ARTICLE | 28, JUNE 2021
Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was a real firecracker. She left almost nothing to chance, was ahead of her time, moved in the highest and coolest circles, was musically as well as literary highly gifted and was incredibly courageous: She stood up against social norms and misogynists and thereby created great new things, including her (1872–1952). This march has become better known in recent years and – because it is so wonderfully catchy – is now being sung again, especially at events around International Women’s Day. Also in the film Suffragette (2015) one could hear a strophe of it during a re-enacted demo.which she wrote in 1910 for the meetings and demos of the British women’s suffrage campaigners together with the poet
Leipzig is calling
Ethel Smyth, raised in a suburb of London in an upper-middle class family, had a German nanny who had been trained as a pianist in Leipzig and gave piano lessons to little Ethel. It soon became apparent that Ethel was particularly gifted for music. The idea matured in her to study in Leipzig as well. But not piano playing to become a performer, but to become a composer! At that time, this was considered quite hopeless, since women had no chance of getting a job as a director of music due to their sex. This is one of the reasons why great works by women are hardly known today – they could not simply rehearse their works with an orchestra that they presided over and perform them as a matter of course. They would have had to rent an orchestra and a concert hall for this purpose and would have had to take care of advertising etc. themselves. (1812–1883), who was once a living legend as the ‚female Beethoven‘, was able to do this for a while because she had a corresponding private money pool at her disposal – which was then used up at some point, so that further major works were probably never brought to stage or print during her lifetime.
Picture: Clara Schumann as a widow, photo by Franz Hanfstaengl, Munich 1857 © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Idol Clara Schumann
Private student in an illustrious circle
Heinrich von Herzogenberg accepted her as his private student, and from then on things went up. Not only did the crème de la crème of the Leipzig music scene come and go in the von Herzogenbergs’ house (for example Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – with whom she learned orchestral instrumentation in 1887 –, Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms and her idol Clara Schumann), but there was also a kind of revival event: Ethel fell in love with Elisabeth! A love that Heinrich von Herzogenberg either tolerated or ignored. Ethel even lived for a time with the von Herzogenbergs in their house at Dittrichring.
During her time as a student in Leipzig, Ethel wrote wonderful works such as her Suite in E and her Inventions in D. In 1877/78 Ethel also fell in love with the actress who was giving guest performances in Leipzig at the time. This resulted in Ethel’s Geistinger Sonata, which she also officially dedicated to this woman. In 2014, the Leipzig Conservatory of Music had the prospect of rom her student days at auction. The conservatory set up a patronship drive to acquire these approximately 50 letters, which was successful. I am responsible for the Geistinger letter as godmother. In it, Ethel writes to her mother in England how much she appreciated this woman and how she was progressing with her studies. Other letters show that Ethel was incredibly afraid of German dentists, who apparently did not know much about anesthesia at that time – all too understandable. Johannes Brahms, by the way, found her repulsive because of this:
Picture: Marie Geistinger as Galathée © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
“His ways with other women-folk – or to use the detestable word for ever on his lips, ‚Weibsbilder‘ – were less admirable. If they did not appeal to him he was incredibly awkward and ungracious; if they were pretty he had an unpleasant way of leaning back in his chair, pouting out his lips, stroking his moustache, and staring at them as a greedy boy stares at jam-tartlets.“
Brahms also dragged Ethel’s last name through the mud, but that’s how we now know how Smyth is pronounced: Brahms, in fact, literally thought Smyth sounded like a blowfly – in Bavarian-German a ‚Gschmaiß‘.
In 1882, Ethel moved to Florence, where she broke off with Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, because the husband of Elisabeth’s sister Julia – Henry Brewster – had fallen violently in love with Ethel, who almost let herself be seduced by him, which also led to a break between Julia and Henry. Ethel suffered from this break with Elizabeth and her lost love for Elizabeth throughout her life.
Taking an orchestration course with Tchaikovsky Ethel gradually ventured into large-scale works, making her compositional debut in England in 1890 with her Serenade. While the new art, Art Nouveau and other avant-garde movements, were turning the world’s tastes upside down, Ethel remained true to musical traditions, rejecting the ‚cult of change for change’s sake‘. The new musical trend also made its way to the great cities of Europe. Along with Paris, Vienna and Berlin, Munich was one of the most important centers as the creative hub of the art world. There, art had been making great strides for decades; among them were, for example, the Upper Swabian painter and the Dutchman , who were close friends. Their historic studio, which they had together in Munich, is now in the Biberach Museum – a very fascinating piece of contemporary history (where you can also discover parts of (1730–1807) life, one of the early feminists).
