First Recording of Final Major Work by Suffragette Composer

Aug 17, 2020

On the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a much-neglected work by British suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth is being released.  This is the first commercial recording of Smyth’s final major work, The Prison.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Credit George Grantham Bain Collection / Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Smyth (1858-1944) was a composer and conductor at a time when women rarely inhabited either of those professional roles. Her music received responses at both extremes.  Many, including the prominent conductors Thomas Beecham and Adrian Boult, championed her music. However, the press often criticized her small-scale works as too feminine and her large-scale works as substandard compared to those of her male contemporaries.

“Consistently audiences loved her music, and critics were generally brutal and often in ways that we can only attribute to hard-set misogyny, (writing) things like, ‘A remarkable achievement for a woman,’” said Blachly in a recent phone interview.

Listen to excerpts from Ethel Smyth’s The Prison and an interview with conductor James Blachly about making the first recording of the work:

Smyth brought her musical career to a pause in 1910, when she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in support of women’s suffrage. Smyth’s role in gaining women the right to vote extends beyond her having composed The March of the Women, which became a battle cry for the women’s suffrage movement.

A much-repeated anecdote sees Smyth responding to a call from Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, to throw stones and break windows of the houses of political leaders who decry giving women the vote. Smyth was arrested and imprisoned for two months for her role in the stone-throwing.

Credit publicity photo / Chandos Records

Smyth’s The Prison has been recorded in its entirety by conductor James Blachly and the New York City-based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. The recording also features noted soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists.

Smyth composed The Prison in 1929-30 and based the work on a text she culled from Henry Bennet Brewster’s philosophical work The Prison: A Dialogue. Written in the face of Smyth’s impending deafness, The Prison is her final major composition and stands as a testament to peace and freedom.

“I think what prompted her to write this was coming to terms with her own deafness, realizing that her compositional career was going to come to an end, and this was her way of reconciling herself to that,” said Blachly in a recent phone interview.

At the heart of the libretto of Smyth’s symphony, a prisoner in solitary confinement (bass-baritone soloist) converses with his soul (soprano soloist) about preparing for death by achieving inner peace.

“It’s really a hope-filled message, that no matter what happens, even if we don’t finish the great work, even that is enough,” Blachly said. “And so this idea – that by being human, we are enough. We don’t have to beat ourselves up so much.”