Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison from 1930 Wins GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album
World Premiere Recording on Chandos Records
First-ever GRAMMY Award for Music by Classical Composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Watch the GRAMMY Award Acceptance: https://youtu.be/Z5odPCJLGp0
James Blachly, Conductor
Sarah Brailey, Soprano & Dashon Burton, Bass-Baritone
Experiential Orchestra and Chorus
“an album of the year, by any measure” – The New York Times
The world premiere recording of composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1930 masterwork, The Prison, released on Chandos Records, has won the GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. The recording is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, featuring soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists. The producer is Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror. Appropriately given Smyth’s role in the Suffragette movement in England, the August 2020 release date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. This is the first-ever GRAMMY Award for music by the English composer, who lived from 1858-1944, and struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits rather than on the basis of her gender.
Conductor James Blachly’s work on The Prison began in 2015. He is the editor for the new Wise Music Group critical edition of The Prison that not only made this recording possible, but paves the way for a resurrection of the work.
Blachly says, “Dame Ethel Smyth’s music has been undervalued for too long, and this Grammy win is the recognition that she has deserved for decades. I’m honored to have been a part of this recording and project, and 90 years after its premiere, I’m excited for this career-culminating masterpiece to finally be heard throughout the world’s great concert halls.”
Ethel Smyth left home at age 19 (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).
Her work 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. On the title page, Smyth quotes the last words of Greek philosopher Plotinus, “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and merge it in the universally divine.” 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.
Soprano Sarah Brailey, who has been hailed by The New York Times for her “radiant, liquid tone,” “exquisitely phrased,” and “sweetly dazzling singing,” sings the role of “The Soul” on this recording. She says, “Smyth is an inspiration as a composer, an activist, and a woman. It has been such an honor to help bring this incredible piece to the world. I hope listeners enjoy discovering it as much as we have.” Brailey enjoys a career filled with projects as diverse as soloing in Handel’s Messiah with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing with Kanye West and Roomful of Teeth at the Hollywood Bowl, and recording cello and vocal soundscapes for the 2018 Fog x FLO Fujiko Nakaya public art installation in Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system.
Bass-Baritone Dashon Burton, who sings the role of “The Prisoner,” says, “This piece is an immortal dedication to those who fight for freedom. Working with James, Sarah, and all the amazing musicians on this album has been a dream, and I hope it awakens all our spirits as much as it has awakened mine.” Burton is a frequent guest with the major orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Japan. He sings recitals throughout the U.S., including a program based on works from his album Songs and Struggles of Redemption; We Shall Overcome, singled out by The New York Times as “profoundly moving…a beautiful and lovable disc.” He is an original member of the Grammy-winning groundbreaking vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.
Ralph Couzens, Managing Director Chandos Records, says, “Championing the works of lesser known or neglected British composers and bringing their music to a wider public is an intrinsic part of the ethos of Chandos Records. We are delighted to have released this extraordinary recording, and very grateful to James Blachly and his team for resurrecting such a significant score with such a convincing and idiomatic performance.”
More about The Prison
The Prison is at once a unique expression for Smyth, and also a summary of her previous compositional life, including a Leipzig-inspired organ prelude that opens the second half of the piece, dedicated to Brewster in 1884 and now beautifully orchestrated. The instrumentation and use of two soloists would seem to be a nod to the Brahms Requiem, and given her devotion to Brahms’s music (which Tchaikovsky chided her for in letters to her), this would resonate as a motivation for her final large-scale composition. But the music itself reveals other influences, including a dark Wagnerian orchestration palette, Straussian soaring melodies over rich harmonies in the orchestra, and references to her composition teacher von Herzogenberg’s fugue on a birdsong.
Ultimately, however, such references fail to capture the nature of the music. Featured in the second half of the work is a melody called the “Seikolos fragment,” which had been re-discovered in 1922, and was considered the oldest surviving complete melody. What is clear in exploring the symphony is that it is the work of a master composer at the end of her life. Written in 1930 and premiered in 1931 as she increasingly lost her hearing, it also reveals a new, deeply personal musical language.
More about Dame Ethel Smyth
Smyth faced significant discrimination as a female composer throughout her 50+ year career, with critics saying her music was “too feminine,” or “too masculine,” or “a remarkable achievement – for a woman.” Brahms reportedly approved of her music, but did not at first believe it had been written by a woman. Her support was strongest from prominent conductor-advocates. Bruno Walter conducted The Wreckers at Covent Garden in 1910, and Sir Thomas Beecham conducted a retrospective of her works at Royal Albert Hall in 1934. Donald Tovey was also a champion of her music, and Hermann Levi advocated for her music for decades. Smyth later became central to the Suffragette movement in England, writing the March of the Women. 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.