Monday, April 27, 2015

Dame Ethel Smyth - musician, suffragist, and total bad***

I want to tell you about this amazing woman who accomplished a whole lot in her life, but the Little Hater is keeping me from writing this post the way I think it should be written. So I'm going to try doing it a little bit differently, and see how it turns out. Please bear with me.

Dame Ethel Smyth, DBE
(23 April 1858 – 8 May 1944)

"I feel I must fight for [my music], because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea." 
When I first looked at the wikipedia page for her, my first thought was, "Is she related to Maggie Smith?!" (Please tell me you see the resemblance as well.) Then I read her biography and the lists of her accomplishments, and pretty much fell in to head-over-heels adoration. What a seriously kickass woman who pretty much did not have a single f*** to give.
"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." ― Ethel Smyth
She was a composer when women weren't even accepted as musicians.
From an early age, she was bound and determined to study music with the goal of becoming a composer. Her father was staunchly opposed to it, and even banned her from taking lessons, but that did not stop her. She went on a personal strike of sorts, refusing to eat, refusing to participate in family events, and pretty much just being as disagreeable as possible in order to get her point across. For years the two were locked into their personal battle, and it wasn't until she was an adult that he finally relented and allowed her to take private lessons. She eventually attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where she met many of the prominent musicians of the era, and was able to compose remarkable works that are still celebrated today.
Ethel Smyth’s early piano and theory lessons, taught merely to be ladylike accomplishments, sparked an immediate life-long passion for music. At the age of 12, she announced she would study music at the Leipzig Conservatory. Appalled at this idea and at the intensity Ethel brought to her music studies, her father immediately stopped her lessons. He had not reckoned, however, on his daughter’s strong will and persistence. During her teenage years, Ethel openly rebelled against these constraints, locking herself in her room and refusing to attend meals, church or social functions, unless her father agreed to send her to Leipzig to study composition.

In 1877 he gave in. At age 19, Ethel Smyth traveled to Leipzig, where she studied music with Carl Reinecke at the Conservatory and, privately, with Heinrich von Herzogenberg. A leading cultural center at the time, Leipzig offered Ethel an exciting world of concerts and operas, as well as introductions to Brahms, Clara Schumann, Tchaikovsky and other important composers of the time.
She was an ardent suffragist.
Upon joining the Women's Social and Political Union she practically gave up her music composition for two years. She was inspired by the women she met and the cause they fought for, and turned her talents to composing "The March of the Women" which quickly became the anthem of the suffragist movement.

A famous rendering of ["The March of the Women"] took place in 1912 at Holloway Prison, after many women activists were imprisoned as a result of a window-smashing campaign. Smyth's part in this had been to break the window of Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in prison and reported that he found the activists in the courtyard "...marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush."
(source: Wikipedia)
She was no spring chicken at this time. She was 52 years old when she met, and was instantly infatuated with, Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910, and vowed to spend two years supporting her suffrage cause. She had already had an exciting time living on "the continent" and countless love affairs and adventures. This new passion, though, brought her into contact with exciting and idealistic women of all ages.
Although she joined late, Ethel soon became a key figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.)—the militant branch of the suffrage movement. She participated in demonstrations, made speeches, wrote articles for suffragette publications, and provided shelter for the charismatic leader Mrs. Pankurst during the notorious cat-and-mouse part of the struggle. But her most important contribution was her March of the Women, a song dedicated to the members of the W.S.P.U. Mrs. Pankurst was so delighted with the piece that it was immediately adopted as the battle-cry of the movement.

No matter how much she feared the consequences, Ethel felt that she could not keep her self-respect if she did not take the same risks that many other suffragettes were willing to take. So when Mrs. Pankurst asked for volunteers to break a window in the house of any politician who opposed votes for women, the composer was one of 109 members of the W.S.P.U. who responded. She chose the window of the Colonial Secretary, "Lulu" Harcourt, who had roused her anger by publicly stating that he might agree to votes for women if all women were as well-behaved and intelligent as his wife. Before the constable who was guarding Harcourt's house could stop her, Ethel’s stone found its mark. She was at once arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment.
(source: The Kapralova Society Journal)
She was an accomplished author, and one of the first women to write her memoir.
Tragically, around the age of 55 she began to lose her hearing. Her music composition slowed, but her passion to create did not. Undeterred, she turned her attention to writing and went on to publish ten books, mostly autobiographical, and all well-received.
I'm awfully proud—that's not the right phrase—that you've started again on the autobiography, partly owing to me. I was thinking the other night that there's never been a woman's autobiography. Nothing to compare with Rousseau. Chastity and modesty I suppose have been the reason. Now why shouldn't you be not only the first woman to write an opera, but equally the first to tell the truths about herself? Isn't the great artist the only person to tell the truth? I should like an analysis of your sex life. As Rousseau did his. More introspection. More intimacy. I leave it to you; for as you see I cant make my pen take my ply this cold morning. —Letter from Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, 24 December 1940
(source: The Musical Quarterly)
She was an all-round kickass woman who railed against the limitations placed on her gender.
After her successful bid against her father to take music lessons and attend the Leipzig Conservatory, it shouldn't surprise anyone that she continued her rebellious ways throughout her life. She wanted to live her life on her own terms, and the often included bucking the expectations placed on a woman of her standing. Although one could make the case that it was precisely her standing and a woman of independent means that allowed her the ability to buck the system without much risk to her.

