Ethel Smyth: Trailblazing Composer & Committed Feminist

In honor of the USA’s 52nd annual Women’s Equality Day, I’d like to introduce you to Ethel Smyth, an English composer who is currently enjoying a revival of interest here in the UK.

It’s a wonder to me that Ethel’s name isn’t a staple in more households, not just in music, but also in written works, and very importantly, in connection with the Suffragette movement in the early 1900s. Born 23rd April, 1858 in London (where I live now), Ethel was raised in an upper-middle class family to Major-General John Hall Smyth and Emma Struth Smyth. Then, the family moved a bit to the southwest in 1867 when the Major-General was posted to Surrey (which would now be considered a suburb of London, but wasn’t back then). 

Even as a child, Ethel was always a strong character. Her mother was said to have called her “stormy petrel” due to her stubborn and headstrong attitude. Though her parents didn’t take much note, her governess sensed her talent in musicianship and encouraged her to consider studying in Leipzig (Germany). The Royal Academy of Music in London had long accepted women into the conservatory, but Ethel felt that Leipzig would be a richer pedagogical source for classical and romantic music.  In 1887, against her father’s strong objections, Ethel went to study music in the Leipzig Conservatory.

I not only unfurled the red flag, but determined to make life at home so intolerable that they would have to let me go, for their sake.

In fact, her parents were so against her pursuing a higher education, that when she overheard, to her horror, a conversation about her coming-out season, she resorted to what methods that for years later would be used in political warfare by other women. “I not only unfurled the red flag, but determined to make life at home so intolerable that they would have to let me go, for their sake.” [E. Smyth, Impressions that Remained]

Disappointed with the tutelage at the Leipzig Conservatory, she only stayed for a year, but whilst in Germany, she managed to meet with prominent composers known (in fact still known) across Europe: Johannes Brahms! Antonín Dvorak! Edvard Grieg! Franz Liszt! Clara Schumann! Pyotr Tchaikovsky! In fact, in Tchaikovsky’s memoirs, he says that Ethel was “one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.” Ethel gained favour from a lot of patrons and supporters to the point where almost all of her compositions were eventually performed. 

Even as her career as a composer moved forward, Ethel was also actively engaged in the Women’s Suffrage movement. I don’t think she could be considered solely a composer or a suffragette, for, in Ethel’s case, we can’t have one without the other. Her ambitions as a musician were always laced with her beliefs as a woman. Her March for Women (1910) was an adaptation of a traditional Italian melody, with words by Cicely Hamilton. The infamous Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), leader of the British suffrage movement, dubbed this piece  the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and the Women’s Press published it in a pamphlet in 1911. 

Click on image to enlarge

Also interesting is that Ethel was openly bisexual. “Her sexuality is complex – she herself said she was in a constant process of working it out. What is most exciting is that she does not fit into any boxes,” writes Sophie Fuller, a professor and music lecturer at Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance. She had a list of romantic interests – mostly women – including Virginia Woolf. However, unlike Virginia, Ethel celebrated that power (although it’s possible that she also subconsciously demeaned it). Ethel even gained access to Queen Victoria’s drawing room – the Queen who denied that women could be homosexuals – where she sang and played her own compositions.

You might ask why she was under appreciated, and according to Dr. Amy Zigler, assistant professor at Salem College, the answer is simple – she was a woman. She writes, “In reviews of her music from the 1880s, 90s, and early 1900s, at a time when she was building her career, there is almost always a comment about her gender.” Ethel was not alone in this predicament. “For more than a century, the gatekeepers believed women weren’t capable of writing music on a par with male composers.” There were constant critiques of loud and energetic music – deeming it unbecoming of a woman – but, of course, if the music was graceful and soft, it was simply ‘parlour’ music for young women to play at home (in private company).

The more I learn about this woman, the more evident it is that she was no English Rose…

The more I learn about this woman, the more evident it is that she was no English Rose, in fact, according to Sylvia Pankhurst, there was “little about her that was feminine.” Ethel had fire within her, and a strong head. Once thinking that politics and creativity could never cross paths, as she confessed to “an indifference tinged with distaste, and, Heaven forgive me, ridicule… As a composer, I wanted to keep out of it. It seemed to me incompatible with artistic creation” [E. Smyth, letters], she soon found the connection. She taught Emmeline Pankhurst to throw bricks with the accuracy of bullets, and not long after, the pair were arrested for smashing the windows of certain members of Parliament! 

In a time when women still very much needed to fight to be heard, Ethel defiantly rejected misogynistic ideals and purposefully wrote “masculine” music and wore “manly” tweed suits. Musically, Ethel is probably best known for her operas and her Mass in D (1891). Recently performed in Glyndebourne Festival, The Wreckers (1906) has regained the popularity it had when it first debuted in Leipzig. Her greatest ambition was to “make her mark in British music, to lead a renaissance in British opera, and to change the status of women in music.” [The Massachusetts Review]

Thankfully, Ethel is not one of the female composers whose music and written works are completely lost.

Our world is very good at disappearing people – especially women – who don’t fit certain social criteria, and Ethel definitely tested the boundaries of societal expectations. Thankfully, she is not one of the female composers whose music and written works are completely lost. In fact, they’re quite easily found: I switched on her albums on Spotify, and found how incredibly powerful her music still is.

Over a century later, it still feels like we’re trying to unearth these women, even though they’ve always been there, more than capable of succeeding at their art – if not more than men, then at least equally so. There are materials and resources that have always been available, but seem to have been tucked away in a neat corner. Why not add more Ethel Smyth to the canonical repertoire?

I recommend listening to her The Prison, Wreckers, and some instrumental works such as Impressions that Remain, including a Trio for piano, violin and cello. Her music is clever, strong, witty, passionate…  just like Ethel herself! 

© Sophia Jin (8/26/23) – Special for FF2 Media


Click here to listen to the Glasgow University Chapel Choir sing The March of the Women. This YouTube link goes to the Score Animation, which includes all the lyrics, concluding with the rousing words: “March, March, Many as One; Shoulder to Shoulder and Friend to Friend.”  (For those readers old enough to remember the BBC series Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), you will recognize this melody immediately.)

For more background, watch Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette (2015) starring Carey Mulligan. Click here to read a review of Suffragette by FF2’s Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner.

To learn more about the American suffragist movement, read FF2’s Taylor Beckman’s feature on The Public Theatre’s production of Suffs by Shaina Taub in 2022.

For Sophie Fuller quote (above), click here for the article on Ethel for the BBC by Beverley D’Silva (7/20/22).

Learn more about Women’s Equality Day here.

Click on image to enlarge


Featured/Middle Photo: Songsheet of ‘The March of the Women’, 1911. Artwork by Margaret Morris. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: DDM2CK

Bottom Photo: “Statue of Dame Ethel Smyth by sculptor Christine Charlesworth unveiled in Woking town centre in March 2022” by Jack1956 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Draft of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution per Wikimedia (now in the public domain).

Tags: Classical Music, composer, Ethel Smyth, female composer, History, LGBTQ, music, Sarah Gavron, Shaina Taub, Shoulder to Shoulder, Sophia Jin, Suffragette, Suffragette (2015), Suffs, The March of the Women, Virginia Woolf, Women's Equality Day, Women's suffrage

Related Posts

Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
Previous Post Next Post