William Sterling

Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth, Composer and Suffragette

The remarkable life of a pioneer of women composers in Britain. All six of her operas were performed in her lifetime and her March of the Women was the battle cry of the Suffragettes. The course followed Ethel Smyth’s remarkable career from conventional middle class background through her musical studies in Europe where she was befriended by Brahms and Tchaikovsky among others and returned to England to become a leading member of the Suffragette movement. Despite becoming a dame in 1922 she was always a rebel and her numerous affairs, mostly with women, continued to shock society into her old age. The course followed Smyth’s colourful career in music and politics and described her many encounters with musicians and other celebrities such as Thomas Beecham, Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf. We listened to excerpts from her many remarkable works including her Mass in D (which Tovey compared to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis), her masterpiece, the opera The Wreckers (which forms a bridge between Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Britten’s Peter Grimes), her unique Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra as well as her chamber works and songs.

I ran this course at the City Lit in March 2011.

Dame Ethel Smyth – Suffragette and Composer

Ways that are weary, days that are dreary, Toil and pain by faith ye have borne.

Familiar feelings? Why not relieve the tedium with some music at lunchtime? The words come from Ethel Smyth’s best known work, the March of the Women which was the anthem for the Suffragette Movement. In 1912 she famously conducted 100 of her fellow suffragettes with a toothbrush from her cell when in prison. It was by her actions as a musician as much as her political activity that proved her equality with her male contemporaries. Among other works, she wrote and produced no fewer than six operas, an otherwise unheard of achievement for a British composer at the time.

This was how I advertised the talks I gave on Smyth for the DfE Music Society in January 2004 and the HSE European Society in January 2005.

Smyth Chronology

Below is a the spreadsheet I created for the classes showing a chronology of Smyth’s life and a selection of her works.

Smyth Life and Works 2011