Dame Ethel Smyth: String Quintet in E, op. 1

performed by the Mannheim String Quartet with Joachim Griesheimer, available here on iTunes (U.S. store) or on Amazon (No YouTube today, but I highly recommend purchasing the recording of this work; it’s exquisite.)

Smyth’s music was seldom evaluated as simply the work of a composer among composers, but as that of a “woman composer.” This worked to keep her on the margins of the profession, and, coupled with the double standard of sexual aesthetics, also placed her in a double bind. On the one hand, when she composed powerful, rhythmically vital music, it was said that her work lacked feminine charm; on the other, when she produced delicate, melodious compositions, she was accused of not measuring up to the artistic standards of her male colleagues.

Eugene Gates, from Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t: Sexual Aesthetics and the Music of Dame Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (which rhymes with Forsyth, not Smith) was born on April 23, 1858 in Kent, to a Major-General in the Royal Artillery who would later be strongly opposed to her pursuit of a musical career. Remind you of anyone?

Despite her father’s disagreement, she studied privately with Alexander Ewing before moving to the famous Leipzig Conservatory, where she was able to meet such celebrities of the day as Dvorak, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Surprisingly, she spent only a year there, “disillusioned with the low standard of teaching”, says Wikipedia, and continued her studies, again privately, under Heinrich von Herzogenberg, through whom she met Clara Schumann and Brahms.

Smyth was also a figure in the women’s suffrage movement and apparently had a career of sorts toward that cause, giving up music for a few years to spend more time there, even being arrested at least once, spending a few months in prison as a result. Ultimately, though, as the opening quote expressed, life was not easy as a female composer, although she did have a large degree of success. Her opera Der Wald, staged by the world famous Metropolitan Opera in New York, was the only opera by a female composer to be staged there, that is until this season, when they did/will perform an opera by Kaija Saariaho. Smyth’s The Wreckers was also “considered by some critics to be “the most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten,”” which is quite a compliment.

But today we will look at her opus one, the very beginning of this fine career. The quintet is for a two violins, viola, and two cellos, in five movements, and was published in 1884. Despite the op. 1 designation, however, it seems it was not her first composition. Edition Silvertrust notes that the work “was hardly her first composition,” and that it was “out of print for well over a century” but doesn’t give any additional details about those statements.

Honestly, though, in listening to this work, if you’d told me that it was yet another of Dvorak’s chamber works from his time in America, perhaps an unpublished early go at the ‘American’ idiom he would reach with the 12th quartet and the E major quintet, I just might believe you. This piece very much has the warmth, approachability, and simple beauty of the ‘American’ works of Dvorak while predating those works by a decade, and while still retaining something unique to Smyth.

The first movement, in sonata form, gives us two distinct themes that are equally charming, and the tension seems to arise from trying to decide which is the more beautiful, as they come and go and morph in the development. The writing is pleasant, tasteful, expressive, reserved, fragrant, full of detail and life. Just wait until the second theme appears. We’ve been convinced that the first is the gem of the piece, bowled over by its beauty, and yet it’s as if a curtain is drawn and yet more sunlight washes in. Just gorgeous. There’s such perfection at every turn, every gesture, and one can perhaps hear, just in this movement alone, how the composer admired Brahms. Just a stunning first movement, and a real chance to relish an exposition repeat and recapitulation.

The second movement of this five-movement work is an andantino, an intermezzo of sorts, at only about two minutes in length, full of pizzicato and slightly darker, more mellow charms. Again, we hear a stunning, mature delicacy in the writing for the ensemble, the color and texture that emerge are multifaceted and intoxicating but not in the least overwhelming or too dense. It just sweeps you right along, and after the quiet ending of this small departure from the typical four-movement structure, we find ourselves in the central scherzo and trio of the work.

It’s vibrant and exciting, buoyant, folksy, and playful, but with the faintest echoes of the melancholy leftover from the intermezzo. The trio is like a rare glimpse of solitude, one of those moments in the day when everyone in the house is gone, and it’s quiet, and there’s sunshine and a breeze, and you can heave a relaxed sigh before life starts going again. The bouncy scherzo returns, and I realize this piece leaves me with such a simple satisfaction, an appreciation of the pure unadulterated beauty and sheer exquisiteness of the writing here.

But maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “there’s nothing too serious about this work. It’s all light and playful and sunny.” And if you’re thinking that, you’re silly, because there’s really a superb level of artistry in the previous movements, but here we hear Smyth committing to a darker, more somber mood, something we got a glimpse of in the intermezzo, and while this movement is one of the shorter of the work, it too is effective, convincing, and not removed from the overall direction of the piece.

In contrast with that we have the finale, and how, pray, does one finish a work like this? Beautifully, of course. We begin with a fugue, perhaps the most rigorous musical statement in the whole work, but even here, it’s not academic or dry. In fact, at every turn the music is bursting with life, with energy, with perfectly-executed, balanced emotion and passion.

It’s really a wonder to me that this isn’t one of the most widely-performed quintets in the repertoire. It is sublimely beautiful, not challenging, immediately approachable and enjoyable, but far from lacking substance or depth. It sounds like such a mature, well-crafted work, and I’m sure it could quickly be an audience favorite if it were just discovered by a few more performing groups.

So that’s that for now, our first contribution to the chamber works of the English (Symphony) Series. I’m including these in the Symphony Series even though they’re (obviously) not symphonies, because I’ve worked hard to find chamber works from English composers who either didn’t write symphonies, or whose symphonies I decided not to include, and what an opus no. 1 this piece is. From the first listen, I knew it had to be included, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of Smyth’s work and how her incredible talents evolve as she matured.

We’ve jumped through already about a century and a half, from the early-mid 18th century up to the late 19th, and that’s where we’ll pick up next week, with only two symphonies, but from very important, influential composers as we continue our exploration of English classical music. It’s going to be a wonderful series, so do stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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