Composer Profile: Dame Ethel Smyth, Suffragette & Queer Composer

“Expanding the canon” is something we talk about frequently at CYSO, whether by performing more works by women and BIPOC composers who’s names may not be as familiar, or commissioning living composers to write new pieces for each of our ensembles. As musicians and music lovers, expanding who we listen to and which composers stories we know is also an important step. CYSO musicians and members of our Social Media Team Abigail AuYeung and Shirley Xiong recently took a deep dive into the life of composer Ethel Smyth, discovering beautiful music and a passionate crusader for women’s rights.


Dame Ethel Smyth

When thinking of LGBTQ+ composers, one often thinks of people such as Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, or perhaps Copland, but Ethel Smyth also falls within the category and is just as deserving of appreciation. Dame Ethel Smyth was an English composer who wrote fantastical pieces and was a renegade in the suffragette movement, in addition to being openly bisexual. Her music, with its irresistible melodies and unique harmonies, does not get nearly the amount of credit it deserves.

Ethel Smyth was born to a wealthy English family, though one that unfortunately did not support her musical dreams. Nevertheless, Ethel Smyth traveled to Leipzig to study music. She initially attended the Leipzig Conservatory for a year, but decided it was not right for her, due to the high tuition and her poor relationships with teachers; consequently, she quit, opting to study with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, an Austrian composer, oftentimes noted for his adoration of Brahms’ music. During her time in Germany, she met several distinguished composers, including Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, that later on influenced her compositions. Her time spent flitting around Europe would give her continued inspiration.

Upon her return to England, Smyth fixated heavily on operas for approximately a decade before later joining the suffragette movement. One of her most iconic moments from this time was when Smyth was imprisoned at Holloway Prison. Having been detained there for two months for throwing a rock through the window of the House of Parliament, Smyth leaned out of a window to conduct her own piece, The March of the Women, with a toothbrush while suffragettes were marching in the quadrangle and singing.

Ethel Smyth at a 1912 Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) meeting

During World War I, when Smyth was in her late 50s and 60s, she worked as an assistant radiologist, an experience which she had detailed extensively in her memoirs. Unfortunately, her hearing began to slowly deteriorate and by the time she received proper recognition for her musical career—such as receiving a doctorate of music from Oxford University and damehood—she was fully deaf.

Virginia Wolf and Ethyl Smyth
Virginia Woolf and Ethel Smyth

Smyth was well known for passionate love affairs throughout her life. She had relationships with just a few men, the only notable one being the American philosopher and poet Henry B. Brewster, who she met during her years of travel. Smyth had a relationship with the married suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, to whom she dedicated “The March of the Women.”  Later in life, she met and became lovers with the author Virginia Woolf. Woolf was significantly younger than Smyth during their affair; soft-spoken and ailing, a contrast to Smyth’s rambunctiousness. They were a quintessential example of the phrase “opposites attract.” Woolf was able to convince Smyth to return to writing music, even after she became deaf. However, Woolf seems to have almost been hindered by Smyth’s affections, writing, “an old woman has fallen in love with me. It is like being caught by a giant crab.”

Cover of a score for The March of the Women.

Smyth’s most remarkable compositions are her opera, The Wreckers, and The March of the Women, commonly considered the “anthem” of the suffragette movement. In addition to her vocal compositions, she also wrote a large amount of chamber music, such as her Piano Trio in D Minor and String Quartet in C Minor.

During her time in Leipzig, she explored some Lieder (poetry that has been set to music), before pivoting to opera upon her return to England. There she wrote The Wreckers, Der Wald, and Fantasio, among others. Smyth contributed heavily to the development of British opera, writing some of the few English opera works available today. Although opera was not popular among the people of the British Isles at the time, Smyth was able to popularize it on the European continent. Smyth also wrote fantastic works for solo strings, such as her Violin Sonata in A Minor and her Cello Sonata in A Minor. She often writes with singing melodic lines and her work often explores minor moods. Take a listen to her fantastic Cello Sonata in A Minor, a distressing and melancholic piece comparable to the well loved Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor.

Smyth passed away in Woking, England in 1944 at the age of 86. In March 2022, a statue of her was unveiled in Woking in recognition of International Women’s Day.

ABOUT ABIGAIL AUYEUNG & SHIRLEY XIONG

Abigail AuYeung is a cellist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra. This is her second season with CYSO. She’s currently a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School. In her free time, Abigail enjoys reading, baking, and playing the cello, of course!

Shirley Xiong is a cellist in Philharmonic Orchestra. Although loving cello, she is (a bit) more of a piano enthusiast. She is currently a junior at New Trier High School. Some of her hobbies include collecting stuffed toys, using Photoshop, and baking.

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