In July 2022, hundreds of elegant opera-goers gathered on the lawns of Glyndebourne Manor in Sussex to picnic in the interval of a rarely performed early twentieth century work, The Wreckers, by the suffragette composer Dame Ethel Smyth. This strikingly powerful piece of music, which tells the story of Cornish villagers who lure ships onto rocks in order to plunder them, was the first opera by a female composer to be staged at the prestigious British festival and was extremely well-received. The Times of London praised its “wild waves of passion.”
Yet The Wreckers has had a difficult history. First performed in 1906 in Leipzig, where Smyth had studied briefly, it followed an earlier work, Der Wald, savaged by the German press, which described Ethel as “a composing Amazon,” adding that “the work of the English composeress did nothing to weaken the prejudice that one is generally accustomed to show for female compositional activity.”
Not surprisingly, on the night The Wreckers premiered, Ethel was expecting similar criticism. She was taken aback by the stunning ovation for what the audience clearly considered a brilliant piece of work. But, although delighted by the opera’s obvious success, she subsequently allowed herself to be annoyed by cuts the conductor made to the third act. In her fury, a day or two later, Ethel went to the opera house and removed all the pages of the score she could find. This bizarre gesture of self-sabotage was to make other opera houses extremely wary of her.
Ethel Smyth, a brilliant, difficult and controversial woman, is undoubtedly the centerpiece of this deeply researched book, a debut by musicologist Leah Broad, bursting with fascinating information about the struggle faced by almost all female musicians until very recently. (That it was only in 2019 the Vienna state opera performed a work by a woman is just one of the many extraordinary “firsts” that I noted.)
Ethel (1858-1944) dressed every day in almost identical tweed skirt suits with a blouse and tie — the ensemble often topped off with a boater — and this made her a magnet for attention. Notwithstanding her masculine attire, which marked her out as a “New Woman,” one of her most passionate relationships was with a married man, Henry Brewster, who became her collaborator and librettist as well as lover. Ethel had friendships and love affairs with some of the best-known women of the day, including Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress and patron of the arts, Edith Somerville and later in life — inevitably — Virginia Woolf.
But perhaps her most important association was with Emmeline Pankhurst, charismatic leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, whom she met around 1910. Ethel was rather late to the suffragette cause but made up for it by writing the stirring suffragette anthem, “The March of the Women”; in 1912 she went to London’s Holloway prison for two months for smashing a window. Emmeline, who spent a longer time in prison, was in the cell next to her and nearly died from repeated hunger strikes.
Although three other women, each a musical trailblazer, make up the “Quartet” of the title, it is hard not to see Ethel Smyth, the extraordinarily talented eccentric, as the mainstay of the book. But she is already the subject of other biographies and Broad does well not to let Ethel’s huge personality swamp the achievements of the others, whose triumphs and failures are constantly threaded through the main story. In addition to the three — Rebecca Clarke, a violist and composer, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen, both composers — others are mentioned in Broad’s exploration of the hurdles women musicians were faced with even very recently, and the support they offered one another. Some faced significant financial difficulties, while others had tragic obstacles put in their way by blinkered fathers who resisted their daughters’ urge to study.
Rebecca Clarke, constantly provoked by the unpleasantness and bad temper of her adulterous father, Joseph, finally snapped when he refused to support her in her final term at college and banished her from the family home. She called his bluff and walked out, learning how to use her musical talent to support herself. But she probably would not have been able to do this without help from other musical friends with whom she built networks and started to play in all-women musical ensembles.
In 1910 these groupings were still rare, but growing, as an increasing number of educated young women studied music, motivated by twin desires to earn money and enjoy greater personal freedom. As she became more successful in her professional life, Rebecca had a number of unsatisfactory personal relationships, including one with an unavailable married man, before moving to live in the United States. In 1944 she married an old friend from her Royal College of Music days, the pianist James Friskin, who was on the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York. She died in 1979 aged ninety-three, having written more than a hundred pieces, yet her work has been all but forgotten until very recently.
Dorothy Howell shot to fame aged twenty-one in 1919, when her composition Lamia was played at the Queen’s Hall and greeted with rapturous applause. It was so popular that it had to be repeated several times that season, a success that marked an “exception for a British composer’s work,” according to the conductor Sir Henry Wood. Other successes followed, yet even this auspicious start did not result in lasting recognition. She continued to compose but her name dropped from public consciousness and, as with Rebecca Clarke, she is only now being talked about again.
Although Ethel was born in 1858 and Doreen Carwithen, the youngest of the quartet, sixty years later in 1922, Doreen’s story is in some ways the more painful, given her excruciating but unwarranted lack of self-confidence. During a hugely successful early career in film music — particularly unusual for a woman — Doreen fell deeply in love with her married composition teacher, William Alwyn, at the Royal Academy of Music. Eventually William divorced his wife and the couple lived together in Suffolk; Doreen changed her name to Mary Alwyn by deed poll though it was only later the couple married. “Mary” devoted herself entirely to William’s every need, becoming not only his muse but also his champion and, after he died, she displayed a fierce determination to nurture his posthumous reputation.
She established a William Alwyn Foundation and poured money into an enormous project to oversee the recording of his complete symphonies and other works. Nobody would do the same for her after her death — by her own choice, her compositions and other papers are all housed within the William Alwyn archive. Today, it might also amuse her to learn that her husband’s great-grandson, the actor Joe Alwyn, is none other than the partner of Taylor Swift, herself a noted innovator in the dual fields of music and women’s rights. And so the circle is squared.
Quartet is much more than a book about four talented, pioneering female musicians. It is also a sweeping social history of the last century with intertwined themes of sex and politics, inspiring and shocking by turns. In June 1945, just as World War Two was ending, Benjamin Britten’s brilliant opera about the damned fisherman Peter Grimes premiered to immediate and enormous success. The comparison between Ethel Smyth and Benjamin Britten is irresistible: Broad asks if things might have been different had Britten, who went on to dominate the postwar British music scene, been a woman. Would that have provided the much-needed step towards gender equality that Ethel had been forced to spend her life fighting for?
In spite of the prejudice these women musicians faced, it is clear that they all wrote exquisite, breathtaking and often highly original music which is only now being finally appreciated and played to mainstream audiences. Broad is determined they should not be seen as victims. She concludes that a century after Ethel wrote that women’s music was squashed by “the temptation to pretend that women are non-existent musically,” their time has come. It is hard not to agree.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2023 World edition.