“Banners and music!” With this clarion invocation, Dame Ethel Smyth, at the close of her composing career, in the autumn of her extraordinary life, calls out a rapturous, poignant farewell. The Prison is an astonishing work: incontrovertibly – I will brook no disagreement on this – a masterpiece.
Like all great art, The Prison is at once individual and sweepingly universal. Its capacious humanity derives not only from its beautiful music but also its searchingly profound text, tailor-made for Dame Ethel years earlier by her soul mate H. B. Brewster.
Among the things we contradictorily seek in life: to be known and cherished for who we are; to win adulation and fortune, never mind the cost to our true selves. Henry (Harry) Brewster understood this human conundrum in general, and in particular how Dame Ethel managed it.
As our greatest friends can do – should we be fortunate enough to find such friendships – Harry saw with acuity exactly who Dame Ethel really was, grasped the entirety of her immense nature, perceiving and celebrating each of her multiple traits, singly and in the aggregate: her piercing intelligence; her stoutheartedness; her honesty; her unbelievable energy; her vulnerability and sensitivity. He saw these as qualities always, never demerits, comprehending without bewilderment that intellect, practicality, mysticism, tenderness and ferocity coexisted in her. He was unconditionally her champion, a steadfast advocate for all that was authentic and singular within her, including but not limited to her unique musical voice.
How moving that, as her ultimate large-scale artistic labor on this earth, Dame Ethel should undertake to set to music – for massed forces of soloists, chorus, and orchestra – Brewster’s challenging text, deftly fashioning her own libretto from his much longer tract. Brewster had left her – that is, he died – two decades earlier. She must have missed him very much, this once-in-a-lifetime friend, even though her own circle, which included Virginia Woolf and Emmeline Pankhurst, could hardly have been dull. (Dame Ethel was not close to the otherwise exclusively male coterie of English composers, who were, with the sole apparent exception of Arthur Sullivan, sneeringly dismissive of her – and perhaps more than a little afraid of her. Nor did she have much interest in them.)
The Prison is so distinctive, so compelling, in part because its exquisite music is so closely calibrated to its unusual text. Dame Ethel, an ethereal soprano, loved to sing – the portraitist John Singer Sergeant captivatingly caught her in the act, in a well-known drawing that was exhibited in New York at the Metropolitan Museum last year – and had a keen ear for prosody. She was a marvelous essayist and memoirist with a bracingly lucid style. Brewster’s text must have resonated with her not only on account of its spiritual message – that a human soul can flourish only after liberating itself from the prison of falsehood – but also because of the vitality, specificity and rhythm of its language.
It is easy to imagine an aging Dame Ethel – with the urgency and tumult of her public life receding into history – rereading The Prison, in the quiet solitude of her cottage, savoring afresh the subtlety of Harry’s intellect and the fineness of his sensibility, her heart warming to the memory of their uncanny meeting of minds. Never one to languish in grief or regret, her mood would have been one of gratitude and pleasure, her impulse to action not contemplation.
Action meant composing.
In 2013, with The Cecilia Chorus of New York, I conducted the long overdue New York premiere of Dame Ethel’s Mass in D (1892). The Mass was Dame Ethel’s first large-scale work, written when she was in her twenties. Towering and fierce, it is the triumphant achievement of a young composer flexing her imagination’s muscle as she plies the techniques imparted by her teachers and the prominent composers of her era – especially Brahms (whose music Dame Ethel loved, though she overtly deplored his character).
The Prison is the other bookend. Dame Ethel has now had the benefit of nearly forty years’ experience as a composer and citizen of the world. She has written multiple operas, traveled widely, and has alertly listened to and absorbed the evolving music of her time: she seems fully aware of Mahler, of Ravel. She has attained perfect mastery of all elements of her art: melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, structure and shape. Her control never falters.
As The Prison concludes, the text speaks resonantly of “home”, and Dame Ethel introduces a bugle call. The trope may seem stereotyped until a listener remembers that Dame Ethel comes from a military family. The bugle is more than a generic summons; for Dame Ethel, it is the soundscape of childhood. The personal and the universal are brought together. Revisiting at life’s zenith the text penned for her in their youths by her greatest friend, Dame Ethel finds peace, and a deeply moving reconciliation and integration of her life’s many themes.
My friend Liz Wood is a musicologist who has worked extensively on Dame Ethel. We often muse how the personality is so overwhelming, the life so rich, the mind so elaborate, that she becomes all-consuming. There is much more to say about Dame Ethel and The Prison than either of us, as much as we have said, can say here.
Even Dame Ethel, though, cannot eclipse Mozart. In juxtaposing Mozart’s Requiem and Smyth’s The Prison, we invite listeners to contemplate how two different composers, at different stages of life, grapple with mortality. Mozart’s Requiem has many moods, but rarely conveys serenity or acceptance. It is a haunted work, a metaphysical opera that weeps for a life cruelly cut short, and will remain forever unfinished. Robert Levin’s edition, new to The Cecilia Chorus of New York, is notable for the elegance and grace with which it solves the riddles of Mozart’s incomplete manuscript.
Tonight’s New York premiere and North American co-premiere of The Prison is the second phase of a joint initiative with The Johnstown Symphony, who gave their North American co-premiere on April 7, 2018 in Johnstown, under Maestro James Blachly. We gratefully acknowledge the heroic contribution and collaboration of Maestro Blachly, who edited the full score and orchestral parts we are using tonight (to which, for practical reasons merely, we have made a few modest adjustments).
© Mark Shapiro 2018