Tuesday 26 September 2023

A Lady and her Reputation: with modern recordings of Smyth's major works in the catalogue, we now need to put her work into a proper context

1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg.
The 1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg, showing Smyth and Arthur Bliss alongside such luminaries as Hindemith, Egon Wellesz and Webern. A work by Smyth would be included in the performance days the accompanied the event
(see the 
ISCM website for more details)

Ethel Smyth wrote six operas, Fantasio (premiered at the Hoftheater, Weimar in 1898), Der Wald (premiered at the Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin in 1902), The Wreckers (premiered at the Neues Theater, Leipzig in 1906), The Boatswain's Mate (premiered in London in 1916), Fête galante (premiered in Birmingham in 1923) and Entente Cordiale (premiered in Bristol in 1925), along with two major choral works, the Mass (premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in 1893) and The Prison (premiered at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh in 1931).

All these received major performances during her lifetime, mainly thanks to the composer's own indefatigable energies. After writing a new work, she would set to and stomp around Europe encouraging people to perform the piece - commentators remain divided as to whether the difficulties she faced were owing to her sex or whether her somewhat abrasive personality might have contributed. She broke several glass ceilings, she was the first woman to have an opera performed at the Met in New York and had major performances at Covent Garden.

We now have modern recordings that do the works justice for all her major operas and both choral works, as well as the major Glyndebourne production of The Wreckers from 2022. So it is time to give her work a coherent modern assessment and see it in its proper context and not simply re-legislate past-history and past opinions.

Of the two operas that have not been recorded, Fantasio is an early work and Smyth herself dismissed it, whilst the material for Entente Cordiale cannot currently be located. As each work has come along on disc, it has revealed a different facet to a composer whose enduring image remains the problematic one of conducting The March of the Women from a cell window in Holloway Prison with a toothbrush, thanks to Sir Thomas Beecham's ear for a good story. She was a vivid character, yet her music can be surprising and late works such as Fête galante (written when she was in her mid-60s) and The Prison (written when she was in her 70s) take us into remarkable sound worlds that link only partially to what English music was doing at the period.

There was resistance, during her lifetime. Partly because her personality put people off and she was happy to be abrasive and piss them off. But also, partly because she was the last survivor of that generation of composers like Stanford and Parry, who were German trained. In 1920s England, she didn't belong to the old boys and old girls club of RAM and RCM trained musicians. 

It is perhaps worth noting the remarkable nature of her post-World War I career. Smyth was born in 1858, and of her peers and contemporaries, Parry (1848-1918), Stanford (1852-1924) and Elgar (1857-1934), Parry died in 1918. Stanford died in 1924 and his late works were often ignored, the Violin Concerto No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3 remained unfinished and we are only discovering thanks to modern editorial work by Jeremy Dibble. Whilst Stanford's final, and possibly finest, opera The Travelling Companion was only premiered after his death by an amateur company with reduced orchestration. After the war, Elgar felt increasingly irrelevant, out of style and disillusioned, Symphony No. 3, the Piano Concerto and the opera remained mere sketches, his Cello Concerto of 1919 a swan song. 

Smyth, on the other hand, seems to have dusted herself off and reinvented herself. Fête galante premiered in 1923, Entente Cordiale in 1926 and The Prison in 1931, there were performances of the Mass in the 1920s plus one in the Royal Albert Hall for her 75th birthday in 1934.

As each new recording of her major works has been issued since Odaline de la Martinez conduct The Wreckers on disc in 1994, there has been the sense of certain critics re-legislating the past and justifying the composer's past and continuing neglect. Reading a broad cross section of the reviews of Glyndebourne's production of The Wreckers last year made fascinating, if depressing reading. Most of the major British reviews were by men of a certain age, and a worrying number spent far to much time going over why they'd dismissed Smyth in the past. Too many people seemed to think that because there were parallels to Tristan und Isolde and Peter Grimes, the work could be lazily dismissed as derivative, few spent much time considering how remarkable the opera was as drama in 1906 with a heroine who has genuine agency. 

Yes, The Wreckers is problematic but Glyndebourne showed that it works in the theatre and deserves greater exposure. Retrospect Opera's recording of Fête galante has similarly shown a composer still developing and the work's musical language is certainly not The Wreckers boiled down to a smaller scale, whilst it remains puzzling that The Prison had to wait so long for a first recording and that it had to be done (admirably, I may say) by an American ensemble!

It would be nice to think that with this complete set of recordings, we can consider her works for what they are, rather than simply projecting the caricature image of their creator. We can see the distance her work travels from the late-Romantic Der Wald to the more concentrated, rather Euro-centric writing of Entente Cordiale.

  • Mass in D - 1893 - first recorded 1992, see my review of the BBC Proms performance
  • Fantasio -1898 - probably not performed since 1901
  • Der Wald - 1902 - first recorded 2023, see my review
  • The Wreckers - 1906 - first recorded 1994, see my review of the 2022 Glyndebourne performance
  • The Boatswain's Mate - 1916 - first recorded 2016, see my review
  • Fête galante - 1923 - first recorded 2019, see my review
  • Entente Cordiale -1925 - possibly not performed since 1926
  • The Prison - 1931 - first recorded 2020, see my review

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • A half hour full of switchback changes, genuine surprise & delight: Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin's On Being Vocal at Tête à Tête - opera review
  • The juxtaposition of extreme eras of music makes people think about what is fascinating in the music: Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko on his London Piano Festival programme - interview
  • Drawing us into Handel's magical world: Amadigi di Gaula from the English Concert & Kristian Bezuidenhout with Tim Mead, Mary Bevan, Hilary Cronin, Hugh Cutting - opera review
  • A terrific sense of relish: Charles Court Opera's new version of The Mikado delights at the Arcola Theatre - opera review
  • Why the wait? Ethel Smyth's first major success, Der Wald, finally receives its premiere recording in a terrific account from John Andrews and BBC Symphony Orchestra - record review
  • Vivid and strong-minded performances: Bach's Harpsichord Concertos from Steven Devine and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - record review
  • Ravishing sounds and superb musicality: In Search of Lost Dance, Linos Piano Trio in Ravel - record review
  • Polite pastoral: Handel's Tolomeo from Baroque Encounter - opera review
  • Mesmerising chamber drama: Dani Howard & Joseph Spence's The Yellow Wallpaper from The Opera Story - opera review
  • A glimpse into the lively musical life of 18th-century DublinSmock Alley from Carina Drury's ensemble Irlandiani - record review
  • Tragédie lyrique given with great sympathy and stylePassion from Véronique Gens with Les Surprises, Louis-Noel Bestion de Camboulas at Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival - opera review
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