Selected Chamber Works of Dame Ethel Smyth (2009)


Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer of great acclaim from the end of the nineteenth century to World War II. She composed many works, including operas, orchestral works, a mass, several choral compositions, and numerous songs, many of which have received scholarly attention and study. It is less widely known that Smyth composed over a dozen chamber pieces during a fifty-year time span. These works have seldom been performed or studied.

The development of Smyth’s compositional style is discerned through a detailed examination of her chamber works in the context of her biography. Drawing upon traditional formal and stylistic analysis, Peter Smith’s theory of expressive interpretation, and Sally Macarthur’s theory of feminist aesthetics, the author examined select works from significant points throughout Smyth’s life. The analysis of the music is based on autograph scores and published editions. Smyth’s memoirs, letters, and diaries as well as those of her contemporaries illuminated the historical context of each work.

Throughout her career, Smyth turned to the genre of chamber music. Although these works were not as publicly recognized as her operas or her Mass in D, seven out of twelve chamber pieces were published by firms such as Breitkopf & Härtel and Universal Edition, and these works were also publicly performed. More so than the other genres in which Smyth composed, the chamber works afford the opportunity to examine her style over a period of almost fifty years (from the Sonata in C minor for Cello and Piano composed in 1879 to the Variations on “Bonny Sweet Robin” for flute, oboe, and piano published in 1926). In addition to an examination of Smyth’s musical style, studying these six pieces in their historical and biographical context will also partially demonstrate the degree to which Smyth’s personal life influenced her compositions. Recent scholarship on Smyth has focused on the connection between her gender or sexuality and her music, but it will also be helpful to study the events in Smyth’s life that shaped her philosophical and compositional style. Coincidentally, these events often corresponded with the specific years during which she was composing chamber music. Smyth began her career with the more intimate genre, writing several works before advancing to larger orchestral and vocal works. Four of these early pieces are discussed in detail in this dissertation. Smyth later returned to the genre at three profound moments in her life: on the cusp of operatic success in 1902; following the death of her friend, Harry Brewster, in 1912; and during the waning years of her career when her deafness made it increasingly difficult to compose.

A distinct musical style emerged after analyzing the early derivative compositions and the later mature works. Even as late as 1912, Smyth was composing multi-movement works that incorporated such traditional forms as sonata-allegro and scherzo-and-trio, yet her harmonic language became increasingly chromatic with each work. Her melodic style also defied expectations of the Classical tradition associated with the genres, except in specific examples where the section or passage adopted a deliberately Classical style. Sally Macarthur argues that this avoidance of the Golden Mean in otherwise Classical structures is possible evidence of a feminist aesthetic. Broadening Macarthur’s argument, I believe that an avoidance of the Golden Mean is an affront to the Classical style by Romantic composers of the 19th century, including Smyth, rather than a deliberate practice by female composers to subvert the masculine tradition. Partly a result of the musical elements, Smyth’s compositions contain a high degree of emotional expression and the possibility for autobiographical interpretation, evidence of which will be revealed in the chapters below.

This dissertation also explores moments and people in Smyth’s life that have either been overlooked or treated lightly. Often, this has been the result of little documented evidence with which to fully tell the story of Smyth’s life. In particular, Smyth’s years in Germany and her relationships with Elisabet von Herzogenberg and Henry Brewster were significant to her compositional development throughout her career. The composer’s friendship with Herzogenberg has not gone unexplored in previous scholarship, and this study aims to further explore the influence Herzogenberg had on Smyth, both emotionally and musically. Brewster, however, has often been treated as merely her librettist, but their relationship was actually the longest and most profound of Smyth’s life. Unlike Smyth’s numerous but brief affairs with women, the twenty-five year bond Brewster shared with Smyth was only broken by his death in 1908. Their letters reveal a connection that went beyond professionalism or casual friendship. Years later, Smyth’s struggle with deafness prompted the composition of her final chamber work, and previously unpublished diary excerpts reveal her frustration and ultimate success. It is possible that the warm reception accorded to this work gave Smyth the confidence to compose her final large-scale effort, The Prison.

Little evidence exists to prove that Smyth had autobiographical intentions for her compositions. She strove to write to the best to her ability and to be recognized for her achievements. Her works are absolute compositions with minimal direct extramusical reference. The analyses undertaken in this study provide evidence of a skilled composer with an individual voice. Whether her music is the voice of women, the Britons, or the Romantic generation will only be revealed through further research.  It is the hope of the author that this detailed examination will encourage the study and performance of Smyth’s music and foster a greater understanding of the composer.

Copyright Zigler 2009

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