted on performances of her works, and she insisted on having her works published. Today Smyth should be heralded as a champion of women’s rights and a pioneer for women in the classical music world, but she is still relatively unknown.

Between 1880 and 1930, she published two sets of lieder, several songs for voice and piano or chamber ensemble, numerous chamber pieces, two symphonic works, six operas, a mass, and a choral symphony. Today we also know of her unpublished works for solo piano, organ, and various chamber ensembles. In addition to composing, Smyth was also a devoted letter-writer, and she turned to writing memoirs and essays later in her life, publishing ten volumes of prose between 1919 and 1940.

During her lengthy career in which she frequently traveled between England, Germany, and Italy, Smyth came to know Brahms, Clara Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bruno Walter, and more. She informally performed for Queen Victoria, and she was friends with the ex-Empress Eugenie of France and the Princesse de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer. In the last decades of her life she formed strong friendships with Edith Somerville and Virginia Woolf.

Although Smyth became known for her proclivity for relationships, she maintained an independent life. Recognizing that the 19th-century idea of marriage was not compatible with a career or her personal inclinations, she wrote in a letter to her mother that “even if I were to fall desperately in love with BRAHMS and he were to propose to me, I should say no!”. At the time she claimed that it would end any chances of a career, and later she argued that she was too independent. Both reasons are probably true, but Smyth could never be with only one person. She was unabashedly attracted to women while also maintaining a long-term, long-distance relationship with Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908) that lasted from 1884 until his death.

Since her death at the end of World War II, Smyth has been largely forgotten. But the last decade has witnessed a surge of interest in her works and her life. Her opera, The Wreckers, received its first full staging in North America at Bard College during the summer of 2015. The original French version of The Wreckers was then presented at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in the summer of 2022, which was followed by a semi-staged version at The Proms and a concert setting with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin. The Wreckers also received its first production by a major American opera company in the fall of 2022 with performances by the Houston Grand Opera.

Biography by Amy Zigler.

Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies | 1923 | 5 mins

Flute, Oboe, Piano

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