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Lookouts Aloft! A Composer Puts Out to Sea


Smyth in 1901 by Sargent

Dame Ethel Smyth (1854-1944) said, “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.”

This is the story of a woman — in the long history of women stifled by important or influential men in their lives or eras — who did the big and difficult job over and over. Ethel Smyth, a strong-minded musician, fought against her father’s pontifical noise and ‘put out to sea’ (or at least crossed the channel) in 1877 at age 19 to study at the Conservatorium in Leipzig. One of the top Smyth scholars, Amy Zigler, has a brief biography available HERE. BMInt is happy to publish this preview in the context of a Cappella Clausura’s performance of Smyth’s Mass in D at Emmanuel Church at 4pm on March 3rd. Tickets HERE.

Smyth characterized herself as making “on average 12 intimate friends per annum” (letter to Henry Brewster, 1892). Her first core in Leipzig was the Herzogenbergs, a musical family whose young matriarch, Lisl (only 11 years her senior), took a maternal interest in Ethel, and a deep, life-changing relationship began. Lisl’s brother-in-law was Henry Brewster, who was also to become a deep and romantic partner, although married. Brewster, a poet, was the librettist for many of her operas. On her many trips to Germany, her friends introduced her to more friends, many of them the glitterati of the late 1800s: Brahms (her musical hero, along with Beethoven), Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Clara Schumann, Dvorak, and more.

She was able to attend concerts as well as give impromptu performances amongst these friends and had her own following as a singer who accompanied herself. Clara Schumann apparently told Ethel she loved to hear her play the piano but couldn’t bear to watch her ungainly hands.  Despite her lack of training, her singing voice attracted many admirers who said it was emotionally powerful and that no other singer could match her delivery.

Born into the middle class, but a force of nature when it came to making friendships, she succeeded in impressing and befriending upper-class women — and men — with influence and agency, who became her champions.

One young woman named Pauline Trevelyan was a devout Catholic whom Ethel compared to “a visitant from another planet lent to this world for the time being…” Pauline inspired Ethel to a curiously intense faith: “Oh what a mass I will write someday!…what words, what words!..”  As with so much for Ethel, this faith lasted only about a year. The Mass in D was written between 1889-91 and is dedicated to Trevelyan. Smyth finished it while staying with another great and influential friend, Empress Eugenie (Second Empire), at Cap Martin. Her instructions on the score require it to be performed in the old-fashioned Anglican style, which puts the Gloria at the end as the final movement. This suited her need for a joyous and grand finale.

Upon completion of her Mass, she managed an invitation through her influential friends to Balmoral to see Queen Victoria herself, a singer and musical aficionado: the Queen expressed an interest in hearing the young woman’s work. Seated at the Queen’s piano, Ethel sang and played several movements from her Mass. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were so impressed they sponsored its premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in 1893 under the baton of Joseph Barnby, conductor of the Royal Choral Society, of which the Duke was then President.

In addition to being a composer and conductor of some renown, Smyth was a great letter writer and began in 1919 to publish her memoirs. All six are fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, written in her own unique, irrepressible style. As she put it, “I am by far the most interesting person I know.” She also wrote volumes of letters to her many friends and acquaintances.  She referred to writing as her “second string”: “by simply replacing the music-nib of her pen with another sort of nib…. rather should Fate be thanked for providing a second string whereon to play, as well as one can, the tune life is always making up in one’s heart.”

This was largely because, around 1913, she began to hear “singing in her ears.”  Having Beethoven as a hopeful example, she thought to keep on composing ― but it was becoming difficult, depressing, and frustrating. By 1920, she read through her Mass of 30 years prior and wrote: “God, what a stride I had in those days. What courage? morally, I mean. Where has it all gone? And Echo answers, into trying to take life’s difficulties reasonably.” By 1931, she’d given up composing altogether. In 1930, she met and fell in love with Virginia Woolf, and their almost daily correspondence and meetings lasted until Virginia’s death in 1941. In a letter from 1936 to Ethel, Virginia writes, “Well, Ethel, I’ve finished your book…I think it’s a triumph, and if I go halfway down the road to immortality, it will be because my name is on your title page.”  Ethel’s last letter to Virginia is dated February 1941, “You have given me the greatest joy of my latter end. ’I am content,’ said the soldier. Yes, by God, I am. Bless you, my dearest. E” In her 80s, Ethel found contentment at last.

Smyth was tireless in her pursuit of performances of her music in both Germany and England. Her opera Der Wald, with a German libretto by Smyth and her frequent collaborator, Henry Brewster, was mounted in both Germany and London and, finally, in 1903, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, becoming the first and only opera written by a woman to be performed at the Met until 2016. Her extraordinary and powerful opera, The Wreckers, written about this time, is now also enjoying a resurgence of performances worldwide: the BSO, as recently as February 8-10, 2024, has finally performed the overture to The Wreckers. See BMInt reviews of the complete opera HERE and HERE. (Her opera The Prison has also gotten some ink on these pages HERE.

