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Ethyl Smyth

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 8/1/2018

Forgotten Foremothers
Profiles of Lesser-Known Heroines in the Fight for Women's Rights

“Long, long—we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven
Strong, strong—stand we at last
Fearless in faith and with sight new given
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!) These, these—beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.”

George Grantham Bain Collection; Wikipedia Public Domain

Suffragettes showed their solidarity by singing these words aloud outside Holloway Prison in London on March 1, 1912. Inside her cell, 54-year-old Ethel Smyth stuck her head out the window and conducted the impromptu choir
with a toothbrush in hand. This was fitting enough. The words were hers; she had written “The March of Women” two years earlier. They were sung now in support of Smyth and over 100 other women arrested that day for throwing rocks at the homes of parliament members who stood in opposition to the women’s vote.

The New York Times wrote about the event the following day. “Never since plate glass was invented has there been such a smashing and shattering of it as was witnessed this evening when the suffragettes went out on a window-breaking raid in the West End of London.” Emmeline Pankhurst had put out the call for the riot. Smyth and many others answered the call.

Ethel Smyth had a rebellious spirit from the start. Born in Kent in 1858, she was the fourth child of eight and was known to hike, climb, ride bikes, and even smoke cigars. This was, obviously, not common behavior for women at the time. In addition, her father disapproved of her musical interests, but this did not deter Smyth from studying with a private tutor and then later attending the Leipzig Conservatory where she created a name for herself by composing pieces for the piano and violin sonatas.

Before breaking windows, Smyth broke records. In early 1900, she began work on her second opera, Der Wald, which she was determined to get produced, despite the rare successes of female composers. “I feel I must fight for Der Wald because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea,” she wrote in 1902. Her fight paid off when Der Wald debuted in Berlin on April 9 of that same year.

It would go on to become the first performance of a female composer’s work ever presented at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and a rousing success at that. The opera “stirred the blood with the clangor of brass,” reported The New York World, “the shrieks of strings, and the plaint of wood winds...” Smyth took seven curtain calls and left with “flowers by the cartload,” said The New York Times.

Critics were less enthusiastic, citing Smyth’s status as a “lady composer” with some frequency. Musician and scholar Eugene Gates noted in his article “Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t: Sexual Aesthetics and the Music of Dame Ethel Smyth” that the critics created for Smyth an unwinnable bind: “On the one hand, when she composed powerful, rhythmically vital music, it was said that her work lacked feminine charm; on the other, when she produced delicate, melodious compositions, she was accused of not measuring up to the artistic standards of her male colleagues.”

Later in her life, Smyth turned her passions from composing to activism, a choice that may have been encouraged along by her hearing loss. Naturally, deafness did not slow down Ethel Smyth. She continued traveling, writing stories—largely autobiographical ones—and openly chronicled her attraction to and relationships with women. To friend (and possibly her only male lover) Henry Bennet Brewster, Smyth wrote in 1892, "I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex more passionately than yours. I can't make it out, for I am a very healthy-minded person.” She fell in love with friend Virginia Woolf at age 71 and had a notable romance with fellow composer Violet Gordon Woodhouse. (This latter relationship itself is the subject of the 2005 opera Violet.) She also rode horses, played tennis, and hit the golf course well into her later years. Indeed, when she died May of 1944 at age 86, she requested that she be cremated and her ashes spread in the woods near the Woking Golf Club, wild to the last.
 Dame Ethel Smyth wrote the March of the Women (1911) for the Women's Social and Political Union, the leading organization of the suffragists in Britain.