So off to Munich! „Off to Munich!“ also wrote the artist Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) in her diary in 1901, after she was made aware of the Munich Künstlerinnen-Verein and its Ladies’ Academy. This private art academy was organised along the lines of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Arts. Along with teaching institutions in Karlsruhe and Berlin, the association was one of the first educational institutions founded for women. The art lover, painter and patron Marianne von Werefkin (1860–1938) had her own ‚pink salon‘, which magically attracted women artists. Women like Gabriele Münter often came from far away because women were forbidden to enter state-recognized and subsidized teaching institutions. Women like Zofie Stryjenska (1891–1976) from Poland smuggled themselves into the male-dominated educational institutions disguised as a man, in order to be able to learn.
Picture: Picture: Gabriele Münter around 1900 © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Off to Munich!
In 2014, the Munich City Museum dedicated the absolutely sensational exhibition Off to Munich! Female Artists around 1900, to which I was able to contribute two enthusiastically received lectures with music – on Ethel Smyth and Vilma von Webenau (1875–1953), very first student of Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), in their Munich days – in cooperation with musica femina münchen.
Picture: Anita Augspurg, Marie Stritt, Lily von Gizycki, Minna Cauer and Sophie Goudstikker © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Out of a re-emerging self-awareness of women, a very women-moving scene formed in Munich, which began to campaign for the social rights of women and also for the right to vote, above all (1857–1943) with her life partner (1868–1943) and (1870–1932).
Ethel Smyth also moved to Munich to see something different after all the wrangling about Elisabeth von Herzogenberg and also to be inspired anew. Did she meet the above-mentioned feminists from Munich? As a passionate mountaineer from childhood, Ethel loved this proximity to the Alps, the murmur of the mostly green Isar, the city markets and the baroque churches in the inner city that seemed outlandish to her. She visited the castles „of the mad king“ and also Berg Castle, because she wanted to see where King Ludwig II had died. She did not travel there alone, but with one of the most important art theorists and art lovers of her time, (1841–1895), who was an enthusiastic Kini fan. Where exactly Ethel lived during this time or whom else she met in Munich is still completely unclear, except for a few known episodes.
Picture: Munich circa 1880, view from Nockherberg © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Picture: Asam Church, Sendlinger Straße © Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia.commons
In any case, she was extremely taken with the Munich mood and experienced a fantastic element with all the masses, processions and other religious Catholic pomp, which she did not know at all from England and Leipzig. Unfortunately, she did not mention in her memoirs whether she met other women who were enthusiastic about art and music during her time in Munich. The Munich mood lasted for a while, and during this heyday she met violinist and heiress until the end of her life). Portman built herself a castle-like palace in the Bavarian mountains, which today houses the fashionable Hotel Kranzbach. Whether Ethel had a love affair with Portman has not yet been proven.
Hello, it’s me
During a performance at the Munich Residenztheater, Ethel spied a family she knew from London: the Trevelyans. Among them was Pauline (the younger), who stole Ethel’s heart. Pauline had been brought up strictly Catholic; by accompanying her even to church services, Ethel received a strong religious impulse. Together with Pauline, Ethel also attended a concert in which Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa solemnis was on the program. This is in the key of D major. The idea matured in Ethel to do the same (always think big!). Extremely inspired by her love for Pauline Trevelyan and her Munich environment, Ethel’s Mass in D came into being. More about that in a moment. With the Trevelyans, Ethel also traveled around Munich and was personally hosed down cold in Bad Wörishofen by water healer (1821–1897). When the Trevelyans moved on to Cannes/Southern France, justamente Ethel Smyth’s apartment was cancelled so that she could not travel with them. Unfortunately, it is not known where exactly this was; Ethel could not explain the cancellation of the apartment, but wrote in her memoirs that her landlord must have been a misogynist. She did find a new apartment, but it was damp and gloomy on the first floor of a dormitory. Completely stressed and distraught, she decided to travel back to England and left Munich sick and torn on Boxing Day 1889. She later wrote of this trip as „a nightmare return to England“.
Meanwhile, the Munich mood continued to smolder; to recover, Smyth traveled once again to the south, because she knew ex-Empress (1826–1920) personally there through family connections and was thus able to further develop her Mass in D under her protective wings as well as on Corfu. Through her mediation, Ethel was then able to play her Mass in D personally for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle on the piano. The Queen, who herself was very musically educated, really liked this mass. And so it happened that it was premiered on January 18, 1893 in the fully occupied Royal Albert Hall (= 12,000 spectators) with more than 1,000 participants (long before Gustav Mahler’s so-called Symphony of a Thousand!). And Ethel sat right next to the Queen in the royal box! The work was a hit, and the press went into overdrive.
Ethel had made it! She was the most successful composer in England and received further recognition, such as honorary doctorates from the University of Durham and Oxford. On official occasions she always conducted her own works in her robes.
