The First Feminist Composer, Ethel Smyth
Until earlier this year, my sole experience with turn of the century British feminist history was a footnote in my high school AP European History book. So when asked about Emmeline Pankhurst on the AP exam, I would have been out of luck were it not for the Sherman Brothers’ “Sister Suffragette” lyrics that I’d remembered from the movie-musical, Mary Poppins.
“Sister Suffragette” is a high-energy, shower-worthy tune, with lines like, “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, well done, Sister Suffragette!” Down in the less catchy zone of the lyrics is the phrase, “Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again”, a reference to one of the leaders of the British Suffragette movement. So I aced that question on the AP exam. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to name the real anthem of the suffragette movement, as Mary Poppins offers no help there.
That honor belongs to “The March of the Women”, written by composer, Ethel Smyth, with lyrics by Cicely Hamilton. Smyth dedicated her song to the Women’s Social and Political Union, and with help from Emmeline Pankhurst, it was adopted as the group’s official anthem. Ethel Smyth was a rarity – she was not just one of the earliest female composers, but one who’s work is inspired and infused with a feminist agenda.
I will be playing Smyth’s Double Concerto for Violin and Horn in the not-to-distant future. I haven’t been able to find much about it, so I have written some program notes just for myself.
About the Double Concerto:
Dame Ethel Smyth’s Double Concerto for Horn, Violin and Orchestra/Piano is a challenging piece by any measure. It runs close to a half an hour, and is joyous, somber, and even frilly in some places.
I Allegro Moderato
The double concerto opens sweetly with a wistful, aspiring theme that says, “Here you have it!” as if we are to undertake a challenging task that will involve many different approaches. We are fresh to do our work, we will rise to the challenge. Small successes are greatly celebrated, while a brief failure or two are swiftly and softly mourned before the task is again undertaken. In some ways, we feel as if we are solving a five thousand piece puzzle. Much examination of each piece, pairing by color, sorting by shape, and grouping smaller sets into larger, we begin to recognize a forest, then a granite-faced cliff, and a small town town emerges in the background. As the puzzle comes together, we creep into the landscape ourselves and try to peep around a corner. But we realize that it is all an illusion.
II Elegy (In Memoriam)
Smyth’s elegy is quite restrained. I wish I could have stepped inside her mind to understand what she was trying to describe. It’s not a dirge or a funeral march, its a gentle lament. If it weren’t for the dynamics, I fear the piece would be a washout. But with the right dynamics, it does feel like a rainy day with thunder in the distance. I can just hear pages of yesterday’s newspaper fluttering almost inaudibly, blown against a screen door that is no longer slamming now that the wind has died down. I wonder if Dame Ethel was too optimistic and happy to write a properly morose elegy, I’ve certainly heard much more depressing music than she seems able to muster.
There is pageantry of dervish proportion in this runaway march-flavored finale. What surprises me is that the movement has a sort of Disney feel to it for most of its approximately ten minutes of playing time. The horn and violin separate a little more in this movement, as if their individual stories have somewhat independent outcomes. The horn urges the violin to follow, and they do play together for a while before diverging. The violin returns to seek safety in the sand while the horn sets sail for the big wide world. It’s an altogether a fitting finale for such a wonderfully virtuosic pairing of instruments.