The Story of Ethel Smyth, Breaker of Operatic Glass Ceilings

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Last night, New York City's Metropolitan Opera premiered an opera composed by a woman. The last time that happened, it was 1903. Here’s the story of the feisty (and eccentric) composer-turned-suffragist who broke that musical glass ceiling 113 years ago.Hundreds of women

were walking by twos and threes down London’s main thoroughfares when the riot erupted on March 1, 1912. At precisely 5:30 p.m., the line of ladies stopped along Westminster’s busiest roads—from Piccadilly to Regent Street—pulled hammers and rocks out of their handbags, and began smashing the windows of shops, department stores, and political offices that opposed a woman’s right to vote. The mass riot, coordinated by the militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, had begun.

"Never since plate glass was invented has there been such a smashing and shattering of it as was witnessed this evening when the suffragettes went out on a window-breaking raid in the West End of London," The New York Times reported the following day. By night’s end, 148 women had been arrested.

Ethel Smyth was one of them. She was jailed for hurling a rock through the window of Lewis Harcourt's home—Harcourt was an avowed anti-suffragist and the Secretary of the State for the Colonies. When Smyth’s friend, the musician Thomas Beecham, visited her at Holloway Prison, he stumbled upon a remarkable scene: Dozens of suffragettes had rallied together in the prison yard to sing.

Long, long—we in the past / Cowered in dread from the light of heaven / Strong, strong—stand we at last / Fearless in faith and with sight new given. / Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty / (Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!) / These, these—beckon us on! / Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Above the courtyard, Smyth stood in her jail cell and proudly listened to the women below. They were singing "The March of Women," a piece she had composed two years earlier as the anthem for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Smyth grabbed a toothbrush, reached her arms beyond the bars of her prison window, and conducted the chorus below.

Few moments define Ethel Smyth better. She was a feisty, and sometimes radical, activist for equality, whether it was in the voting booth or in the male-dominated world of classical music. She was a talented, and fiercely independent, musician—one of England’s most successful turn-of-the-century composers. Not only did she break the glass windows surrounding anti-suffragist politicians, she also cracked the glass ceiling of one of America’s most illustrious concert halls: The Metropolitan Opera.


Ethel Smyth always had a defiant streak

. Born in 1858, Smyth grew up in Kent, England, where she hunted, hiked, and mountain climbed. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she also enjoyed "unladylike" activities such as tennis, golf, and bicycling. (A lot of people freaked out about women riding bicycles back then. Consider this gem from an 1891 Sunday Herald: "I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle … I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I changed my mind.") The adult Smyth must have been a double whammy: she bicycled and smoked cigars.

However, little is audacious about her musical upbringing. At age 10, she started composing hymns and chants and learned how to play the piano. Her keyboard studies were short-lived. Two years later, she accidentally injured her left hand with a knife, ending her piano career. But it didn't matter. She was hooked on music. She studied composition throughout her teens and, ignoring the demands of her father, a stern military general, she left home in 1877 for Leipzig, German to study music at the conservatory.

That was short-lived too. Smyth found conservatory life dreary. After one year of school, she left to study privately with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Through that relationship, she met and studied with Johannes Brahms—who for some reason nicknamed her "The Oboe"—and met musical luminaries such as Pytor Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Antonin Dvořák, and Clara Schumann.

For the next decade, Smyth slowly carved a name for herself in Leipzig by writing lieder (German lyrical poems meant for a solo voice and piano), piano music, and short violin sonatas. In the 1890s, she returned to England and composed what many consider her orchestral masterpiece: "Mass in D." The playwright Bernard Shaw was fascinated by the piece, later calling it an antidote for sexism. "It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do man’s work in art and all other things," he said.

With that, Smyth’s friends begged her to take the next step. She needed to write an opera.

View from New York's old Metropolitan Opera House. Image credit: Getty.

Classical music today

has a reputation for being homogenous. The repertoire is rife with white European men, most of them dead. Contemporary composers—both men and women—must compete for space in every program against a centuries-old lineup of deceased, crowd-pleasing masters. It's not much better on the podium. Only about 11 percent of America’s major symphony conductors are women. And in the opera world, the 50 most performed works? All by men. More than 500 operas by women exist today, but it’s hard to find a major opera house that will produce any of them.

It wasn’t always this way. One of the first operas ever written, the comical The Liberation of Ruggiero, was composed by a woman, Francesca Caccini, in 1625. As Elizabeth Davis explains on Classic FM, Caccini was one of the best paid musicians in all of Tuscany. A century later, Italy's Maria Teresa Agnesi, who composed six operas, was one of the most popular musicians in the country. During the 19th century, Princess Amalie of Saxony was among the most prolific opera composers in Europe, writing 14. Countless more talented women filled salons and concert halls with their music.

That may be because, for about two centuries, concert halls featured works by living composers. But as the 19th century wrapped up, that changed: A canon of male operatic "geniuses" formed, including Scarlatti, Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini, Wagner. As opera houses resurrected the works of dead composers, living writers were pushed to the fringes. The problem was especially severe for women.

