Without Ethel Smyth and classical music’s forgotten women, we only tell half the story

In 1934, all of musical England gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of one the country’s most famous composers – Dame Ethel Smyth. During a festival spanning several months, audiences crowded into the Queen’s Hall, London, to hear her symphonic cantata The Prison, or settled in at home to listen to the BBC broadcasts of her work. At the festival’s final concert in the Royal Albert Hall, the composer sat beside Queen Mary to watch Sir Thomas Beecham conduct her Mass. By this point, Smyth was nearly completely deaf, and could barely hear a note of her own music. But she could understand the uproarious applause that surrounded her when the concert ended, acknowledging the lifetime she had given to music.



a vintage photo of Ethel Smyth wearing a hat: Photograph: Alamy


© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Alamy

After her death in 1944, Smyth spent several decades out of the limelight, but she is now coming back on to concert programmes and recording schedules. The CD release that blew me away this year was Chandos’s world premiere recording of The Prison, delivering stellar performances from Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, James Blachly and the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. And Smyth is not alone in enjoying a resurgence of interest. Thanks to decades of work by campaigners, performers, and musicologists, diversity is now firmly on musicians’ agendas. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it feels as if we might be reaching a turning point. The BBC and Classic FM have been running programmes about composers of colour, publishers are turning their attention to figures currently absent from their catalogues, and both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have led to institutions being held to account on their commitments to gender and racial equality.



a vintage photo of Ethel Smyth wearing a hat: Ethel Smyth ... prolific composer, suffragette, author and friend, and possibly lover, of some of the most famous figures of the early 20th century


© Photograph: Alamy
Ethel Smyth … prolific composer, suffragette, author and friend, and possibly lover, of some of the most famous figures of the early 20th century

The history of classical music is much more complex and diverse than the impression given by the canon as we know it now.

This is a wonderful opportunity. One of the best things about classical music is its diversity. There is so much music written by so many people, that if we only hear the same small number of works we’re missing out on the richness that classical music can provide. Barbara Strozzi, Johannes Brahms, Julius Eastman, Jessica Curry and Errollyn Wallen are all technically “classical” composers, but what a world of difference between their sounds. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that numbers of classical music listeners are increasing at the same time as names on programmes – and the people performing them – are starting to better reflect our world.



Dame Ethel Smyth conducts the Police Band in 1930 during the ceremony to unveil the Pankhurst statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, London. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images


© Provided by The Guardian
Dame Ethel Smyth conducts the Police Band in 1930 during the ceremony to unveil the Pankhurst statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, London. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Classical music is diversifying not just on account of contemporary composers, but thanks to increased awareness of figures who were famous in their day but have since been forgotten, covered up or sidelined. The history of classical music is much more complex and diverse than the impression given by the canon as we know it now.

Reinserting figures such as Smyth into our concerts and into our histories will help us to understand what classical music has been and is today. Uncovering these stories changes everything, including how we think about music that is better known now. While Smyth was battling critics for calling her a “woman composer” and challenging gender stereotypes by writing “masculine” music and wearing tweed suits, Elgar was taking great pains to present himself and his music as the epitome of masculinity. Then as now, men were affected by changing perceptions of gender roles as much as women were. Elgar’s preoccupation with simplicity and manhood makes much more sense when seen in a world in which women such as Smyth were upending established assumptions about what femininity was. Without this context, we’re only telling half a history.

We could choose Britten as another example. As the composer of six operas that were staged at the world’s most prestigious opera houses, Smyth was hailed as a pioneer of modern English opera long before Britten arrived on the scene. Britten would have known Smyth’s work. The overture to her opera The Wreckers, which is set in Cornwall, was played at the Proms most years between 1913 and 1947, similarly, her Boatswain’s Mate was almost as much of a Proms fixture in the interwar years. Britten and his successes came out of many decades of debate about what English opera should and could be, in which Smyth was a central figure.

Smyth was hailed as a pioneer of English opera long before Britten arrived on the scene

But more than this, expanding the canon brings us incredible music and extraordinary stories. Smyth’s E Minor String Quartet is beautifully lyrical, her Mass breathtaking, and her songs have an unsettling, exquisite tenderness.

And she is one of those people whose life and personality are so fantastic they seem almost unbelievable. Besides being a prolific composer she was a well known suffragette, author, friend and possibly lover to some of the most famous figures of the early 20th century including Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf. Wherever she went she was accompanied by one of her beloved dogs – a habit which was, as Tchaikovsky put it, one of her many “originalities and eccentricities”. Smyth was arrested alongside Pankhurst for militant suffragism, and when Beecham went to visit her in Holloway prison, he found the composer conducting from her window with a toothbrush, leading her fellow prisoners in a rendition of her own March of the Women that she had composed the previous year as an anthem for the suffragettes.

Smyth wasn’t perfect, and she shouldn’t be idealised. She was just as problematic as many musical figures who are better known today. She was a flawed, complex and very real human being, and without acknowledging this we end up with a strange, whitewashed view of history, with our predecessors painted as heroes seen through 21st-century eyes – history as we want it, not as it was.

For starters, Smyth was very much a woman of her time in that she held problematic views about race, and subscribed to the then-popular belief in white English superiority. And she may have in some ways inadvertently made life harder for female musicians coming after her. Smyth certainly forced many of her critics to confront their own gender prejudices, but she did little to actively uplift or support other female composers. She was unashamedly self-centered, and all of her books were dedicated to promoting herself and her music as exceptional. But by portraying herself as a lone trailblazer among her sex, she wrote out her many successful female colleagues, such as Rebecca Clarke and Dora Bright, of whom she was well aware. Even when she did mention her fellow composer Dorothy Howell in her essay A Final Burning of Boats, it was very much in passing and with little reference to her compositions. The popularity of Smyth’s writings contributed to the widespread impression that women composers were truly unusual, forcing British women who came after her to spend their energy on fighting this belief rather than allowing them to start from a position where it was normal for women to compose.

We’ve still got a way to go before a woman’s name on the concert programme is unexceptional. Recent research shows that only 8.2% of orchestral concerts worldwide in the 2019-2020 season contained music by women – which isn’t that much better than the Proms were managing in 1940. But the wealth of recordings, books, and performance editions of music by a vast range of voices gives hope that these statistics will move in the right direction. Let’s keep our Beethovens and Bachs. But a couple of composers can’t be all things to all people. Where one person might find solace, inspiration and power in Beethoven’s music and life story, others might find the same in Ethel Smyth, Florence Price, Francis Poulenc or Unsuk Chin. Classical music has been and can be much, much more than a handful of figures and pieces. That’s something to celebrate.

Leah Broad is a junior research fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford.

Further reading

Leading conductors on the women composers we should listen to

• Why do women composers still take up less musical space?

• Isata Kanneh-Mason on Clara Schumann

• Harriet Harman on why musical creativity is not a male preserve

• The genius of Fanny Mendelssohn, by her great-great-great grandaughter

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