Alexandra Coghlan

Where to start with the music of Ethel Smyth

The eccentric Edwardian was the only English composer of her generation to achieve real international status in opera

It's easy to write off the eccentric Ethel Smyth but she's far more than a novelty composer. Photo: Sasha / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

I’m reminded of an old Irish joke. A tourist approaches a local for directions to Dublin. The local, after much teeth-sucking and head-scratching, eventually replies: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here…’.

The news that, 75 years after her death, English composer Ethel Smyth has won a Grammy Award for her last large-scale work The Prison is as excellent as it is unexpected. But it’s also frustrating because, well, if I were setting out into Smyth for the first time, I really wouldn’t start from there.

A ‘symphony’ for soprano, bass–baritone, chorus and orchestra, The Prison was the 72-year-old Smyth’s final homage to American philosopher and poet Henry Brewster: librettist, friend, lover and cheerleader for the composer for more than 20 years. In a life punctuated by short, intense passions — relationships (with men and women, both platonic and romantic) that burned hot and then flamed out — he was a rare fixed point.

Smyth was the only English composer of her generation achieving real international status in opera

Whatever his qualities as a man, as a writer Brewster was a dubious quantity. The Prison — a dialogue between a (metaphorical) prisoner and his soul — was much mocked by Leonard Woolf for its pretentious cod-philosophising. The text is a leaden anchor for Smyth’s setting, weighed down by its awkward abstraction on the one hand and by the ghost of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius on the other. A characteristically barbed New Statesman review of the premiere called it ‘… a brave attempt at mediocrity… without attaining that bottomness which is completely diverting’.

This recording however — the first ever — is sumptuous. James Blachly and his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus make no apology for the musical melodrama, if anything exaggerating Smyth’s peaks and troughs with transcendent smears of harp and big, martial brass, transforming erratic shifts of mood and material into spontaneity.

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