Born in 1858 as the daughter of an army man, Ethel Smyth defied her father in order to pursue a musical education. She studied composing in Leipzig, where she met an already-feted Clara Schumann as well as future greats such as Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. Her early works included the Overture to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the Serenade in D and the Mass in D, all of which received performances in major London concert halls.
Smyth was tireless in lobbying to have her works heard publicly, but as a young woman she struggled to find her own voice, and was frustrated by the endemic chauvinism in the reception of her work. Her sound was often criticised as being too masculine for a female composer. Even the kinder reviewers tended to adopt a patronising tone: George Bernard Shaw wrote, in 1890, “When E. M. Smyth’s heroically brassy overture to Anthony and Cleopatra was finished, and the composer called to the platform, it was observed with stupefaction that all that tremendous noise had been made by a lady.”
In the 1890s, Smyth turned to opera on the advice of conductor Hermann Levi, who was impressed by the dramatic power of the Mass in D. Her second opera, Der Wald, made her the first woman to have a work staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. The Wreckers followed hot on its heels, and marked Smyth’s third collaboration with librettist Harry Brewster, the only man with whom she seems to have pursued any serious romance. In tackling opera, a highly ambitious musical form, Smyth defied the norms of the day which typically saw women restricted to writing intimate chamber music.
Her sexuality remains a matter for debate: after meeting Virginia Woolf in 1930, the two forged an extremely close friendship that – on Smyth’s side at least – spilled over into infatuation and perhaps love. Whether they had a sexual relationship is unknown. Woolf was certainly frustrated with Smyth’s refusal to adopt an openly lesbian identity, and even claimed that Smyth had at one time shared the bed of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Smyth had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1910, and went on to become an active campaigner for women’s rights. In 1912 she was imprisoned for two months after following Emmeline Pankhurst’s suggestion that suffragettes break the windows of any MP opposing votes for women. Whilst in Holloway Prison, she was visited by conductor friend Thomas Beecham, who reported that she was using a toothbrush to conduct her own suffrage anthem, ‘The March of the Women’, from a window as her fellow suffragettes marched and sang in the quadrangle below.
She returned from campaigning in 1913 to write The Boatswain’s Mate. By this time she had developed a distinctive style of her own and, as one critic put it, “learned how to write conversations in music”. Inspired by her time with the Suffragettes, Smyth wrote The Boatswain’s Mate as a humorous piece about a young widow who turns to drastic yet farcical measures to dispel the attentions of an overbearing suitor. It was hailed as “one of the merriest, most tuneful, and most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage”.
By the time it was staged, however, Smyth was starting to lose her hearing, and later succumbed to complete deafness. Determined to remain active, she abandoned composing and turned her hand to writing. When she died in 1944, she had published ten books – most of them autobiographical, including sketches of Smyth’s distinguished acquaintances from Lilian Baylis to Johannes Brahms (who had affectionately called her ‘The Oboe’ when he taught her in Leipzig).
By the end of her life, although her works were already falling out of favour at the major houses, she had certainly won round some of her detractors. Bernard Shaw wrote to her after the premiere of his play Saint Joan, crediting her as an inspiration: “It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do men’s work in art and other things.”
Today, women in music continue to face an uphill struggle. In 2016 the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho became only the second woman to have an opera staged at the Met, 113 years after Smyth premiered The Wreckers. However, new strides are being made: this year the organisation has commissioned two female composers. Given her activism as well as her output, Ethel Smyth’s legacy remains an important part of the fight for equal representation in art.