Ethel Smyth was a composer, suffragette and writer known for her passionate public and private life.
Born on 23rd April 1858 Ethel developed an interest in music from a young age. At 12, when she learned that her governess had studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, she decided that was where she needed to go.
Unfortunately her father saw things differently, and was completely against the idea. He even stopped her music lessons to try and change her mind. Ethel was having none of it, and over the next seven years she persistently pressured her father; refusing to eat, locking herself in her room, skipping church and other social occasions until he finally gave in! At the age of 19 she finally left to attend the music school.
Once there Ethel met other great composers like Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Clara Schumann. Despite having gone through so much, and spending nearly all of her teenage years dreaming of attending Leipzig, after one year of attending she became disappointed with the school and left to continue her musical education with a private tutor, Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Herzogenberg’s wife Lisl became the first great love of Ethel’s life, and they developed a deep relationship that would last several years.
Ethel wrote orchestral, choral, chamber, piano and vocal pieces, as well as operas. Her opera The Wreckers has been called the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.” Another opera she wrote, Der Wald became, and remains, the only opera written by a woman ever to be performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Although Ethel often struggled to gain recognition in a field largely dominated by men, she developed some significant supporters. Tchaikovsky once said of her that “Miss Smyth is one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.”
In 1910 she met Emmeline Pankhurst and was immediately enamored. She joined the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) and declared that she would dedicate the next two years of her life to the struggle for votes for women. She put her musical talents to good use for the cause, writing The March of the Women, which became the anthem of the growing suffragette movement. Ethel composed the rousing melody while fellow suffragette Cicely Hamilton provided the lyrics.
In 1910 she was one of the many women who responded to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to smash the windows of politicians. She decided to take aim at the house of Lewis Harcourt after he made the churlish remark that “if all women were as pretty and as wise as his own wife, they should have the vote tomorrow.”
Ethel, along with the other suffragettes involved, was arrested and sentenced to two months in jail. Her friendship with Emmeline had by this time grown very close, and in one of her books she describes how the prison matron would let them visit one another in their cells, sometimes ‘forgetting’ to return them to separate cells. It is this, along with other details of their close friendship that has led to some historians speculating that Emmeline and Ethel had a romantic affair.
Ethel admitted in her writings to being attracted to women, and throughout her life was relatively open about her relationships with them. She wrote to the one man who she is known to have been involved with that it was “easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours”. Later in her life, at 71 years old, Ethel fell in love with another well known woman, Virginia Woolf. Although the two became close friends Woolf joked that her affections were “like being caught by a giant crab”!
He spell at Holloway Prison gives us one of the most memorable moments of her life; a friend who was visiting reported how, as groups of imprisoned suffragettes trooped around the prison yard singing Smyth’s March of the Women, she could be seen reaching through the window of her cell, conducting them with her toothbrush!
When war began in 1914 the WSPU agreed to stop their activism and support the government, in exchange imprisoned suffragettes were released. Ethel later went to France where she worked as a radiographer in a military hospital from 1915-1918.
Tragically, for someone whose passion for music was so great, in 1912 Ethel began to lose her hearing. By the end of her life she had become completely deaf, however for some years she continued to write music. When her music was celebrated in a festival for her 75th birthday, with an event held at the Royal Albert Hall in front of the Queen, the very sad fact was that Ethel, as conductor Leon Botstein reflects “could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.”
As her hearing deteriorated she began to write books, most of which were autobiographical. A total of ten books were published.
She was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire (DME) in 1922, and awarded honorary doctorates from Durham and Oxford universities.
Ethel died of pneumonia in 1944, aged 86 at her home in England.
Find out more:
The BBC have a wonderful archive of interviews with women who were involved with the suffrage movement, here is an audio clip of Ethel Smyth describing the incident which got her arrested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8314.shtml
You can listen to Ethel’s famous March of the Women song here:
Want to read about Ethel’s life in her own words? Her memoirs are available on Amazon.
Her greatest passion was her music and today you can listen to many recordings of her most well known compositions on CD. Here are a few:
Finally, here is a useful PDF timeline of Ethel Smyth’s life.