Woking’s composer and the Great War
Ethel Smyth was one of the most significant English composers of the late 19th century. She was friends with the composers Grieg and Tchaikovsky and made a Dame in 1922 for her services to music. She was a suffragette, being imprisoned for smashing a window of an anti-suffrage politician’s residence in 1912, and she composed the battle song The March of the Women. She was also the lover of Emmeline Pankhurst. A remarkable woman, she even trained as a radiographer during the First World War and subsequently was attached to the XIIIth Division of the French army at a large military hospital in Vichy.
Woking composer and suffragette, Ethel Smyth, was much affected by the First World War. There is little doubt that it virtually sabotaged her career as a composer.
Ethel devoted two years to political activity with the Women’s Social and Political Union (the militant Suffragette movement) and in 1912 was briefly imprisoned in Holloway jail. On her release she decided to travel abroad, on the recommendation of a friend, to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria on 8 December 1913. She continued to Helouan, on the edge of the desert not far from Cairo, staying at the Hotel Tewfik. Her intention was to recommence her composing, in abeyance during her suffragette activities.
Ethel immediately commenced work on her fourth opera The Boatswain’s Mate (as well as indulging in tennis, and her beloved golf on the nearby golf course!) and it was virtually completed during her stay there, albeit not published until 1919.
Opera and the outbreak of war
At the end of May 1914 she travelled to Vienna to arrange production of The Wreckers which was planned to be performed in February 1915, and also The Boatswain’s Mate to be staged at Frankfurt during the same year. However, the outbreak of the war saw all performances of her works in Germany cancelled, a disastrous setback for her career as a composer. On 28 June, came news of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife and by 1 July 1914 Ethel had moved to the French coast at St Brieuc, where she met suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who arrived in a weak state having been temporarily released from prison.
Ethel wrote that ‘by midnight on August 4th all Europe was at war’ but eventually they both got back to England.
Ethel and War Work
In her memoirs Ethel recalls ‘in 1915 I joined one of my sisters (Nina) on the Italian front’. Nina and her friend Lady Helena Gleichen, the painter, had raised an ambulance outfit during the war and were decorated for valour on the Italian front. However, Ethel returned to Paris later that year to train as a radiographer, passed the examination and eventually got attached to the XIIIth Division of the French army as a voluntary ‘localizer’ in the huge hospital at Vichy. Composition was impossible under these circumstances but she did find time to begin her first volume of memoirs in between duties.
She gives the following description in As Time Went On:
‘I wrote that book [Impressions That Remained] while doing radiographic work in a French Military hospital. Locating bits of shell, telling the doctor exactly how deeply embedded they are, watching him plunge into a live although anaesthetised body that shall prove you either an expert or a bungler is not a music inspiring job, but writing memoires in between whiles was a delightful relief’.
Later she commented that ‘early in January 1918 the vote was at last given to women. At that time I was still in France and after the pushing back of the British line in March 1918 it was only with difficulty that I managed to get back to England’. After a short spell as an interpreter for the Red Cross in Italy at the end of the war, Ethel returned to the promotion of her concerts with full vigour, for she considered writing as entirely subordinate, a second string, useful and amusing in its fashion, but in no way equal to her importance as a musician.
To read more about Ethel Smyth’s extraordinary life click here.
- Text by Lewis Orchard; source: Louise Collis, Impetuous Heart: The Story of Ethel Smyth, (1984). A copy of which is available at Surrey History Centre
- Copy photograph of Ethel Smyth before the war, 1913 (SHC ref 9180/9/27)
- Copy photograph of Ethel Smyth at the Tewfik Palace Hotel, Helouan, Egypt, 1914 (SHC ref 9180/57)
- The Ethel Smyth Research Centre is based at The University of Detmold/Paderborn, Germany http://muwi-detmold-paderborn.de/en/research/ethel-smyth-research-centre.html#c1860
- Female Pipings for Eden (1933)
- What Happened Next (1940)
- As Time Went On (1936)