Recognized for both her compositions and her very popular memoirs, and despite two years of incendiary work as a suffragette with Emmaline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK, Smyth was dubbed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1922. She revised the Mass in 1925, thinking it might finally be imprinted and performed. However, her publisher at the time, Novello, declined, saying they would never engrave a work for which there was no demand. Despite this, the Mass was heard more than a few times all over the UK, many with piano accompaniment. The final performance, led by her dear friend, Sir Thomas Beecham in 1933 served as a jubilee honor for her 75th birthday. Sadly, she then too deaf to hear it, but she nevertheless enjoyed seeing the standing ovation. Beecham famously quipped “There are no women composers, never have been, and quite possibly never will be.” Dame Ethel changed his mind: he championed her work and wrote a glowing and affectionate obituary when she died in 1944.

A beaten-up manuscript of the Mass in D in landed in my lap in 2012. I was immediately entranced.  Having no idea how to create a performance edition, I nevertheless persisted because of my excitement at finding a work in the larger form by a woman.  I immediately applied to continue my residency at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center to do just that. Several cognoscenti told me that no performance edition with orchestral parts existed and that I’d be doing the world a huge favor if I tackled the job. Over the next several years, in my spare time, I struggled to learn Sibelius and orchestral writing. Eastman School of Music premiered the work in December of 2023 under William Weinert. Since then two wonderful proofreaders have assisted with revisions and corrections.

Having spent 20 years performing music by women from the 9th century to the present, I have unearthed many treasures. Smyth’s talent, ambition, and personality inspired me to take on a big and difficult job, so that her Mass in D could at last be heard as she intended. Novello also finally tackled it, and so my work has been muted, but I am the richer for having delved into this composer and this piece, one of her first real triumphs and a piece that should be right alongside the big requiems, firmly in the canon for all choral societies and ensembles. I hope my edition and Novello’s make many, many full performances possible.

 Cappella Clausura, Amelia LeClair conductor, and SHIFT Orchestra Project, David Flowers conductor perform
Mass in D  by Dame Ethel Smyth
at 4pm on March 3rd
 Emmanuel Church in Boston.

Tickets are on sale now through the website:, or patrons can charge by phone at 617.993.0013.
Single tickets: over 30 @ $35, under 30 @ $15.


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

  1. A well-written and -researched article on a very interesting subject. A couple of matters do call out for clarification, however:
    Smyth’s birth year is stated as 1854; however, the referenced biography by Amy Zigler has 1858, and this is supported by Smyth having been 19 when she went to Leipzig in 1877, and by her 75th birthday in 1933.
    The second sentence of the third paragraph begins “Her first core in Leipzig was the Herzogenbergs, …”; I suspect that “core” was not the word intended here.
    On the other hand: I was puzzled by the reference to “… the old-fashioned Anglican style, which puts the Gloria at the end as the final movement …” of a Mass. I’m a life-long Anglican, and have sung in Episcopal/Anglican choirs most of my 80+ years, and the final movement of a Mass has always been the Agnus Dei. However, I checked with Wikipedia, and learned that, indeed, “Anglican services of the time [a century ago] [did have] the Gloria at the end.” Who knew? Thank you for showing me that there’s always something new to be learned.

    Comment by Michael P. McDonald — February 23, 2024 at 5:39 pm

  2. An interesting part of Smyth’s forceful, culture-changing life is missing from this fine writeup: her not private bisexuality (albeit chiefly homosexual). Music history professor George B. Stauffer reviewed Leah Broad’s ‘Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World‘ a few months ago in the New York Review of Books (, and of Smyth wrote that she “cut an unconventional figure. She dressed in tweed skirt suits with blouse and tie and smoked cigars to gain entry into male circles. She reveled in horseback riding, hunting, and outdoor sports, especially golf…. Engaged for three weeks to William Wilde, Oscar’s older brother, and then romantically linked to her librettist Henry Brewster [to whom she wrote ‘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’], Smyth also had passionate affairs with a number of prominent women: Virginia Woolf, the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, the Irish writer Edith Somerville, the heiress Winnaretta Singer Polignac, and others. Aggressive, determined to gain recognition, and unfazed by tradition, she was described by Woolf as an ‘uncastrated cat.’ … Woolf encouraged her to write openly about her sex life, but Smyth, staunchly Victorian if unconventional, demurred.”

    Comment by David Moran — February 23, 2024 at 8:21 pm

  3. “on average 12 intimate friends per annum”. She lived to be 86. That’s over a thousand “intimate friends”. Perhaps we have different definitions of “intimate”. Unless, of course, she dropped friends at a similar rate.

    Comment by SamW — February 25, 2024 at 9:23 am

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