Picture: Eugénie de Montijo, ex-Empress of France © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Women with responsibility
In this period around 1900, however, something else was gnawing at her, something that she herself had repeatedly encountered: evil misogyny, which had often put obstacles in her way. Ethel was all the more attracted by the women’s suffrage movement, which promised to eradicate this evil. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.) under the chairwomanship of (1858–1928), a woman of the same age, and quickly became active in the front ranks. She participated in the discussions, demos and other political actions. For this she was also arrested and imprisoned. Along with other comrades-in-arms, some of whom were brutally force-fed by hunger strikes in Holloway Prison, Ethel kept herself upright by singing The March of the Women with them incessantly. Ethel set the tone by banging her toothbrush to the beat on her cell bars. This march and a chorale by Ethel also became the eventual lifesavers of Emmeline Pankhurst, who – according to letters to Ethels – no longer wanted to live after a horrendous night in prison. Singing the march and the chant, she persevered. What would have happened if the British women’s suffrage movement had lost its leader?
Picture: Ethel Smyth in a W.S.P.U. meeting 1912 © public domain
Picture: Virginia Woolf 1927 © wikimedia.commons (public domain)
Rock blaster, bridge builder, trailblazer
Although the women’s political work was far from complete, Ethel left the movement before World War I and traveled to Egypt, where she discovered that something was wrong with her hearing. Over the years, she lost her hearing altogether. Ethel Smyth found a kindred spirit in (1882–1941), whose book A Room of One’s Own (1929) also raised concerns about women’s equality during this period. Through her autobiographical narratives, Ethel Smyth gradually brought a second life’s work – her memoirs – to the public, which, in terms of its detail and eloquence, remains to this day a unique, at times critical and biting portrait of society. The composer had become a woman of letters.
She was inspired by Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group, in which Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) also made extensive fun of Ethel’s hearing aid (whose battery was the size of a beer crate, which she dragged behind her on rollers) and her addiction to extremely large dogs. Virginia Woolf, however, wrote about Ethel Smyth:
„She is of the race of pioneers, of pathmakers. She has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for those who come after her. … Thus we honour her not only as a musician and as a writer … but also as a blaster of rocks and the maker of bridges … In my own profession … I have no doubt that I owe a great deal to some mute and inglorious Ethel Smyth.“
To mark her 75th birthday, Ethel Smyth was celebrated in a big way in the United Kingdom in 1933: After a dinner at the Queen’s Hall with over 300 invited guests, her Mass in D was performed under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham at the Royal Albert Hall, which was again sold out. By this time, Ethel was almost completely deaf and followed the proceedings, along with Queen Mary, from the royal box.
Ethel Smyth’s music fell into oblivion after her death – she died of pneumonia, which she contracted while lying on the floor after a fall in her home. Her body was cremated and the ashes scattered in the grove behind her house.
Picture: Ethel Smyth in robe of honour © public domain
It was only in the wake of the Second Women’s Movement in the mid-1970s that she was gradually rediscovered. The German premiere of the Mass in D took place in 1995 as part of the Musikfestspiele Saar in St. Ingbert. In 2008, on Ethel Smyth’s 150th birthday, a multi-day Ethel Smyth Festival was held in Detmold, as well as a multi-day symposium at Oxford University, which laid the headstone for the now defunct International Ethel Smyth Society. Apart from The March of the Women and the Mass in D, however, her other works are still very rarely performed, including a most remarkable horn trio that rivals that of Johannes Brahms. Her six (!) fantastic operas, on the other hand, have been performed only a few times in Europe since their premieres. The Wreckers (in whose overture the march is also heard) and The Boatwain’s Mate in particular would be predestined to be performed on the Bregenz Festival/Lake Constance stage. The conductor Bruno Walter (1876–1962) had once been incredibly fascinated by Ethel’s operas, which, however, could not be mounted any larger, even though Ethel had been kicking up her heels in Germany and Austria. What a Bruno Walter delightfully pleased can’t be wrong, after all.
Smyth’s opera The Forest (1902, libretto: Ethel Smyth, in German!) was even the first work by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1903 and was very well received. It was not until over 100 years later – in 2016 – that another opera by a woman was performed there at the Met: Kaija Saariaho’s (b. 1952) opera L’Amour de loin! And in between? Not a single big work written by a woman!
In the exhibition Off to Munich! (2014) at the Munich City Museum, songs and other ‘small’ works were heard alongside Smyth’s horn trio. Never, however, was Smyth’s Mass in D performed in Munich. With all its pomp and extraordinary appearance, it would make an excellent prelude to a new and splendidly exhilarating start of Munich’s musical life of the time after the Corona pandemic – with its spectacular Gloria at the end.
Ethel Smyth: Impressions That Remained: Memoirs (1919). Two volumes.
Gwen Anderson: Ethel Smyth. London (Cecil Woolf) 1997.
Bartsch, Cornelia, Rebecca Grotjahn, and Melanie Unseld: Felsensprengerin, Brückenbauerin, Wegbereiterin: Die Komponistin Ethel Smyth. Rock Blaster, Bridge Builder, Road Paver: The Composer Ethel Smyth. Munich (Allitera) 2010.