“The exact worth of my music will probably not be known till naught remains of the writer but sexless dots and lines on ruled paper,” Ethel Smyth wrote in 1928.
Long after her death, in 1944, she is finally being proven right. One of numerous female composers of the past now coming to fresh, deserved prominence, Smyth was born in England in 1858 and moved to Leipzig, Germany, at 19, training in the circle around Brahms.
She became the first woman to have a work performed by the Metropolitan Opera, in 1903, before she joined the militant wing of British suffragists. When the conductor Thomas Beecham visited her at Holloway Prison in London, where she spent three weeks in 1912 for throwing rocks at a politician’s house, he found inmates singing her anthem, “March of the Women,” while she conducted with a toothbrush.
An hourlong vocal symphony, “The Prison” recasts a text by Smyth’s frequent collaborator, the philosopher Henry Bennett Brewster, as the tale of an innocent prisoner in solitary confinement (here the bass-baritone Dashon Burton) reconciling himself to death in a dialogue with his soul (the soprano Sarah Brailey).
James Blachly, who conducts the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus on the recording, spoke over Zoom last month about the music, its importance and his favorite page of the score, which he edited for performance and publication. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You write in your booklet notes that you were initially hesitant about conducting this music. Why was that, and what converted you?
I have to confess that I had this sense that if I hadn’t heard of her, then she must not be very good. I had heard her name, but it was in passing, more as a historical figure or as a novelty — you know, the rare female composer. Certainly the critical responses to her various operas, especially, were misogynistic.
There are other reasons as well. Her publisher was Universal in Vienna, and in 1939 she pulled the copyright from them, so her works were obscured after her death. But I would say, more than anything, it was this relegation of her to a historical figure, looking to her political activity as the only thing to focus on.
The conversion moment really was a conversion moment. It was the first time we did a reading of “The Prison,” in 2016. That downbeat, that first sonority, I felt these chills go up and down my spine, and the room seemed to just open up with this music that had been trapped, and was getting released into the world again. It had never been heard in the United States with an orchestra — a colleague of mine, Mark Shapiro, had conducted it with piano — and so much of the piece is the orchestration.
It’s hard to talk about composers whose music isn’t performed much without talking about composers we might know better, but can you describe Smyth’s characteristic sound?
I do think there are aspects that can be compared to other composers. The opening to me sounds Wagnerian. It’s rich, it’s dark, and she was of course a very German composer, in her education in Leipzig but also just the way she’s drawn, musically. But I have to say, as I conducted this piece it became more and more clear to me that she has a unique musical voice, and that to try to describe her in terms of other composers often does a disservice. Finally having this recording means that I can just say: Listen to the recording.
Why do we need Ethel Smyth’s music today?
People will be drawn to her because of who she was. Her life story is worthy of a feature-length film: her strength of character; her belief in the integrity and worth of her music in the face of all sorts of hardship; the way that she went and played her music for the conductor Bruno Walter; showed her music to Brahms anonymously, so that he would take it seriously. All of that, and who knows how she would identify now in terms of sexuality; there is ample discussion of that by scholars.
But I can say that her music is needed today, on its own merits, and because it seems to tie together so much else: so many other composers that we know and love who she had direct contact with, and the conductors who championed her. I was astonished at first to learn of this list, but Thomas Beecham, first and foremost; Bruno Walter; Arthur Nikisch; Adrian Boult. We need Smyth because she enriches our sense of what music has been, and she enriches our sense of what music can be.
What is “The Prison” about?
It’s a summary of her entire career. It’s a farewell to her compositional career. She knew that she was going deaf. There’s a real sense of making peace with that, and also reconciling herself to the death of her closest creative companion, Henry Bennett Brewster. Anyone who has lost someone can find a deep sense of peace through this work. It’s about love and life and loss and self-worth, and the essence of the philosophy is about freeing oneself from the shackles of self. “Who doesn’t have a prison?” the prisoner writes at one point.
You picked the end of the first part as your favorite page. What does it tell us?
There is a profound sense of peace at this moment in the work. A lot has been worked out and expressed in a gnarly, intricate fugue, and we come to this dreamlike passage, an aria for the prisoner. The idea is that we do live forever, whether we wish to or not — that we will reappear in another form. There’s this sense of calm, and the D major chord is rich and lush. This is almost more of an ending than the ending, which gives a sense of indefiniteness.
Does the fact that you have been able to perform this music with such a large cast, then record it, show that classical music is slowly changing for the better?
I could sense even in the past decade that the general interest in music that is yet uncelebrated is growing substantially. There has been a problematic part of the classical music world which shuts out anything that is not already granted access to this exclusive club. I hadn’t set out to be the next Leon Botstein; I’m not trying to dedicate my career to unknown works. I just happened to fall in love with this piece of music. But this has set me on the course to question why and how we label certain music as masterpieces — and to realize that I can help shift people’s perception, that I have a role to play.