Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Ethel Smyth

On 11 March 1903 Ethel Smyth became the first woman composer to have her work performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, when the Met put on her second opera, Der Wald. Music, like literature, has historically been divided into more and less prestigious genres. Women for centuries composed songs, ballads, parlour pieces, while symphonies and operas were considered strictly masculine genres – a tendency compounded, in the case of opera, by a fondness for plot-lines focussing on the pathetic death of the heroine.

Nevertheless, the path of musical history has been punctuated by such composers as eleventh-century Hildegard of Bingen (who after her death was considered as a likely candidate for canonization, but who was then more or less forgotten until in recent years she “made a rapid transition from being unknown to being fashionable for her music and moderately well known for her writings”), and the nineteenth-century Alice Mary Meadows White, née Smith, who composed more large-scale works (symphonies, major choral works, an operetta) than any of her female contemporaries (who tended to concentrate on songs and short piano pieces). Ethel Smyth was already in her twenties when White died, in 1884, but in comparison she looks not only modernist but also modern. Smyth was well into her career before the London Women’s Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1922, or a woman first conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in 1937. But she was not afraid to trespass in a man’s world, as her bicycling and mountaineering demonstrate. Virginia Woolf described her appearance as that of “the militant, working, professional woman—the woman who had shocked the country by jumping fences both of the field and of the drawing room, had written operas, was commonly called ‘quite mad’, and had friends among the Empresses and the charwomen.”

Ethel Smyth was by disposition inclined to thinking big. She completed her Mass in D in 1891, and then embarked on writing operas – with librettos in German since England had no appetite for native opera. She had received her musical education in Germany and she needed to reach out to European audiences. Her Mass in D was performed at the Royal Albert Hall but her first opera, Fantasio, made its debut at Weimar in Germany (in 1898). She chose to work in opera because she wished that women would “turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.” Her best-known opera, The Wreckers, began with a French libretto (as Les Naufrageurs) before it was translated first into German and then into English. It was produced in Leipzig and Prague before it was heard in London (conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1909). Smyth reputedly went on to model the heroine of her next opera, The Boatswain’s Mate, on Emmeline Pankhurst.

Yet for Smyth a small-scale work brought her the greatest musical fame. She composed “The March of the Women” (to words by Cicely Hamilton) as a suffrage anthem for the Women’s Social and Political Union, dedicated it to Emmeline Pankhurst, and first performed it herself on 21 January 1911. From then on it was frequently a feature of WSPU events. The entry on Smyth in Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present quotes her report of 6 March 1912 from Holloway Prison (where she was serving a two-month sentence for suffragist activism): “‘I hear the March whistled on all sides! I wish they’d learnt the words better.’ Perhaps its best-known performance was witnessed by Thomas Beecham in Holloway during the composer’s prison term. He reported seeing Smyth conducting ‘The March of the Women’ from her cell with a toothbrush to a yard full of singing women below.”

Smyth was the first woman composer to be made a DBE, and she was the first woman awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University on achievement rather than identity (the first woman they so honoured was Queen Mary). She wore her Doctor of Music robes to conduct the Metropolitan Police Central Band at the unveiling of the statue commemorating Emmeline Pankhurst in 1930.

But by this time her composing career was being shut down, like Beethoven’s, by increasing deafness.

Ethel Smyth is probably best remembered today as a friend of Virginia Woolf. More people are interested in the feminist movement in literature than in the feminist movement in music, though the Metropolitan Opera, New York, is quite a territory to conquer. But her words, too, in her multi-volume autobiography and elsewhere, are worthy of being better known. “The whole English attitude towards women in fields of art is ludicrous and uncivilised. There is no sex in art. How you play the violin, paint, or compose is what matters.” For a woman, however, irrelevant gender considerations often overpowered a free exercise of her art and an unprejudiced response: “as things are to-day it is absolutely impossible in this country for a woman composer to get and to keep her head above water; to go on from strength to strength, and develop such powers as she may possess.” Let us hope that these words are no longer true. They remain, however, an inspiration.

This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription: see

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