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A Remarkable Composer: Ethel Smyth

By: Jessica Wang

After Ethel Smyth’s death, her incredible music thrived. Recently, people are taking interest in her work and reviving her story.

Ethel Smyth was born in Kent in 1858. Being a woman in the mid-1800s was tough; they were expected to cook, clean, and do household chores. Women could not vote, own land, go to college, or earn equal wages. So, when Smyth was young, she fought against these restrictions. Her father disapproved of Smyth studying music, so she locked herself in a room, refusing to come out unless he agreed to let Smyth study music.

Later on, she went to study at Leipzig Conservatory, the oldest school of music in Germany.

She studied Brahmsian musical composition and music theory. In 1889, she traveled to London and performed Mass in D, a piece with six movements, which reached great success.

However, not many musicians were willing to perform her work. “The obvious answer is her gender,” said Dr. Any Zigler, an assistant professor. “In reviews of her music from the 1880s, 90s and early 1900s, at a time when she was building her career, there is almost always a comment about her gender.”

So, Smyth took two years off of her music career to participate in the Women’s Social and Political Union, a women’s activist group. During this time, Smyth was arrested for throwing stones at the houses of Women’s suffrage opponents. And when Smyth was in prison, she led the other inmates in The March of Women, another piece that Smyth wrote, conducting with a toothbrush.

After Smyth was released, she slowly began to lose her hearing. She published one more piece in Egypt, and received numerous awards. Ultimately, she had to conclude her music career because of her hearing loss.

In 1944, Smyth passed away. Leah Broad said that in Smyth’s dairy, she wrote, “the one thing she's most scared about in dying is that she will no longer be able to control her musical legacy. She worried that when she goes, her music would die with her.” “And that sort of did happen, but that's changed, it's resurfaced now. And I'm so glad of that for her,” Leah continues.

Her music has been performed recently – The Wreckers, an opera piece, was performed in the Glyndebourne festival and The March of the Women was performed to celebrate one-hundred years of women’s right to vote.


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