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A new hearing for suffragist and composer Ethel Smyth: ‘She took on what she called the male machine'

Composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, pictured circa 1925, is known for writing "The March of the Women."
Composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, pictured circa 1925, is known for writing "The March of the Women."Sasha/Getty Images

On Aug. 18, Boston Landmarks Orchestra will celebrate the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment — which enshrined in law women’s right to vote — with a livestreamed performance of music written by women. Of the seven composers to be featured, however, one of them deserves an extra share of attention on this particular anniversary. It’s the British composer Ethel Smyth, who wrote “The March of the Women” (to be performed on Tuesday), the rousing anthem of the entire suffrage movement. It was Smyth whose militant activism assured the march’s huge popularity in its day. It was Smyth who once snuck into 10 Downing St. and banged out the anthem on a piano directly above a British cabinet meeting. And it was Smyth who — after being arrested for throwing a rock through the window of an anti-suffrage politician — once conducted a crowd lustily singing the anthem outside her prison cell by beating time through her window with a toothbrush.

Yet Smyth’s participation in the suffrage movement was just one episode in an extraordinary musical life. Born in 1858 and trained in Leipzig, she knew Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Brahms, and Clara Schumann. She wrote over 200 works including six operas, one of which (“Der Wald”) was the first — and for over a century, the only — opera by a woman to be performed at the Met. Conductors such as Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham, and Bruno Walter all admired and supported her music. But the entirety of her output, and Smyth herself as a figure in music history, all but disappeared with her death in 1944.


Recently, however, there are signs of new life for Smyth’s music. A recording of her final major work, “The Prison,” has just been released on the Chandos label. New performance editions of her work are being published. And classical music’s attempts at reckoning with its own exclusionist history have created, in certain quarters, a new imperative to reassess the plight of marginalized voices such as her own. On the eve of the Landmarks program, the Globe spoke with Elizabeth Wood, the leading scholar on Smyth’s music, about Smyth’s contributions to the suffrage movement but also about her remarkable life and the possibility of hearing her music, at last, through fresh ears.

Q. Smyth was such a pioneering composer known to so many luminaries of her day. How do you understand the speed and completeness with which her music seems to have disappeared after her death?


A. There are simple and complex reasons. I think the biggest barrier of all was her gender. Another simple answer is that she was British, and the British really disdained her and her music for a variety of reasons. They have an attitude of one-leading-composer-at-a-time, and the rest get shuffled off. It went from Elgar to Britten and there was no space for Smyth — on the grounds of her gender, on the grounds of her sexuality, and on the grounds of her taking her career into her own hands when others wouldn’t. In other words, she began to conduct her own works, so when she died that way of getting her music to the public died with her.

Ethel Smyth conducted the Police Band in 1930 during the unveiling ceremony for a London statue honoring suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.
Ethel Smyth conducted the Police Band in 1930 during the unveiling ceremony for a London statue honoring suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.Central Press/Getty Images

She also wrote many books and they were a huge success, but they enabled all sorts of people to think of her as a writer. They didn’t even really know her musical work. And women who were militants were demeaned as unwomanly. Her work right from the beginning was described as too virile. [The violinist Joseph] Joachim said it was too strident, too restless, too unwomanly. Brahms respected her but didn’t lift a finger.


There’s a very telling photograph of Smyth from Salzburg in 1922, in the middle of two lines of the leading composers of her day. Webern and Hindemith and all sorts of notables are there, and Ethel is plum in the middle. Looking at that photo, you get the overwhelming sense of what was true in her life: She was one of them. But if there is no context for a woman composer, they slip through, they disappear.

In August 1922, contemporary Austrian and German composers met in Salzburg, Austria. Ethel Smyth stands at center.
In August 1922, contemporary Austrian and German composers met in Salzburg, Austria. Ethel Smyth stands at center. The Lahr von Leitis Academy & Archive

Q. From your own work on her biography, it emerges clearly that Smyth did not passively accept the prejudices of her era. She battled against them.

A. Yes, she took on what she called the male machine, and quite outspokenly in all sorts of letters and speeches. In all of her activity she criticized the power structures in music, and I think this made her deeply unpopular with the people in power, the men in power. This included the press, publishers, the professors, the entire patronage system of those who commission music and perform it.

She said it herself in various ways — that nothing will be heard of my music until I’m long dead, when it’s just sexless dots on a manuscript page, then my music must be heard. In other words, remove the woman, remove the life, remove the controversies, the passions and the rather restless spirit of rebellion she represents against all those constrictions against women, and then it will be the scores that remain.


Q. It seems that a kind of circular reasoning often sets in, whereby a composer’s obscurity comes to be taken as a de facto evaluative judgment. If her music were important, the logic goes, then we would already know it. And so the music remains obscure and the cycle continues. Yet peeking below the surface of her biography, you glimpse the dizzying number of structural factors underlying that invisibility. Her music, it seems, was never really given the chance to be judged on its own aesthetic merits.

A. Yes I quite agree. The music has to be judged on its merits. The music has to speak for itself, but how can it do that unless it’s heard? With Smyth’s music, you can hear it in your mind from reading it off the page, but you really don’t hear how it works until it’s made into sound. And when that’s done with real attention and devotion, you hear a remarkable piece of work.

Ethel Smyth at the piano circa 1925.
Ethel Smyth at the piano circa 1925.Sasha/Getty Images

But even so, how do you assess any music? The first thing people do is compare. If you compare a woman’s work with Beethoven’s, it’s going to fall short. Even if they want to work on a grand scale, women often write only one concerto or symphony, because even getting that one work performed saps them of so much energy and strength. So you write the big work but by the time you hear it, as a woman, you’ve moved on. They’ve proven themselves in the big Beethovenian forms, but they can’t really learn from it, because they don’t get immediate feedback. It’s interesting with Smyth — her output changes with where she is, who she knows.


Q. How do you view her period of intense engagement with the suffrage cause?

A. She said she gave up music for the cause, but she didn’t give up music at all — she continued to compose music for the cause. As she shifted toward radical politics, she created a new kind of music for a new audience. And of course it was a music exclusively for women.

Around 1909-10, she was drawn in to the movement by circles of friends and fellow artists. Then she went to hear Emmeline Pankhurst speak, and she fell in love with her voice. She said it was like listening to Schubert for the first time. It’s believed they had an intimate relationship, and they were certainly intimate politically. Ethel’s home became a safehouse for Mrs. Pankhurst during the cat-and-mouse period of the militant suffragettes. Ethel would help her recover after hunger strikes and write her speeches for her, while the police would be hiding behind the hedge outside, waiting to re-arrest her. It was a heightened time.

Q. Are you hopeful that the present shifts in the music world may yield a fresh hearing for Smyth?

A. It’s so hard to be optimistic as a feminist. But I think she was quite amazing in experiencing all of this and yet not losing hope herself, so I mustn’t lose hope either. Certainly some exceptional composers are being met again. I’m really glad she’s in the news right now. What’s truly important is that the big works have now all been performed. Now singers are thinking about the songs. A real performance and scholarly critical edition of her Serenade is coming out soon. (She learned how to write a serenade from Tchaikovsky!) Experiment, adventure, risk-taking — Smyth’s music represents all of that for her time. Now it’s part of the context of this time. We need to hear it.


Conducted by Christopher Wilkins and Katherine Chan, hosted by Grace Kelly. Aug. 18, 7 p.m. www.landmarksorchestra.org

Interview was edited and condensed.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.