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Dame Ethel Smyth

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I wondered what would happen if I simply typed in the name Dame Ethel Smyth into Google and then clicked on the images tab. When I did, a host of thumb print images blanketed the screen seconds later. Most of the images depicted the face of a stern, intelligent woman looking boldly at the camera, sometimes hatless, sometimes with hats. As a young woman she favored a flat hat that seems a cross between a tam and a beret and when she was older a men’s homburg. I suspect she wore the tam to indicate that she had an artist’s disposition. 

Ethel Smyth was a composer. Let’s be clear about this she was not a performer who also wrote music; in no way was she a virtuoso at the piano or any other instrument. She was just a kid when in 1869 she told her father, a brigadier general, that she wanted to write music, and she never wavered. When he offered to pay for her “coming out” into Society, she asked instead to go to Germany to study music. When he refused, the 18 year old Ethel went on a hunger strike until her father relented.

The homburg Ethel Smyth wears in the images of her late in life indicate that she had become one of the great characters of her time, a figure of some renown and a pioneer of sorts. In 1922, Ethel became Dame Ethel Smyth, the first woman to be knighted for her musical accomplishments. There is a picture of her taken that year in Bournemouth surrounded by other composers who have been knighted for their services to music, all pillars of the British Musical Establishment. The bearded guy on her right is Sir Alexander Mackenzie. To her left is another bearded composer and conductor Sir Henry Woods, the inventor of the “Proms” concerts and the clean shaven (perhaps) knight to her far left is another composer Sir Edward German. The only reason Ethel is there is because she used her knighthood to help the guy standing behind them, Daniel Godfrey, save the orchestra he founded, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Otherwise she was considered too modern for her fellow musical knights. 

There is another group picture taken in that same year, 1922, in August. It was taken in Salzburg, Austria at the founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Ethel stands in the center of the group, as always the only woman among the men who include then avant garde composers Paul Hindemith, fellow brit Arthur Bliss, Rudolf Reti, Egon Wellesz and Anton Webern. Ethel Smyth lived always at an edge.

When in the late 1890’s, the great American painter John Singer Sargent was hired to do a portrait of Mrs. Charles Hunter, he only agreed so he could meet Mrs. Hunter’s younger sister, Ethel Smyth. He had met Ethel briefly in Florence, Italy when she was engaged in a romantic liaison with his friends Henry Brewster and his wife Julia, after an intense attachment to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, wife of the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg. What drew the buttoned up American ex-pat to Ethel was not that she was a composer, and a good one, but that she was a woman of extraordinary vivacity and courage, always on the move, determined to love who she would and to do what she loved to do… make music, and who had managed as a young composer to win the support and encouragement of Clara Schumann, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. 

In 1901, Sargent finally got the opportunity to paint Smyth’s portrait. But upon thinking it over he decided she could not be captured in paint because she simply would not sit still for him. So Sargent told Ethel to sit at the piano and sing some songs. He demanded, she remembered, that I “sing the most desperately exciting songs I knew.” It was all done in half an hour. The charcoal portrait he drew then remains the most perfect representation of the force that was Ethel Smyth.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to Ethel Smyth. She was bi-sexual and an ardent suffragette who spent time in prison. She defied almost every social norm of Edwardian England and a lot that are still observed today. Her admirers included Brahms and Virginia Woolf, Tchaikovsky and George Bernard Shaw. But after looking at all the pictures of her on the internet, I noticed that outside of Sargent’s portrait she only looked engaged or happy when a dog was with her.  Dogs were her lifelong companions.

Her first dog was Marco; according to Ethel, Marco was “half St. Bernard, and the rest what you please…a huge sprawling yellow-and-white puppy of the long-haired kind generally seen dragging washerwomen’s carts. I never knew a more hilarious temperament than Marco’s – so much so that, invited to attend a rehearsal Brahms was holding of his piano quintet at the flat of Brodsky the violinist, it seemed advisable for once to leave him in the street. I was seated at the piano turning over [pages], when suddenly the door burst open and with a bound Marco was beside me, while the cellist’s desk, taken in his stride, went crash. Having spoken disparagingly of the great man’s sense of humor, it is only fair to say Brahms rose to this occasion and declared the whole thing took him back to the Harlequinades of his youth… For twelve years that dog was the joy of my life. ... A greater philosopher, a more perfect comrade for a busy woman, can never have existed; if, in the stress of work, I put off his dinner too long, all he did was to shut his eyes and moan very, very softly, like a baby.”

All who knew Ethel Smyth, knew Marco too. Tchaikovsky ended one letter to her this way, “Goodbye, dear Mademoiselle; I hope that you have composed many fine things, and I wish you every possible happiness. P. Tchaikovsky. P.S. – I hope that your dear dog is faring well!!”

When you listen to Smyth’s Serenade or the Overture to her opera The Wreckers. Picture as Sargent did, Ethel Smyth at her piano, but include as well at her feet, Marco, his huge head resting on the pedals.