Ethel Smyth
Mass in D

Born: 22 April 1858 in London
Died: 8 May 1944 in Woking (Surrey)

{Biography} {Mass in D}


“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote comes to mind immediately when thinking about Ethel Smyth (pronounced Sm[eye]th, not Smith).  Born at the height of the Victorian age, the larger-than-life Smyth conformed to the expectations of the era in almost no way.  Victorian ladies of her social class were expected to marry, “close their eyes and think of England” on their wedding night, and bear children, preferably boys.  Smyth never married, had no children, and enjoyed sex with women and one special man.  Her sisters dressed in elaborate tea gowns with trailing skirts; Smyth preferred a tweed suit and a hat, often accessorized with a cigarette, pipe, or cigar.  And the only acceptable profession for an upper-class woman born in 1858 was wife and mother—certainly not composer, conductor, lecturer, broadcaster, and writer, as Smyth was.  It is not at all surprising that Ethel Smyth made musical history.

Smyth’s father was a major general; her mother’s mother was quite musical and knew Chopin, Rossini, and Auber.  When Smyth was 12, she heard the governess, who had attended the Leipzig Conservatory, play a Beethoven sonata.  This was the first serious music that Smyth had heard, and she immediately decided that she, too, would study in Leipzig, although her path there was not a smooth one since her father was opposed to the plan.  While waiting for her conservatory dream to become a reality, Smyth studied harmony privately, read Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration, and was very briefly engaged to William Wilde, brother of Oscar.  But eventually her father relented, and she headed to Leipzig in June 1877.

Smyth was happy to be in Leipzig but was underwhelmed by her composition teacher (Carl Reinecke, not the most illustrious figure to grace the Conservatory’s faculty) and by most of her fellow students.  She loved the concert life, however, and in Leipzig she began to meet the many, many influential figures who became part of her existence.  Over the years her friends and acquaintances included Clara Schumann, Brahms (for whom she sometimes turned pages in performance), Mendelssohn’s daughter, Grieg, Tchaikovsky (who pushed her to work on her orchestration), Dvořák, Anton Rubinstein, Mahler, Debussy (who liked her music, as did Fauré; Debussy called her songs “tout à fait remarquables”), Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Delius, Holst, Percy Grainger, violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, conductors Hermann Levi, Artur Nikisch, Bruno Walter (a big fan), Malcolm Sargent and Thomas Beecham, Queen Victoria, John Singer Sargent (who made a gorgeous drawing of Smyth singing; she was evidently an extremely compelling performer), George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and so on.

It was in 1882, while still living in Europe, that Smyth began one of the most important relationships of her life.  The person concerned was American Henry (Harry) Bennet Brewster, a wealthy metaphysical writer who, rather inconveniently, was married and the father of two children.  Thus began an extremely messy love triangle (I’m not sure these are ever anything but messy, actually) that lasted off and on until the death of Brewster’s wife in 1895.  Had Smyth been at all conventional, she would have married Brewster at this point (which was certainly what he wanted).  Smyth, however, was too cognizant of the demands that marriage would make on the wife in the equation (not to mention the fact that she still regularly fell in love with women) to commit herself.  She remained extremely close to Brewster, however, and was at his deathbed when he passed away in 1908.

During these years Smyth was back and forth between England and the continent, often in connection with performances or attempted performances of her compositions.  The Mass in D was her first major composition, after which her focus turned to opera—an excellent outlet for her skill in dramatic writing.  Her operas were six in number, written in three languages, the first three to librettos that she co-wrote with Brewster.  Der Wald, the second of the six, was the first opera by a woman ever performed at the Met, in 1903.  One of the reviewers wrote “If there is sex in music, I should say that Der Wald is much more masculine than Paderewski’s Manru.”  Shamefully, this was also the last opera by a woman performed at the Met for more than a hundred years, until Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in 2016.

The Wreckers, Smyth’s third opera, is widely considered to be her best.  It is set to another Brewster/Smyth libretto, this one originally written in French.  Smyth hoped to have it performed at the Vienna Hofoper and went to meet the Dirigent about it.  This was Mahler, who fobbed off the task to his assistant Bruno Walter.  Walter left his impressions of the meeting, which began along the lines of “oh God do I really have to listen to some drivel by a lady composer?” (“I sighed inwardly at what I presumed was in store for me” were his words) and then rapidly shifted to excitement over the quality of the score.  He raced down to Mahler’s office to try to get him to come hear Smyth perform parts of the opera.  Mahler was unable to get away, but Walter felt firmly that the opera belonged in the Hofoper repertoire.  Sadly, this never happened.

Thanks to the inclusion of a scene from Act I in the path-breaking Historical Anthology of Women in Music, and its accompanying recordings, The Wreckers is the work of Smyth (or part of the work, more precisely) that most people know.  The overture is also included on the recording of the Mass in D.  Both excepts make me think that Walter was correct in his assessment: the work deserves a complete recording as well as a permanent place in the opera house.  It’s exciting, invigorating, and clearly the creation of someone who knows what she’s doing.  I wonder how long we’ll have to wait for it to gain widespread recognition?  (An aside: Smyth loved rehearsing the chorus in her operas).

