Ethel Smyth: An extraordinary ‘lost’ opera composer

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Smyth won huge popularity in the 1920s, which no doubt led to her being made a dame in 1922, and becoming the first woman to be given a damehood for her contributions to music and publication. In another first, she was the first woman composer to have an opera staged at Glyndebourne. Broad points out, “We’ve still got a way to go before a woman’s name on the concert programme is unexceptional” adding that only 8.2 per cent of orchestral concerts worldwide in the 2019-20 season contained music by women, – “not much better than the Proms were managing in 1940”.

When Stephen Langridge took the role of artistic director at Glyndebourne in spring 2019, The Wreckers was the first opera he programmed, and he feels it “always deserved a place in the repertoire – the reaction to our production shows that plenty of people agree”. He adds: “There are plenty of other operas by women that are equally worthy of this treatment and… more exciting rediscoveries to come.”

In 1910, at 52, Smyth joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, campaigning for women’s suffrage, giving up music for two years to further the cause. With Emmeline Pankhurst, she felt “the fiery inception of what was to become the deepest and closest of relationships”. The anthem Smyth wrote, The March of the Women, was first played on 21 January 1911 on the release of suffragettes who had been imprisoned during a protest of the previous year.

She and Pankhurst went on a campaign in March 1911 in response to adverse comments by a secretary of state about the Votes for Women campaign; they broke windows at the Houses of Parliament, and were arrested, and sent to Holloway Prison, held in adjoining cells. Smyth spent two months there, telling of cockroaches and mistreatment. It was there she made one of her most memorable works. On visiting her in prison, Thomas Beecham arrived in the courtyard at Holloway to see the spectacle of a “noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war chant, while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”. 



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