Ethel Smyth (1858-1944, English)

Since the mid-1990s there’s been a modest Ethel Smyth revival going on, heralded by a recording of her opera “The Wreckers” (Conifer Classics 51250, 756055125020).

She seems to have been a strong personality, strong enough to oppose her father’s refusal to let her embark into serious studies to become a composer (and it certainly takes a strong will to oppose a general-major of the Imperial army), and later to get arrested and emprisoned for her all-out and unbridled advocacy of women’s rights.

Her training was principally German: she studied with Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) in Leipzig and became very close to Heinrich Herzogenberg (1843-1900), a close friend and admirer of Brahms – both composers were considered the crème de la crème in the mid- to late 19th century German world but are now seen as second-rate composers who wrote for way too long music anchored in the style of their predecessors.

Of Ethel Smyth I had heard the Overture of The Wreckers before, a 1968 recording by the Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson, reissued on EMI Studio CDM 7 69206 2, and it hadn’t left a positive impression; it sounded like a derivation of Wagner with whiffs of Brahms, which, by 1906, could not have sounded very innovative (see my review on Two years before Puccini had composed Madame Butterfly and Strauss, Salome.

But her early String Quintet op. 1 (1884) and String Quartet in E minor (published in 1914 but written between 1902 and 1912), played by the Mannheim Quartet on cpo, aren’s so backward looking considering their time of composition; they may not be strikingly novel either, but they are beautiful, all-out lyrical works.

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