What have a toothbrush, sheep dogs and a life of rebellion all have in common? The answer: they have all played an important part in the life of Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), one of the leading British female composers of the 20th century, and certainly the first female composer to be made a Dame.
If Ethel had been born a man her life would not have been as extraordinary as it was. The fact that she was a women makes her life stand out in what was a male-dominated world and profession. And her life coincided with one of history’s great battles for equality – women’s suffrage.
Although I don’t think Ethel could have been labelled as a true English eccentric her life was certainly unconventional. I prefer to call her a pioneer because she successfully fought against the stereotypes of Victorian womanhood and found such success in her chosen career that she could, like Florence Nightingale, be called a “national treasure” during her own lifetime.
Putting those two women’s names together also points out the great chasm there was between them ideologically. Ethel Smyth was one of the most active of the Suffragettes. Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, was no supporter of votes for women. It can be argued that Florence’s influence and iconic status was a major factor in the delay of giving votes to women in the UK until after her death in 1910.
The suffrage movement was a major cause for which Ethel Smyth was prepared to put her musical career on hold for two years. She did, however, compose an anthem which was adopted by the Suffragettes called “March of the Women”. There are various interpretations of this anthem online and I chose the one below because it is probably the nearest we can get to hearing how it would have been performed most often, without orchestra, just piano accompaniment at suffrage meetings.
The streak of rebellion in her veins began when Ethel was young. Growing up in a Victorian middle-class military family her desire to pursue a career in music was opposed by her father. There were frequent shouting matches between them which sometimes led Ethel to refuse to attend the usual social round of dinner parties and receptions. Ethel locked herself in her room to avoid them and eventually her father relented and reluctantly agreed to let her study music in Germany.
It was while she was in Leipzig that she had the first of several romantic relationships with women. Lisl von Herzogenberg, wife of Ethel’s tutor Heinrich, formed a close bond and, more or less, accepted Ethel as a full member of the family. Through them Ethel got to meet many of the great composers of the time – Dvorak, Greig, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. She also met Lisl’s brother-in-law Henry Brewster, the only man to whom Ethel is known to have had a romantic attachment. They wrote several works together, Brewster writing the libretto for Ethel’s operas.
Although there were several other women that Ethel loved it doesn’t seem as though she ever set up home with any of them. In fact, her constant companions for more than 50 years were a string of sheepdogs, all of them called Pan. In her later years when hearing problems began to restrict her composing Ethel turned to writing and became a well-known writer. She wrote about her dogs in a book called “Inordinate(?) Affection: A Story for Dog Lovers” (1936).
In a way her writing actually helped to improve her popularity as a composer as the general non-opera-going public became aware of her. The struggle for awareness of her work continued throughout most of Ethel’s life. The fact that she was a woman was the biggest struggle she had to overcome. She did have a few influential supporters and advocates, including Sir Thomas Beecham, and even enjoyed the patronage of the exiled Empress Eugenie of France and Princess de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer, lesbian sewing machine heiress).
Even at the end of her life Ethel never really believed she had truly overcome discrimination, despite the fact that she became the first female composer to be made a Dame in 1922, and that her music was popular and played in concert halls all around the world.
Which just leaves the toothbrush I mentioned at the beginning. It plays an important part in the most famous incident in her life after she was arrested for smashing the window of a politician’s home during a Suffragette protest. It’s a story worth re-telling because it illustrates more than any other incident in her life how she wasn’t going to be pushed around because she was a woman. Ethel was sentenced to a term in Holloway Prison. One day, when fellow Suffragettes struck up her “March of the Women” outside her window, Ethel picked up her toothbrush and went to the window and used it to conduct the women in rousing song. What an extraordinary sight that would have been.