The majority of her affairs were with prominent women. Her affair with Henry Bennet Brewster may have been her only heterosexual relationship. In 1892, she wrote to him saying, "I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can't make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person." Does this indicate a sense of shame for her attractions? Or simply the confusion that one might feel when society tells you one thing but your experience is different? I prefer to think it is more of the latter, although I have not read any of her memoirs of yet (they're on the wish list). It seems quite clear from her biographies available online that she never tried to hide her affections or her actions.
Ethel Smyth described her relationships with women in several published volumes of memoirs. She had fallen in love with Pauline Trevelyan, the Empress EugĂ©nie, Winnaretta Singer, Lady Mary Ponsonby, Edith Somerville, and Virginia Woolf. She was a mountaineer, bicyclist, and golfer. She made radio broadcasts including Two Meetings with the Kaiser Before the War in 1937, and My Eightieth Birthday in 1938.(source:
She was ever the trouble-maker. 
When the Women's Social and Political Union were planning their assault on government buildings, she took it upon herself to teach the other women how to properly throw stones.
As dusk came on we repaired to a selected part of Hook Heath - a far from blasted heath; indeed, owing to the golf course, a somewhat over-sophisticated heath that lies in front of my house. And near the largest fir tree we could find I dumped down a collection of nice round stones. One has heard of people failing to hit a haystack; what followed was rather on those lines. I imagine Mrs Pankhurst had not played ball games in her youth, and the first stone flew backwards out of her hand, narrowly missing my dog. Once more we began at a distance of about three yards, the face of the pupil assuming with each failure -and there were a good many -a more and more ferocious expression. And when at last a thud proclaimed success, a smile of such beatitude - the smile of a baby that has blown a watch open - stole across her countenance, that much to her mystification and rather to her annoyance, the instructor collapsed on a clump of heather helpless with laughter.
She served during World War I.
After serving her two years as part of the suffrage movement, she returned to her composing career, and traveled to Germany just a month or so before the start of World War I. After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, all her plans for upcoming performances were cancelled, and she quickly moved to the southern coast of France. She joined her sister Nina and the painter Lady Helena Gleichen in Italy, where they'd set up an ambulance outfit. But that did not suit her, and she returned to France, this time to learn how to become a radiographer, and using her new-found skills to assist wartime surgeons to locate embedded shell fragments in the bodies of wounded soldiers.
‘I wrote that book [Impressions That Remained] while doing radiographic work in a French Military hospital. Locating bits of shell, telling the doctor exactly how deeply embedded they are, watching him plunge into a live although anaesthetised body that shall prove you either an expert or a bungler is not a music inspiring job, but writing memoires in between whiles was a delightful relief’.
(Source: Exploring Surrey's Past)
She was an avid sportswoman.
She remained physically active and vibrant her entire life. Owning a home across from a golf course was no coincidence.
Dame Ethel was an active sportswoman throughout her life. In her younger days she was a keen horse-rider and tennis player. She was an enthusiastic member of the Woking Tennis Club and won a book as a tournament prize. She lived in Surrey for most of her life – first at ‘Frimhurst’ in Frimley, then finally, at Brettanby Cottage, Hook Heath in Woking, near the golf course. She was a passionate golfer and a stalwart member of the Ladies section of Woking Golf Club but, typically, was known to have marched through the Mens section on at least one occasion -- an act forbidden at the time. It was her proud boast that she never lost a golf ball and she would spend hours, accompanied by her dog, searching through the rough for the result of a directional error! Dame Ethel died in 1944 and at her own request, after cremation at Woking Crematorium, her ashes were scattered in the woodland next to the golf course.
(Source: Exploring Surrey's Past)
What a remarkable woman!

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1 comment :

  1. I'd say Dame Smyth just kicked your Little Hater in the head and then tap-danced on its remains while swinging a golf club at some MPs who were against votes for women. :D