Ethel Smyth: An Extraordinary ‘Lost’ Opera Composer

Smyth rose to enormous popularity in the 1920s, which undoubtedly led to her being named a dame in 1922 and becoming the first woman to receive a dame honor for her contributions to music and publishing. In another first, she was the first female composer to stage an opera at Glyndebourne. Broad points out, “We still have a long way to go before a woman’s name on the concert schedule is exceptional,” adding that only 8.2% of orchestra concerts worldwide in the 2019 season- 20 contained women’s music, – “not much better than what the Proms were handling in 1940”.

When Stephen Langridge took on the role of Artistic Director at Glyndebourne in spring 2019, The Wreckers was the first opera he programmed, and he feels it “has always deserved a place in the repertoire – the reaction to our production shows that many people agree”. He adds, “There are plenty of other women’s operas just as deserving of this treatment and… more exciting rediscoveries to come.”

In 1910, at age 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 beginning of what would become the deepest and closest relationship”. Smyth’s anthem, The March of the Women, was first performed on 21 January 1911 at the release of suffragettes who had been imprisoned in a demonstration the previous year.

She and Pankhurst campaigned in March 1911 in response to adverse comments from a Secretary of State about the Votes for Women campaign; they smashed the windows of the Houses of Parliament, were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison, held in nearby cells. Smyth spent two months there, recounting cockroaches and abuse. It was there that she made one of her most memorable works. Visiting her in prison, Thomas Beecham arrived in Holloway’s yard to see the spectacle of a “noble company of martyrs marching around her and vigorously singing their war-song, while the composer, beaming with approval from an upper window overlooking, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”.

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