By Benjamin McCoy, Nicholas Young, Kate Katigbak, and Jeanne Wikler
Over a century ago, British composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) created her generation’s version of the Women’s March and #TheFutureIsFemale. Now, more than 100 years later, the Cecilia Chorus of New York will give Smyth’s last work, The Prison, its North American premiere on May 11, 2018, at Carnegie Hall. In a unique collaborative co-premiere, the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra will also perform the work on April 7 at the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The Prison explores the escape from the metaphorical prisons of our minds, and lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, in pursuit of the truth which will set us free for immortality.
Dame Ethel made a lifetime career of breaking the glass ceiling. Born to a military father, she defied his wishes and left home to study music in Leipzig, where she fought for the respect of Robert Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and other great composers. In 1910, her fight continued on a larger scale—she joined the U.K. suffrage movement, working closely with Emmeline Pankhurst, and composing the movement’s anthem, The March of the Women. Only a year after that she was arrested with her fellow suffragettes and, while they sang her anthem, conducted them through her prison bars with a toothbrush.
Ethel Smyth was vocal about her politics and her love life—both of which were unconventional for her era. She filled her books, essays, letters, and diaries with details of her personal and professional evolution; these included her passionate romances with Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Craig, and Christabel Marshall. She also wrote about her unrequited love for Virginia Woolf (the two did, nevertheless, become great friends).
Her music was maligned as too “unfeminine” for a Victorian woman composer—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—the first, and last, work composed by a female that was performed at the Met until 2016—a “disappointing novelty” despite admitting, in the same review, that it received a 15-minute ovation.
Smyth proudly disregarded the social norm that women should only compose Hausmusik (little pieces for dinner parties, usually choral and participatory). Her music and life promised far more than mere musical fluff and novelties. She broke the windows of misogynistic members of Parliament, rallied feminists and suffragists with her music, and outfitted herself every day in the purple, white, and green of the Women’s Social and Political Union (a militant suffragist movement). Her political influence and cultural power earned her the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922.
Every day we rediscover more great and forgotten women of history. Neither the Cecilia Chorus of New York nor the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra are the first to remember this titaness (Judy Chicago’s art installation, The Dinner Party, has a place setting for Dame Ethel Smyth as one of her 39 tributes to important women from history), and they will not be the last—their performances this spring will continue to give her name the historical significance it deserves.