IN: Reviews

Unfulfilled Promise: The Prison Co-Premieres


Marking the first complete production in New York, and only its second in North America, the Cecilia Chorus of New York combined forces with a freelancer’s orchestra in an artistically uneven mounting of The Prison (1930) by Ethel Smyth at Carnegie Hall on May 11th. This production resulted from a collaboration between two conductors, Mark Shapiro of the Cecilia Chorus and James Blachly of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, which produced the co-premiere on April 7th. In May 2016, Shapiro had led a reduction of it at St. Luke in the Fields (in Greenwich Village), which Liane Curtis reviewed [HERE] in the Intelligencer.

For this two-part “symphony,” as Smyth called it, the composer adapted “The Prison” (1903), a metaphysical discourse written by her close friend Henry B. “Harry” Brewster, a French American philosopher and poet. The text explores the implications of death, specifically the transference of the soul from the body into a divine collective. Smyth adored Brewster’s treatise. In one letter to her friend, Smyth claimed to have just read it for the “1,000th time.” Because of this reverence, Smyth wanted the messages of the text to enjoy wider circulation.

Smyth herself advocated the book through the symphony. In her treatment, Smyth removed several characters, restructuring the semantic focus onto two figures: the Prisoner—portrayed by a baritone—and his Soul—a soprano. The Soul guides the Prisoner on his journey beyond the earthly realm. Quoting Plotinus, Smyth provided an explanation for this relationship: “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.”

Smyth’s adaptation demonstrates several important aspects of her project. By cutting the main characters, and by changing the format of the text, Smyth establishes links between herself and Brewster; she speaks through the Soul to her departed friend, who had died in 1908. This is not mere communication, however; the Soul also facilitates Brewster’s deliverance into the divine. Such a powerful female persona resonates with Beethoven’s Fidelio, in which the title figure frees her imprisoned husband from his shackles. The fact that Smyth preferred Fidelio over all other operas punctuates this affinity.

Beethoven relates with Smyth on a physical level as well. Around this time, Smyth experienced the deterioration of her hearing. The composer called her battle with the disability a “death grapple.” Shortly after The Prison, Smyth retreated from composition, and intensified her literary career, which she had begun in 1919. By reaching back to Brewster’s text, and by writing several musical self-references therein, Smyth recalls an earlier period in her life. This process of remembrance functions as an attempt to combat struggle with the light and hope from the past.

When I listened to the radio broadcast of the April 7th co-premiere, I found that the orchestra managed admirably. The winds in particular stood out for their dulcet execution of the tricky passagework in Part One. Dashon Burton and Marlissa Hudson as the Prisoner and his Soul colored the lyrics with an expressive richness that I could practically taste. The chorus, the composer’s representation of humanity, however, sounded uneven: the basses and tenors oozed hypnotic allure, but the altos and sopranos often entered with hesitance, and maintained feeble, unsupported tone in exposed passages.

The forces on the night I attended, which included singers from the previous concert, reached about the same performance levels. Once again, the men radiated a chestnut darkness that conveyed the emotional and spiritual gravitas of the libretto. However, the female voices, especially when alone, sounded murky and wan. Tobias Greenhalgh as the Prisoner exhibited lucid enunciation and subtle phrasing, but did not exude the autumnal yearning that the text requires. As the Soul, Chelsea Shephard sounded restrained. Below the surface of her lines I could hear a raw, emotionally-gripping brawn just demanding to break out. I wish that she had let this internal force boil over and transform her timbre. The winds sparkled with forthright, pristine clarity. Challenging passages felt clean and velvety. Shapiro’s perspicuous gestures accurately telegraphed the changing moods, tempi, and shapes of phrases. At times, though, the tempi relaxed to torpor. Following its first entrance, the chorus sounded like they were trudging through mud with water-logged waders.

The Prison explored several musical languages. Contrapuntal chorales sounded like Bach and some orchestral passages like Mahler. In Part Two, Smyth summoned antiquity by setting two modal melodies that she had found in Greece. Atonal techniques briefly appeared in the second part as well. A wide assortment of influences does not automatically diminish a work’s focus. For some composers, various styles can coalesce into a personally distinct and recognizable form. However, Smyth’s frequent leaps among adopted sound worlds produced inconsistent and jagged impressions instead of a memorable voice of her own.

Such an indeterminate shape also characterized her melodic writing. Her themes did not substantially develop; they simply returned unchanged. The unadorned repetition of the theme heard in the first choral entrance, for instance, gradually sullied its mysterious effect. Because of this missing melodic evolution, climaxes felt contrived and unearned; they jumped unexpectedly at us.

Smyth succeeded best in cadences. At “Surely, surely you will slip into heaven!” the harp and celesta rose into the heavenly firmament as the chorus tapered into solemn silence. The synthesis of choral and orchestral forces in this ending shimmered with a peaceful and graceful beauty. This emanating profundity established a backdrop for the somber Prisoner, who subsequently entered with the line “I was alone with the sorrow / of my wasted life.” Here, and in other cadences, Smyth found success; such intensity supported the required emotional weight of her interaction with a dear friend beyond the grave.

I value diversity in the concert hall, and truly wanted The Prison to prove a satisfying example from an alternative voice. But hearing two readings left me uncertain of The Prison’s worth. At the same time, I recognized that critical treatment of the symphony after its premiere in Edinburgh in 1931 discouraged revivals for nearly 90 years.

The dignity that all composers demand and many deserve is exactly what The Prison has finally received behind the proscenium arch of Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall.

A sluggish traversal of the Mozart Requiem in the edition/completion of BMInt’s-own Robert Levin concluded the concert. Languid takes on the Introit and Domine Jesu particularly craved forward-moving dynamism. Paul Whelan as the bass embodied the tragedy of the Requiem with earnest devotion. Violinists and violists, performing on modern instruments, emitted celestial aura in the Lacrimosa. Plodding tempos ultimately diminished the mystique of the transcendent music in both the Requiem and The Prison.

Tim Diovanni, a New York-based music writer and historical musicology student at Columbia University, writes program notes for The North Shore Symphony Orchestra and contributes to Feminist in the Concert Hall, as well as Classical Voice North America.


Ethel Smyth at Women’s Social and Political Union meeting, 1912 (London School of Economics Library)


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Both being a chemist and having a daughter named Ethel, I am particularly sensitive to typos of that name. Please correct the picture caption.

    Comment by Julian Bullitt — May 14, 2018 at 8:33 am

  2. tetraethyl lead indeed

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 14, 2018 at 9:15 am

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