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An extraordinary and controversial forgotten composer

By: Grace Lee

To some, Ethel Smyth was a daring activist and extraordinary composer; to others, she was problematic and a cause for controversy. As a feminist composer in the early 20th century, Smyth made some of the most original works known in classical music, but was also a target of controversy.

Smyth’s behavior was unusual in her conservative society. She had passionate affairs with prominent women like Emmeline Pankhurst, and one with a married man. She was also a strong feminist activist, and was a part of the women’s suffrage movement. Smyth’s activism had landed her in prison, but nothing could stop her voice.

Having been a rebel since childhood, Smyth was said to have locked herself up in her room, refusing to eat or drink unless her father let her study music. This strong willpower of Smyth would eventually land her both a fascinating career and controversy for a lifetime, especially in a time where female composers were not meant to be seen nor appreciated.

After her death on May 8, 1944, her music was quickly brushed aside without a voice to represent it. However, in recent decades there have been revivals of her story, which is nothing short of extraordinary, as well as new found interest in her music.

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