Program Note from Liz Wood: The Prison by Dame Ethel Smyth and Requiem by W.A. Mozart

Liz Wood

Liz Wood

The Prison, symphony for soprano (the Soul) and bass (the Prisoner), chorus and orchestra, composed by Ethel Smyth, 1929-30. Smyth compiled the libretto from The Prison, A Dialogue, by Henry Bennet (“HB”) Brewster, published in 1891; reprinted 1930 with a memoir of HB by Smyth.  

Smyth conducted the world premiere at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 19 February 1931, and Adrian Boult the London premiere five days later at Queen’s Hall. Tonight’s performance at Carnegie Hall is the New York premiere.

In 1930, the English composer, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), was aged 72 when she completed The Prison, her first and only symphony and last major work.

Ever since the First World War, she had been suffering what she called a “death grapple” with oncoming deafness and distorted hearing that made it increasingly difficult to conduct her own music and participate in conversations.

She had also lost to the war priceless professional contacts and performance opportunities from her many years in Germany since 1877.

With typical courage in confronting life’s challenges, Smyth tuned her “second string” and in 1919 began to write books (ten in all) of memoir, travel, and biographical portraiture. The books gave her new purpose, an income, new friends (notably Virginia Woolf, met in 1930) and wildly appreciative new audiences, including readers in North America. As for music: her career as a composer was doomed, she believed. She felt condemned to silence.

Smyth was still preoccupied with a sense of loss, dread, and her own mortality when she embarked on a strenuous six-week tour of Greece in 1925. To prepare for her first “journey into antiquity,” she studied in English translation the Homeric Hymns, Hesiod, Phaedrus and Hippolytus, and re-read a small work of fiction, The Prison: A Dialogue, that her dear friend, Harry Bennet (“HB”) Brewster, wrote in 1891.

HB, an Anglo-American born in Paris in 1850, a descendant of Elder William Brewster of “The Mayflower,” introduced Smyth to the study of Socrates, Plato, and the Classical Greek dramatists when they first met at Florence, where he lived in the 1880s. No dramatist himself, he helped her write the librettos for her first three operas, but his real intellectual passion was for metaphysics, philosophy, Eastern religions, and contemporary French literature.

Self-educated, wealthy, unpretentious, and detached from the modern world in many ways unlike herself, HB was her anchor. Though opposites in temperament and personality, they delighted in each other’s company and remained devoted friends until his death in 1908.

HB devised the book of The Prison as a Platonic dialogue between four friends who meet to read a newly-discovered text presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. Each reader voices a different philosophical method – supernaturalist, Neoplatonist, Christian, and positivist, respectively – to comment on moral and philosophical problems found in the text.

For her symphony, Smyth stripped the commentaries from HB’s book but retained the concept of a dialogue derived from the Prisoner’s own words. The Prisoner (Bass), though innocent, in solitary confinement and suffering inner torment, discusses with the Soul (Soprano) the imminent end to life and how best to prepare for it. He aspires through contemplation, mindfulness, concentration, and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance.

Imprisonment was no abstraction for Smyth. In 1912, during the Suffrage campaign, as a member of Mrs. Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union, she herself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to serve two months at Holloway Prison (she was released after three weeks) for the crime of throwing stones at the Colonial Secretary’s house and breaking his window.

A chorus of fellow Suffragette prisoners famously sang Smyth’s “March of the Women” in the exercise courtyard while she conducted with a toothbrush through the bars of her cell.

Beethoven’s Fidelio was her favorite opera, with its depiction of a political prisoner rescued from death in a dungeon by a heroic woman (Leonora, his wife) disguised as a man.

The score for The Prison is prefaced by a quotation resonant with an experience of confinement. Purportedly the last words of Plotinus, the ancient Greek philosopher whom HB most admired and emulated, the motto reads: “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.”

In a program note to the first performance, Smyth said she used the title “symphony” (in lower case) to denote an ancient Greek idea of “concordance” of sweet sounds, not the orchestral form. Her work eludes formal analysis. It is neither a “symphony for chorus” nor a “sacred sinfonia” like works composed in the British choral and oratorio tradition by her contemporaries Parry, Bliss, Holst, or Elgar, who described his own setting of a poem by Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontius (1900), as an oratorio on the theme of an ordinary man at the point of death and facing judgement. Nor did Smyth intend her symphony for voices and instruments to be staged, although her papers include her pencil sketches of a prison cell and chapel.

In many ways, hers is a work of symbolic and private remembrance. Fragments of her earlier music reappear: a German chorale for SATB voices, “Schwing dich auf zu deinem Gott,” composed in Florence when she first met HB (and dedicated to him), and subsequently arranged for solo organ in the summer of 1884, now returns as an interlude, “Organ Music in the Chapel,” between Parts 1 and 2.

Sounds from nature she could only hear in imagination become imitative birdsong in Part 1 (at a “twitter of swallows” and “pipe of a thrush”) to illustrate a pastoral passage.

In Part 2, a pair of ancient Greek modal melodies that she had noted down at the museum at Smyrna as “the Aidan (or Aydyn, a province near Smyrna) Manuscript” on her journey through Greece, produce a wonderfully archaic effect as the chorus sings of the indestructibility of human passions.

The first, dated by Smyth as 100 B.C.E. appears at: “the laughter we have laughed…mingled with the sound of the syrinx (or panpipes).” The second, that she identified as a Greek melody of the 5th-Century B.C.E from “Ajax” by Euripides, appears at: “No hearts but ours will ever ache and leap. Our passions are the tingling blood of mankind.”

A member of tonight’s chorus, the alto Elena Kobelevskaya, has identified the original melody Smyth chose at pages 59-60 of the piano score. During a recent rehearsal in preparation for tonight’s performance, Ms. Kobelevskaya notes, she was “struck by the strange familiarity of the melody…To my surprise I recognized the Song of Seikilos – the oldest complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. It is dated between 2c.B.C. and 1c.A.D. and was found in Turkey near Ephesus inscribed on a tombstone.”

“It is an epitaph by one Seikilos, for his wife, who presumably was buried there,” Ms. Kobelevskaya continues. “It was first discovered in 1883, during the building of the railway, and remained in the possession of the building firm’s director, serving as a pedestal for his wife’s flowerpots. It was rediscovered in 1922 and ended up in the collection of the National Museum in Copenhagen.”

She supplied a translation from her research, suggesting that the Song of Seikilos resonates with the philosophy of life shared by Brewster and Smyth:  

While you’re alive, shine!
Never let your mood decline.
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll.

Towards the end of the score, Smyth inserts the music of “The Last Post,” an emblem of military funeral ceremonies which led some critics to think she had written a war requiem. Others deplored such a literal reference. Clearly for Smyth, the daughter of a general raised next door to an army base, the composer of fanfares and marches for the military brass band, who hung an army bugle on her front door in place of a knocker, the tune held multiple meanings, including an in memoriam for Brewster, whose death still haunted her.

For, in the ritual postlude, the Prisoner utters HB’s words, “Let there be banners and music. This is my leave-taking… I am the joy, the sorrow, the mirth, the pride, the love, the silence, and the song.”

© Liz Wood 2018