Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Composer Dame Ethel Smyth

Composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s Serenade in D, 

to be performed by Bristol Symphony Orchestra at the High Sheriff's Concert

Saturday 18th June, 7.30pm at St George’s Bristol


Feminist is the first word that greets you on the Twitter feed of Helen Wilde, the High Sheriff of Bristol. This exactly explains why, when choosing the works for her concert to be performed by Bristol Symphony Orchestra on Saturday 18th June at St George’s Bristol, she wanted to include a work by Dame Ethel Smyth, one of our first ever feminists.

Dame Ethel was born in 1858 and already knew by the age of 12 that she wanted to compose and make music her life. Other daughters may have been cowed by their fathers. General Smyth refused her permission to go to Leipzig to study music but our heroine was so determined that she went on hunger strike at home to force her father to change his mind – which he did. 

Whilst studying in Leipzig, she met Dvořák, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, the latter saying of her work, ‘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.’ 

Dame Ethel may not be well-known to us today, but she really should be, as she was a most prolific composer of a wide range of works. She wrote six operas for which she also wrote the libretti, and choral works, including the greatly acclaimed Mass in D, orchestral and chamber music, piano and organ solos and many songs. The Serenade in D, which Helen Wilde has chosen, is a robustly lyrical and melodic piece which had its first performance in 1890 at The Crystal Palace. Both the public and the press loved it. For George Bernard Shaw it was ‘magnificent’ and in his view would ‘stand up in the biggest company.’

On her 75th birthday, her work was celebrated at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of Queen Mary. Devastatingly however, Dame Ethel was completely deaf by then and could hear neither the music nor the audience’s great appreciation of it.

Dame Ethel’s fiery character also compelled her to become an active suffragette. In 1911, she paid the price for hurling a brick through the Colonial Secretary’s window, by

spending two months at His Majesty’s pleasure at Royal Holloway Prison. However, thanks to her prodigious talent, this did not stop her being made, only eleven years later, Dame of the British Empire by the same monarch, King George V.

Dame Ethel’s 95 year old great-nephew Bruce Davidson is full of regret that he cannot attend the concert but he vividly recalls what a ‘fiercesome’ person she was. Once when he was 12, he went to meet her off a train and was overcome by embarrassment at being asked extremely loudly what he was going to do with his life – Dame Ethel’s deafness meant that Bruce had to shout his replies. In 1942, two years before her death at the age of 86, Bruce was training at Sandhurst, and has memories of having lunch with her when she insisted on their enjoying ‘something medicinal’ – a bottle of white wine! Bruce’s son Andrew will be among the High Sheriff’s guests at the concert, providing a personal link back to this remarkable woman. 
Editorial written by Jane Krish


Serenade in D

In Dame Ethel’s own words: 

Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don't always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known."


To hear The March of the Women, click here.



Born: Ethel Mary Smyth, 23 April 1858, Sidcup, Kent, England

Father: Major-General John Hall Smyth C.B., Royal Artillery

Mother: Nina Struth, French

Siblings: fourth of eight children (six of them girls)

Partners: none 


Children: none 

Died: 8 May 1944, Woking, Surrey, England

Cause of death: pneumonia after 2 years of illness.

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