Ethel Smyth was a lesbian in a kingdom whose queen refused to believe that women ‘did those things,’ a musician in a country ‘without music’ according to a famous conductor, and a woman composer in a century when that was thought to be an oxymoron.
By the time she died, she had become one of England’s best-known musical figures and a Commander of the British Empire. Better yet, she rated a lengthy obituary in The Times: “I cherish a picture of her, sitting bolt upright in the corner of a first-class [railway] carriage; she was armed with a great bundle of weeklies, which she examined… crumpled into balls, and hurled recklessly aside with snorts of disapproval, while the rest of the compartment submitted meekly to this astonishing bombardment.” The Times got it right: Dame Ethel Smyth was all fireworks and explosions throughout her life.
Born in London in 1858, Smyth was a headstrong and passionate girl. An argument as to whether she might attend the Leipzig Conservatory, that Mecca of musical conservatism and magnet for most British musicians of her generation, led her to declare a strike in the family home: she locked herself in her room and refused to attend meals, church, or social functions. Eventually her father gave in, and at 19, Ethel left for Leipzig. There, she met Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and fell in love with an older woman, a pattern she was to repeat throughout most of her life.
Her 1890 Serenade in D, 1891 Mass in D and 1906 opera The Wreckers established Smyth as the most important woman composer of her time. Although her music was conservative enough to please the notoriously unadventurous British public (“They say she writes music like an old dryasdust German musician”) Ethel had to court rich and influential patrons, including Queen Victoria herself, to get her works performed.
Smitten by its founder Emmeline Pankhurst, Smyth joined the woman’s suffrage movement, and for two years devoted herself exclusively to the cause. In 1911 Smyth composed its battle song, The March of the Women, giving rise to one of the oddest performances in English musical history. As she was serving a sentence for throwing a rock through the Colonial Secretary’s window, Smyth recounts: “[I] seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush” to a crowd of 100 protesting women.
When her hearing began to fail, she turned to literature, writing 10 books. Virginia Woolf admired the “long, rolling breakers [and] easy, large stride” of her prose. Smyth, in turn, greatly admired Virgina Woolf, exclaiming, “I feel bitter that I might have known you long ago if life had given me a chance.”
Typically, she developed a crush on her new friend: “An old woman of 71 has fallen in love with me. It is at once hideous and horrid and melancholy sad. It is like being caught by a giant crab… I daresay the fires of Sapphism are blazing, for the last time.” Friends, however, they remained until Woolf’s death.
Over the course of her life she fell madly, passionately and demandingly in love with a number of women, although her one sustained and sexual relationship was with a man, the Franco-American poet and metaphysician, Harry Brewster, rather to her bewilderment: “I wonder why it is so much easier for me, and I believe for a great many Englishwomen to love my own sex rather than yours?”
She may or may not have been a great composer or writer, but she certainly was a great character, as recalled by Victoria Sackville-West: “Blinkered egotism could scarcely have driven at greater gallop along so determined a road. But although often a nuisance, Ethel was never a bore.”