Apr 23, 1858-May 4, 1944
Ethel loved composing music and she loved women. The women in her life were her fellow suffragettes and in private, her female lovers.
She was born in London, the four child of eight children. Her father was a Major-General in the Royal Artillery
As a child, Ethel excelled in music and her ambition was to become a composer. Her father objected but later relented and Ethel attended
the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. She met many composers
who valued her work.
Her compositions include songs,works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas. In 1913, disaster struck when Ethel realized that she was losing her hearing. Back in England Ethel found a new interest in literature. Between 1919 and 1940 she published ten highly successful books (mostly autobiographical).
Member of the Suffragette Movement
In 1910. when Ethel still had not been compromised by a hearing loss, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was a suffrage organization. She composed “The March of the Women” in 1911 and this became the anthem of the movement. WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, ordered the suffragettes to break windows of any politician that opposed votes for women. Ethel was one of 109 women who responded to the order and served two months in Holloway Prison. Thomas Beecham, a famous composer and friend of Ethel visited her in jail. He was surprised to see the suffragettes marching in a quadrangle and singing while Ethel conducted them from a prison window using a toothbrush.
There is speculation that a close male friend, Henry Bennet Brewster, may have been her only male lover. But, that’s speculation! She wrote to Henry in 1892 at age 34: : “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can’t make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person
What is fact is that Ethel had passionate affairs with women for all of her life! She was at one time in love with the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (who although married had affairs with women). At the ripe young age of 71, Ethel fell in love with writer Virginia Woolf, who likened Ethel’s actions as “like being caught by a giant crab.” What can be said of this relationship is that the two became friends. Ethel, always larger than life, was known to have these affairs. When she had a relationship with Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, a Roger Scruton in 2005, depicted the affair satirically in his opera, Violet.
The Sporty Lesbian
Ethel was actively involved in sport throughout most of her life.
In her youth she was a keen horse-rider and tennis player. She was a passionate golfer and a member of the Ladies section of Woking Golf Club near London.
Towards the End of Her Life
In order to be honoured with a title from the British monarch, a person must have excelled within a certain category- Ethel excelled in Music.
Some of her accomplishments:
-Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra
-Mass in D.
-Opera: The Wrechers
Der Wald – only opera composed by woman presented at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
On her seventy-fifth birthday in 1934, under Beecham’s direction, her work was celebrated in a festival, the final event of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Heartbreakingly, at this moment of long-overdue recognition, the composer was already completely deaf and could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.
The artwork The Dinner Party features a place setting for Ethel Smyth.