None of that deterred Smyth. It motivated her. Between 1899 and 1901, she began work on her second opera, Der Wald, and she was hell-bent on getting it produced—if not for her sake, for the women who followed her. "I feel I must fight for Der Wald," she wrote in a letter in 1902, "because 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."

A one-act, 75-minute German-language opera, Der Wald is set in a tranquil forest of cypress trees during the Middle Ages. The woods are full of nymphs and woodland-living spirits who sing about the insignificance of humanity in the face nature. The show includes witches and a woodcutter and a man with a pet bear, and like all good operas, somebody dies at the end.

Der Wald premiered in Berlin on April 9, 1902 and received some hisses from the crowd. But in London, it broke attendance records. Across the pond in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera agreed to give Smyth a shot.

The first performance in New York was a hit, financially speaking. The show earned the Met $10,390.60, making it highest grossing production all year. The New York World said the performance "stirred the blood with clangor of brass, the shrieks of strings, the plaint of wood winds…" When the curtain fell, the audience roared their unyielding approval for 10 to 15 minutes. Smyth took seven curtain calls and left the stage, The New York Times noted, with "flowers by the cartload."

Most critics gave it a thumbs down anyway. They griped that the music was too beefy for a woman composer. It was like Wagner took HGH injections. "This little woman writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to the especial gift of the rougher sex. There is not a weak or effeminate note in Der Wald, nor an unstable sentiment," The Telegraph said. The New York World concurred: "Her work is utterly unfeminine. It lacks sweetness and grace of phrase." The New-York Commercial Advertiser complained that Smyth had tried too hard "to take the sex element out of her work" and, by compensating, had surpassed "in masculinity anything that a man might do." The New York Times simply called it, "a disappointing novelty," lamenting that, "it is difficult to find much import in this sophisticated Grimm's fairy tale."

Smyth was undaunted. She continued writing operas and found a cause in the women’s suffrage movement. She composed a satirical choral work called 1910, which her obituary called a "grotesque symphony of suffragettes, anti-suffragettes, and the hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot." She also wrote the aforementioned "The March of Women," which became the rallying cry for the suffragette cause. She befriended the activist Emmeline Pankhurst—who encouraged fellow feminists to fend off police with jiu jitsu—and spent the next few years protesting, and getting arrested, by her side. (She’d spend two months in prison for chucking that rock through Lewis Harcourt’s window.)

The March of the Women (Shoulder to Shoulder) from Wild Love Music on Vimeo.

Smyth may have been Beethoven reincarnate, too. During her activist years, her hearing deteriorated. (She coped with the oncoming deafness by visiting Egypt, playing a lot of golf, and writing a comic opera called The Boatswain’s Mate.) During World War I, she worked as an X-ray nurse in a military hospital. And yet, despite losing her hearing, she continued conducting and writing music. And memoirs. She defied taboos and wrote openly and earnestly about her attraction to women, while late in life she scribbled a play about her close friend (and crush) Virginia Woolf. Woolf was amazed by Smyth’s talents, remarking, "How you do it, God knows."

In 1922, Smyth was honored with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. All the while, she continued to not give a hoot about what anybody thought of her. Her eccentric wardrobe mirrored the official colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union: "She would don a tie of the brightest purple, white and green, or some hideous purple cotton jacket," Pankhurst recalled. Put lightly, Smyth stuck out in a crowd.

In 1934, a special concert of Smyth’s music was played at Royal Albert Hall in London. The Queen attended and led the applause. Sadly, Smyth was so deaf that she couldn’t hear the music or the ovation. By her death at the age of 86 in 1944, Dame Ethel Smyth had written 10 books, a concerto, countless orchestral works, and six operas.

Dame Ethel Smyth conducts a police band in 1930. Image credit: Getty.

In the United States

, Ethel Smyth continues to stand out in musical circles for Der Wald, though not necessarily for the best reasons. Not only was she the first woman to have an opera produced at the Met, she was also the last. Until now.

Yesterday, on December 1, 2016, the drought ended. After a 113 year dry spell, the Metropolitan Opera produced its second opera by a woman: L’Amour de Loin, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The work, which first premiered in Salzburg, Austria, in 2000 has been praised by The Guardian as "luminous but inescapably dramatic." (The Met’s staging, a dazzling sea of 28,000 LED lights, looks equally dramatic.) The performance is being conducted by Susanna Malkki, just the fourth woman to command the Met orchestra in the organization’s 136 year history.

"It just shows how slowly these things evolve," Saariaho recently told The New York Times, remarking on the gap. "But they are evolving—in all fields and also in music." It’s true. The United States alone is now home to a growing Mount Rushmore of incredible female classical music composers: Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, and Ellen Zwilich have all won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Joan Tower, a giant in the profession, has earned three Grammys.

As for the current production of L’Amour de Loin, there will be seven more performances this December. If you pass through New York, treat yourself with a ticket. After all, Ethel Smyth didn’t go around smashing those glass windows and ceilings for nothing.