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A Happy Time in Misery

Donald Macleod considers the impact of Ethel Smyth's earliest romantic entanglements and introduces music from her String Quartet in E minor and Serenade in D.

Donald Macleod considers the impact of Ethel Smyth's earliest romantic entanglements with music from her String Quartet in E minor and Serenade in D.

Accounts of Dame Ethel Smyth cast her as a doughty figure, unafraid to flout convention. Born into an upper class Victorian family, the fact that Smyth wanted a professional career in music is exceptional in itself. Two major choral works, several orchestral works, six operas and a significant body of chamber music, attest to her seriousness of purpose as a composer. However, the sheer gusto and number of other activities the ebullient Smyth pursued have tended to obscure her artistic reception. A keen traveller, she was a successful author, producing 9 largely autobiographical books. A life-long champion of women's rights, among the causes she supported was Mrs. Pankhurst's "right to vote" campaign. Her competitive nature found a perfect partner in sport; she was often to be found riding to hounds, playing tennis matches or striding over the golf course. As one rather bemused contemporary musician remarked when he met her, she is "the most remarkable and original woman composer in the history of music".

Today, a chance meeting with the American writer and philosopher Henry Brewster leads to the break up of Smyth's close relationship with Brewster's sister-in-law, Lisl von Herzogenberg. Meanwhile, encouraged by Tchaikovsky, Smyth begins to work on larger scale works, and finds success on the concert platform with her Serenade in D.

1 hour

Music Played

  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Finale - Violin sonata in D

    Performer: Clare Howick. Performer: Sophia Rahman.
    • Naxos.
    • 8.572291.
    • 4.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Sonata in A minor Op.7 for violin and piano

    Performer: Sophia Rahman. Performer: Clare Howick.
    • Naxos 8.572291.
    • Naxos.
    • 4.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Kyrie - Mass in D

    Choir: Plymouth Festival Chorus. Orchestra: Plymouth Festival Orchestra. Conductor: Philip Brunelle.
    • Virgin Classics.
    • VC7911882.
    • 1.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Quartet in E minor for strings

    Ensemble: Mannheim String Quartet.
    • CPO: 999 352-2.
    • CPO.
    • 1.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Allegro molto leggiero - String Quartet in E minor

    Performer: Mannheimer streichquartett.
    • CPO.
    • 999 352-2.
    • 2.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth

    Serenade (Symphonic serenade) in D major

    Orchestra: BBC Philharmonic. Conductor: Odaline de la Martinez.
    • Chandos.
    • Chan 9449.
    • 1.

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