Not Just a Novelty Anymore: Dame Ethel Smyth, Composer and Fin de Siècle Renegade, Returns to New York
On May 11, 2018, The Cecilia Chorus of New York performed the overdue New York premiere and North American co-premiere of suffragist and composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s last work, The Prison (1930), at Carnegie Hall. This performance of The Prison (Blachly edition) by The Cecilia Chorus of New York was the second phase of a joint initiative; the Johnstown Symphony (PA) performed The Prison on April 7.
During her lifetime, Smyth’s work was dismissed by critics as a “novelty” due to her being a strong female composer. In more recent times, she has slowly gained recognition as a musical titan. With this co-premiere, The Cecilia Chorus of New York and the Johnstown Symphony are giving audiences the chance to judge for themselves.
Until 2016, there had been only one opera performed at The Met composed by a woman, and it had been Dame Ethel Smyth’s. This was a damning record for The Met, and a dubious distinction for Smyth. Despite earning respect from contemporaries like Brahms and Tchaikovsky, she fought throughout her life to be taken seriously. Now, her obscurity is doubly unjustified: she was not only a skilled composer, but an exceptional woman who fought for women’s suffrage (indeed, wrote its rallying song), openly carried out and recounted her affairs with women, and generally lived as she wished to, without apology, during a period when doing so while female was considered a threat to the social fabric.
As a Victorian woman composer, her music was maligned as unfeminine: too powerful and rhythmically vital, yet too delicately and melodiously female. Even The New York Times called the 1903 debut of her opera Der Wald a “disappointing novelty” despite admitting, in the same review, that it received a fifteen minute ovation.
The reception of Smyth’s opera at The Met encapsulates what has kept Smyth in obscurity, and why we should rediscover her now. As a female composer, she was an anomaly—compelling to audiences, uncategorizable to critics. Her opera, Der Wald, was met with a mixed critical reception that was often condescending; in a turn familiar to us now, Smyth’s appearance and behavior were as much a matter of interest as the music itself. Her technical skill often took backseat to whether such skill manifested as ‘feminine’ or ‘unfeminine.’ Yet audiences flocked: in both London and New York, Der Wald was a financial success. Because of and despite the novelty of Smyth’s gender, she struck a chord with opera-goers. While Smyth was ahead of her time in many respects, it’s arguable that her audience was more than capable of keeping up with her, even when the critical elite could not.
As Smyth herself put it: "I care more for the verdict of the people in the galleries than for the opinion of any other public." We have an opportunity now to present her final major work to modern American audiences and give it the chance with the “galleries” that it deserves.
Watch our new mini-documentary about Dame Ethel Smyth and The Prison, below:
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