Monday 12 November 2018

Releasing The Prison: a project to record Ethel Smyth's last major work

Henry Brewster from the frontispiece of Ethel Smyth's 1930 edition of his 'The Prison: A diagloue'
Henry Brewster from the frontispiece of Ethel Smyth's
1930 edition of his The Prison: A dialogue
Dame Ethel Smyth is quite in the news at the moment thanks to the fact that she was both a composer and a Sufragette. Her music has been cropping up this year, and in the UK we have the chance to hear her mass and her opera The Wreckers, as well as a crop of recordings. Thoughts of Smyth's mass, her first major piece, let me to thinking about her final work for chorus and orchestra, The Prison.

The Prison is a large scale piece for soloists, choir and orchestra setting words by Henry Brewster (H.B.), the American philosopher and poet with whom Smyth had an intense and passionate relationship, both personal and professional. He wrote the libretto to Smyth's opera The Wreckers and she remained devoted to his memory, so that The Prison (written in 1929/30) is one of her last pieces and must have come at a time when deafness was troubling her. She uses one of Brewster's philosophical works as the basis for the text, which she created herself. The text describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death. But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the “prison” is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the “shackles of self,”

Smyth published Brewster's original philsophical work The Prison  - A Dialogue in 1930 and the book includes a memoir of Brewster (who died in 1908) by Smyth which is still the major source of biographical information about the poet/philsopher.

Despite the vocal score of The Prison being published by the Carnegie Trust, it is a much neglected work and thankfully is starting to have its day. It received its USA premiere earlier this year, with performances conducted by James Blachly and by Mark Shapiro.

Now there is a Kickstarter project to enable James Blachly the Clarion Choir and the Experiential Orchestra to record the work with soloists Sarah Brailey and Dashon Burton. I wish the project every success and do hope that we soon get to hear The Prison in a recording worthy of it.

Full details from the Kickstarter page.

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