A Musical Titan, Long Underappreciated, Gets Her Due

On May 11 at Carnegie Hall, in a program which includes Mozart’s beloved Requiem, The Cecilia Chorus of New York will perform the New York premiere and North American co-premiere of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison, a “choral symphony” for soprano (Chelsea Shephard), baritone (Tobias Greenghalgh), chorus, and full orchestra, conducted by Music Director Mark Shapiro.

Dame Ethel Smyth © National Portrait Gallery

Dame Ethel Smyth © National Portrait Gallery

As a skilled composer and tireless suffragist, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) fought for recognition and equality in Victorian England. Born into a well-to-do military family, she nearly came to blows with her father when she announced that she was going to study music in Leipzig. There, she was taken seriously by her fellow composers, including Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. But England, it seemed, wasn’t ready for a strong, uncompromising female composer, or for powerful women at all. Unrepentant for breaking the window of a misogynistic member of Parliament, she conducted her fellow suffragists with a toothbrush through her prison bars; they were chanting The March of the Women, the suffragist anthem she had composed.

From breaking glass windows, she went on to break glass ceilings with her 1903 opera Der Wald—the only woman-composed opera ever performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She maintained this dubious distinction until 2016. Audiences loved her, giving her 15-minute ovations, but the male cultural elite dismissed her as a “novelty.” Only now is Smyth’s gift as a composer starting to gain the recognition it deserves.

The Prison is based on a dramatic poem by Henry Bennet Brewster, Smyth’s great soul mate, who gave it to Smyth when she was 33 and he was 41. It wasn’t until she was in her 70s—nearly three decades after Brewster’s death—that she finally set his words to music. It was to be her last major work, because the loss of her hearing put an end to her musical career. The Prison explores the escape from our own metaphorical prison of the mind, of lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves, in pursuit of the truth which will set us free for immortality.