The courageous songwriter of the suffragette anthem who dared to love Virginia Woolf

Ethel Smyth wrote ‘The March of the Women’ and was the first woman to have an opera produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera

Ethel Smyth
British composer Ethel Smyth conducts a band performance at an event honoring suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst; London, 1930.Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

In 1912, conductor Thomas Beecham visited composer Ethel Smyth at Holloway Women’s Prison in London, where all the suffragettes were locked up. He found her in the central prison yard conducting her fellow inmates in a song, using a toothbrush as a baton. They were singing The March of the Women, the suffragette anthem composed by Smyth two years earlier.

The composer had been jailed for throwing a stone through the window of the British Parliament during a demonstration organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union to protest the prime minister’s opposition to women’s suffrage. Smyth had been recruited by the organization’s founder, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was determined to enlist the first woman to have an opera produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Smyth was equally interested in art and social issues and earned broad recognition in music when she became the first woman composer to be named to the Order of the British Empire in 1922. Her compositions and performances transcended the small salon venues where women traditionally showcased their talent; she wrote symphonies, religious pieces and operas.

Her talent and success would win renown even today. A 2019 study on the role of women in symphonic music found that classical music is one of the most male-dominated arts. Only 1% of the works performed by Spanish symphony orchestras are written by women, barely 8% of orchestra conductors are women, and women have only conducted 5% of the concerts performed.

Conductor James Blachly, who won a Grammy award in 2021 for conducting The Prison – the last opera Smyth composed – said: “She was an absolutely fascinating human being. Brave, bold, headstrong, stubborn, charming... She lived in a way most of us can only dream of.”

Smyth had to give up her musical career prematurely due to hearing problems, which led her to another vocation — literature. The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth (an abridged collection first published in 1987) reveal an exceptional personality. “Her memoirs are magnificently written and fascinating. I hope a great movie will be made about her life,” said Blachly. Smyth wrote 10 books and kept a diary during the latter part of her life. Smyth fell in love with Virginia Woolf, who praised “the recurring turns” and “the easy, loose rhythm” of her prose.

Ethyl Smyth was born in England in 1858 and showed a talent for music at a young age. When she turned 19, Smyth announced to her family that she would study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory, one of the best in Europe. There, Smyth met some of the best musicians of her day — Edvard Grieg, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Pyotr Tchaikovsky said she was “one of the few women composers who have the potential to achieve something worthy in the musical field.”

Before returning to England, she undertook a solo tour of Italy. Her only luggage was a comb, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a map and a revolver. “In many ways, the freedom and boldness of her life are reflected in her music. It sounds like no other — direct, clear, courageous and unique,” said Blachly.

Smyth faced social prejudices from the onset. “Devoid of feminine charm and therefore unworthy of a woman,” wrote a critic about Smyth’s debut composition, Sonata in A Minor, Op. 7 (violin and piano). She began signing her work as EM Smyth to avoid discriminatory treatment. Her physical appearance also prompted disapproval: “There was not much feminine about Smyth in her middle age. She wore a manly little hat, old and scruffy country attire and a hideous purple cotton jacket,” wrote biographer Christopher St. John. In 1903, she made history by becoming the first woman to have an opera performed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The New York Times critic disparaged Smyth’s composition as a dressed-up Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Sexual freedom unusual for her time

Smyth’s achievements caught the attention of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement. Smyth’s memoirs vividly describe her first impressions of Pankhurst, with whom she probably had a romantic relationship. “I think Emmeline was attracted to her strength of character and vice versa,” said Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of the feminist activist. “Both imagined a different world from the one they lived in, accepted as normal by many women and most men.”

Smyth was always attracted to women. Although she openly wrote that her most ardent feelings were for members of her own sex, Smyth had a relationship with a man, philosopher Henry Bennet Brewster, and dedicated The Prison to him. This sexual freedom was very unusual for her time. Helen Pankhurst said, “The suffragette movement attracted women for whom fighting for a different future also meant being able to love whom they wanted. In some cases, this led to lesbian relationships, although they had to be discreet, as it was illegal.”

When she didn’t use a pseudonym, Smyth struggled to be recognized in music. She wrote in her memoir about the weak presence of women in music and attributed it to their lack of political voice and voting rights, as well as the absence of female role models. To inspire the feminist movement, she composed a song — The March of the Women — which officially became the suffragette anthem in 1911.

Ethyl Smyth died at 86 after a passionate life. Well into old age, she fell in love with writer Virginia Woolf. In one of her diary entries, she wrote that people never lose the ability to fall in love. “For many, or at least for me, passion is independent of the sexual machinery. When you are young, this is undeniable. But I have retained as intense and absorbing a capacity to love as I had with the great loves of my youth.”

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