Thursday, 22 April 2010

Great Women No. 3

The third in the Great Women series has appeared in The Lady. They ignored our layout suggestion (!) but the illustration are no longer enlarged which is good. And they seem to have got control over the rather over-vivid colour, which is good. Illustration by Sandy Nightingale and text by our dear chum Sandi Toksvig. So here she is . . .

Dame Ethel Smythe

Have your heard of her? Probably not. Should you have? Absolutely. She was a fabulous composer to whom George Bernard Shaw once wrote “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 ...your Mass (in D) will stand up in the biggest company! Magnificent!” She was famous in her own time (4/4 and 3/4) partly because she was eccentric, often conducting (especially at winter afternoon concerts) in tweeds and never being the least bit interested in whether her hat was on straight. So – great with a tune, less clever at fashion.

Dame Ethel’s dad was a General (JH Smyth) while her mum Nina was not. She was born on April 23,1858. Everyone argues about exactly where she was born but it might have been in Sidcup, Kent. This would be good for Sidcup as it might be the most famous thing about the place. From her earliest years Ethel appalled her father by wanting to study music. General Smyth was having none of it so the teenaged Ethel went on strike. Like all youthful protest this mainly consisted of locking herself in her room. Unlike any similar protest of teenagers today it ended by her father allowing her, aged 19, to go to Leipzig to study.

Leipzig has the world's largest facilities for primates but Ethel ignored this and instead made friends with Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Clara Schumann, Joachim, and Brahms, all of whom she was able to name drop later in life. Having had a taste of sorting her own life out Ethel returned to England where she joined the militant suffragist movement and wrote March of the Women, the rallying theme of the suffragettes. She was a vigorous supporter of the movement, so vigorous in fact, that she served two months in Holloway prison for throwing stones at a conservative politician’s windows. The legendary conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, visited her in prison and wrote “I arrived in the main courtyard of the prison to find the noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war-chart (March of the Women) while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.”

Smyth never married but can I put this? ...she had many ‘devoted friendships’ with famous and infamous folk like Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Somerville, and Virginia Woolf. Bearing that in mind it won’t surprise anyone that she was a sporty girl - a keen rider and, before anyone thought it a good idea for women, terribly fond of mountaineering, cycling and golf.

She was made Dame of the British Empire in 1922, was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University and the first female composer to have her work performed at the Metropolitan opera in New York. She died on May 8th in 1944 and her obituary in The Times quoted a friend as saying “I cherish a picture of her, sitting bolt upright in the corner of a first-class carriage between Surbiton and Woking; she was armed with a great bundle of weeklies, which she examined rapidly, crumpled into balls, and hurled recklessly aside with snorts of disapproval, while the rest of the compartment submitted meekly to this astonishing bombardment.” Glorious.

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