Dame Ethel SMYTH
23 April 1858 - 8 May 1944 (age 86)

Now here at last is a female composer, Dame Ethel Smyth.

This feisty lady was not only a talented composer but also a political activist.
She played an important part in the suffragette movement and was jailed for smashing the windows of an important politician.






portrait of Dame Ethel Smyth


Born: Ethel Mary Smyth, 23 April 1858, Sidcup, Kent, England
Father: Major-General John Hall Smyth C.B., Royal Artillery
Mother: Nina Struth, French
Siblings: fourth of eight children (six of them girls)
Partners: none
Children: none
Died: 8 May 1944, Woking, Surrey, England
Cause of death: pneumonia after 2 years of illness.


She wrote music for various genres generally classified as follows:
- Opera: 6 including Fantasio, Der Wald, The Wreckers. She also wrote the librettos for her operas.
- Vocal: Mass in D, and more
- Orchestral: including Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra, Serenade in D
- Chamber Music
- Piano Solos
- Organ Solos

She wrote ten autobiographical books including:
Impressions That Remain (1919),
Streaks of Life (1921),
As Time Went On (1935)
What Happened Next (1940)
They are out of print, however there is an edited collection at The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth

for a more complete listing of her works see this Wikipedia list

Ethel was a very active lady and enjoyed sport including golf, cycling, horseriding, foxhunting and mountaineering.
She loved dogs, particularly Old English sheepdogs.
She was a boisterous, eccentric woman with lots of energy and determination.
Most of her romantic relationships were with other women, accounts of which she wrote about in her memoirs.

The March of the Women


"Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and 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; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don't always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known."

"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." P.Tchaikovsky

Life and career

- Early years: Her father's military career involved their travelling between India and England. This gave her a taste for travel and adventure.
- Age 19: She defied strong opposition from her father to go to Leipzig to study music at the Conservatoire. There she became acquainted with Brahms, Cara Schumann, Grieg, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and others.
- Age 32: Her Serenade in D was performed at the Crystal Palace, London and her Mass in D was performed at the Albert Hall, London
- 1903 age 45: Her opera Der Wald was performed at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. It remains to this day the only opera written by a woman to be performed at the Met. Read about it here.

The Suffragette:
- In 1910, aged 52 she met and fell passionately in love with Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union).
Edith decided to dedicate two years to the cause.
- In 1911 she composed 'The March of the Women' which became the battle song of the WSPU
- In 1912 the WSPU organised a campaign of smashing windows. Edith vigorously participated in this and was arrested for breaking the windows of the Colonial Secretary for which she had to serve two months in Holloway prison.
- In prison she organised sports activities and when visited by Sir Thomas Beecham was observed conducting the inmates marching in the yard by keeping time with her toothbrush.
- In 1914 the WSPU suspended its political activities in order to help with the war effort.
- During the war Edith spent several years in France as a radiographer.
- 1923 Age 64: Awarded the DBE = Dame of the British Empire
- 1926: Received honorary Doctorate of Music from Oxford University.
- Age 71: fell in love with Virginia Woolf.
- 1944 Age 86: Died of pneumonia after a prolonged illness.

Concerto for Horn, Violin and Orchestra (1st movement) 

Links, sources and where to go for more information:

Answers.com various reference sites including Wikipedia

Biography and family history at Galloping Fox

Ethel Smyth at Bach-Cantatas.com

Ethel and Tchaikovsky at tchaikovsky-research.net

Public persona article at - Sandcape Publications

Genealogy article at - Sandscape Publications

Obituary by Sir ThomasBeecham

Account of the opera Der Wald at the NY Metropolitan from the Met archives

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