Friday 23 February 2024

Being performed for the first time for almost 20 years: Murray Hipkin & the North London Chorus give us a chance to finally experience Ethel Smyth's The Prison in concert

Ethel Smyth: The Prison - North London Chorus flyer
Whilst the last few decades have seen a remarkable increase in the amount of exploration of neglected 19th and 20th century British music, there has still been a tendency to view individual composers through quite a narrow lens. So, Stanford's most popular opera during his lifetime, Shamus O'Brien is only now getting its first studio recording, whilst Parry's oratorios, highly popular and influential in their day, have similarly only recently arrived properly on disc.

Ethel Smyth is another one of those composers. Whilst The Wreckers has long been available on disc, it took Glyndebourne in 2021 to finally explore the composer's original version of the opera and her other operas have all had a patchy life and though finally we have all but one (the score of which has disappeared) available on disc. But what about the rest of Smyth's oeuvre? The early Mass certainly, but the rest of her work is only patchily covered.

I discovered her late oratorio/symphony The Prison back in the 1990s when I came across the re-issue of H.B. Brewster's philosophical treatise The Prison: A Dialogue in an edition with Smyth's valuable memoir of HB. This book was issued in 1931 at the same time as the first performances Smyth's The Prison but for some reason Smyth's symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra never seemed to have anything of a life after her own death.

The work was finally recorded and issued in 2020 on Chandos in a terrific performance, by an American choir and orchestra [see my review]. Now the work is getting a proper outing in concert in London when Murray Hipkin conducts the North London Chorus and Meridian Sinfonia with soloists Rebecca Bottone and Alex Otterburn in a performance of Ethel Smyth's The Prison at St James' Church, Muswell Hill on Saturday 16 March 2023.

It is fatally easy to be lazy and assume the work has rightly been confined to the dustbin of musical history, but exposure to the piece makes you realise that it is past generations who were being lazy. As Smyth's German-influenced, late-Romantic, tonal music went out of fashion, as Smyth herself, elderly, very deaf and still a combative character, was easily dismissed as a crank, people simply stopped bothering.

The Prison came at a time when the composer might have been expected to stop work (she was over 70), but a planned visit to Greece made her re-read one of her friend (and probable lover) H.B Brewster's philosophical books, The Prison which was originally published in 1891. This is a dialogue between a group of characters, as Elizabeth Wood's excellent booklet note from the Chandos recording explains "HB devised the book of 'The Prison' as a Platonic dialogue among four friends who meet to read a newly discovered text, presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. Each reader voices a different philosophical method – supernaturalist, neo-Platonist, Christian, and positivist, respectively – to comment on moral and philosophical problems found in the text." Not an obvious source for a large scale choral work, but Smyth thought so.

HB - Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908), a member of the American diaspora, born in Paris and resident in Florence. He wrote philosophical works, in English, and poetry in French (hence his original version of the text for The Wreckers being in French. He was married to a friend of Ethel Smyth's whom she got to know in Leipzig. She and HB would become close, close in fact and commentators speculate that some of the torridness of in the illicit affair of hero and heroine in The Wreckers comes from this reality.

Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
She and HB remained close, albeit purely as friends, until his untimely death in 1908. He had not only written the librettos of her operas Der Wald and The Wreckers but continued to form a strong influence on her.

  The Prison was thus something of a final envoi to a dear friend. Smyth extracted the Prisoner's thoughts from HB's longer text, and used these to create the symphony. Here we have the Prisoner, and his Soul, and their discussion about how best he prepare for his forthcoming execution. "He aspires through contemplation and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body, and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance."

The result is a thoughtful, almost contemplative piece, in a style that we don't associate with Smyth because the mental image of her remains Sir Thomas Beecham's figure conducting The March of the Women with a toothbrush through a prison window, or the passionate harridan from Virginia Woolf's diaries. What we hear in The Prison is a composer formed by training and personal contact with the Leipzig circle around Schumann and Mendelssohn's families, for whom the First World War was a great cultural and musical wrench. The post-war Smyth adjusted her style, but she never wrote music in the manner of her English contemporaries, and this performance of The Prison gives us a chance to find out more.

Full details of the performance on 16 March 2024 from the North London Chorus' website.

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