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Dame Ethel Smyth’s many “firsts” as a woman composer

Dame Ethel Smyth was a true master of composition, an accomplished writer, and central to the Suffragette movement in England.

On August 7, Chandos Records will release Experiential Orchestra's world premiere recording of The Prison, Smyth's last work and her only symphony. Read more about her below!

Subscribe to Experiential Orchestra's mailing list to enter to win a copy:

First woman to have an opera performed at The Met

Composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits, rather than on the basis of her gender. She left home at age 17 (against the wishes of her military father) in order to compose music in Leipzig. In the company of Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met and won the admiration of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak, and Grieg, and became the first woman to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1903. (The second was not until Kaaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin in 2016.)

Dame Ethel Smyth, with other composers, all male, at an ISCM Festival in Salzburg, August 1922

Composer of March of the Woman for the Suffragette movement in England

Smyth was central to the Suffragette movement in England and wrote March of the Women in 1911, which became the anthem of the movement. Her gender politics and sexuality were cause for attacks by critics, and she even went to prison for throwing a stone through an MP’s window.

Composing was Smyth's first career, her second was writing

Smyth was 60 years old when World War I ended. She was suffering from hearing loss and, having spent many years in Germany, the war had also taken away priceless professional contacts and performance opportunities.

In 1919 she began to write professionally, and would go on to publish ten highly successful books of about her life. Smyth was friends with many notable people during her life, and one of her new friends from this endeavor was Virginia Woolf.

However, Smyth continued to compose, writing more operas, chamber works, a concerto for horn, violin, and orchestra, and in 1930, at age seventy-two, her last large work, The Prison.

The Prison was Smyth's first and only symphony

The Prison is a 64-minute symphony in two parts, “Close on Freedom” and “The Deliverance.” Sometimes called an oratorio or a cantata, it is similar in scale and scope to the vocal symphonies of Mahler. The text for the work, drawn from a philosophical work by Henry Bennet Brewster, describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death. But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the “prison” is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the “shackles of self,” as Brewster describes them. This was Smyth’s last work and her only symphony – she was 72 when she completed it in 1930. She stopped composing shortly after, due to advancing deafness.

First woman composer to be granted a damehood

Smyth was named "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire" in 1922 in recognition of her work as a composer and writer.


Experiential Orchestra's world premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth's The Prison is set for release on Chandos Records on August 7. The recording is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists.

Subscribe to Experiential Orchestra's mailing list to enter to win a copy:

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