Friends who believed in Smyth’s musical talent were frequently frustrated by the sometimes cavalier way in which she treated her composing.  Almost all professional composers create on a very regular basis.  Sitzfleisch, the German term charmingly translated as “butt glue,” is what makes stuff happen for almost any creative work.  One simply has to sit down and get the thing done.  Smyth, though, had many interests competing for her attention.  She was extremely gregarious and had a multitude of friends and acquaintances (see the very incomplete list given above) with whom she spent a great deal of time, sometimes more than the one being graced by Smyth’s presence desired.  She claimed she made at least one intimate new friend a month.  She was a prolific correspondent who didn’t just dash off quick missives but wrote multi-thousand word letters.  She loved sports and athletic activity (golf, hunting, bicycling; she was purportedly the first woman to steer a gondola), she read widely, she lectured and made broadcasts, and just sometimes she sat down to compose.  As Sir Thomas Beecham put it, her many non-musical activities “had the unsatisfactory effect of limiting this amazing woman’s musical output.”  Smyth also had periods where composition was emotionally impossible.  One such one was the time leading up to the Mass in D, when one of her dearest friends had broken with her over the Harry Brewster mess.  Another was after Brewster’s death.  A third was during the first World War, when she served as a radiographer in a French hospital.

One big gap in her compositional output, at least in terms of large-scale works, was the period that she devoted to the cause of suffrage for women.  Initially she was uninterested in the movement; her sole focus was on making things possible for herself.  Once she was committed, though, she was all in, intentionally put serious composition on hold for a full two years.  She was arrested for throwing a stone through the window of a cabinet minister and as a result was sentenced to two months in prison with hard labor (in reality she spent three weeks, with no hard labor).  In prison, from her window, she famously conducted a rendition of her March of the Women (the unofficial anthem of the suffrage movement) sung by women in the prison courtyard; she used her toothbrush as a baton.  Before the Mass in D, this was the only Smyth work I had sung—I performed this with Concentus Women’s Chorus in 2005 at the Women’s Hall of Fame when Hillary Clinton was inducted.  I would dearly love to be able say that this song is a treasure, but (to be honest) I thought it was kind of dull.

Smyth also began to do a lot of writing for publication beginning in World War I; while she found it impossible to compose, prose came easily.  Her subjects were many, but she is best known for her six volumes of memoirs (a seventh was begun before she died), which were very widely read.  The first memoir, Impressions that Remained, appeared in 1919.  The books give an incomparable picture of the British (and continental) musical, cultural, political, and social milieu throughout her lifetime.  The prominence of her publications led many to speculate as to whether she would be better known as a writer or as a composer in terms of her legacy. 

The correct answer is composer, and even during her lifetime her achievements were recognized, including two honorary doctorates of music (from the University of Durham in 1910, and Oxford in 1926), a festival of her music in the Royal Albert Hall in early 1934 in recognition of her 75th birthday the previous April, and being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922.

Smyth’s last years were lonely.  Because of an accident, this lively, frank, and wholly unconventional person became essentially homebound.  Such confinement, combined with the death of family and friends (Virginia Woolf’s suicide hit her hard), took their toll on someone whose energy and sociability had been at extreme levels for most of her life.  And, sadly, she was close to being completely deaf.  She began to have trouble with her ears around 1912, when she was in her 50s, and her hearing kept deteriorating.  Her mother frequently boxed her ears when she was growing up; did that contribute to the problem?

There are two biographies of Smyth, along with many scholarly articles.  Ethel Smith: A Biography was written by her (female) literary executor, Christopher St. John, in 1959, and Impetuous Heart: The Story of Ethel Smyth by Louise Collis in 1984.  Both are informative, but neither is the big, fat, doorstop volume of heavy-duty musicological research that she very much deserves.

Mass in D

The period leading up to the Mass in D was one where religion, and especially women who were very religious, played an important role in Smyth’s life.  She became good friends with the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the Archbishop himself hated her), and she fell in love with the devoutly Catholic Pauline Trevelyan.  In December 1889, while in France, she read Trevelyan’s copy of The Imitation of Christ, written in the early part of the fifteenth century by Thomas à Kempis.  This Christian devotional book was an instant “best-seller” (first in manuscript, and very soon in print) and has remained so over the centuries.  It has appeared in thousands of editions and been translated almost as often as the Bible, the only Christian religious book to surpass it in popularity.

Smyth’s reading led to a kind of crisis in faith and she returned to England determined to be a better, less self-involved person.  She embraced the Anglican Church (High Church, which is close to Catholicism in its celebration of splendor and ritual, as opposed to Low Church, which eschews such popery and worldly vanity; for more on the Anglican Church, see the entry for Finzi’s For St. Cecilia.  She wrote her mass, which was dedicated to Trevelyan.  And that was pretty much it for her religious fervor.  As she later wrote, “I was near becoming one [Catholic] myself once.  Then I wrote a Mass, and I think that sweated it out of me.” 

The mass was finished in 1891 but it took some time to arrange a performance.  As James Garratt has noted, there was little interest in the nineteenth century for works in Latin by English composers, making the Mass in D unusual right from the start.  When Smyth was in Scotland in October 1891, visiting with the Empress Eugenie (widow of the late Napoleon III of France and one of Smyth’s close friends), Queen Victoria visited the Empress.  At the piano, Smyth played and sang the Sanctus and Benedictus for the Queen, and repeated the performance a few days later at the Queen’s home of Balmoral Castle, adding the Gloria into the mix.  By the time the work was first performed on 18 January 1893, the Queen had permitted her name to be used in advertisements.  The Empress, who normally never went out in public, attended the performance herself, seated in the Royal Box at Royal Albert Hall (Smyth rescored a few passages to account for the hall’s acoustics).  The chorus was the Royal Choral Society (Sir Joseph Barnby, conductor), and Smyth’s mass shared the program with Haydn’s Creation.  Barnby himself thought the mass was “over-exuberant” (an excellent description of Smyth herself) but put together a good performance of a piece that is much harder for the performers than Creation.

At the performance the hall was packed and the listeners very enthusiastic.  The work was mostly well received by the critics, though George Bernard Shaw (in his not very positive review) noted that the work had no “religious feeling,” and the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that “In the Mass God was not implored, but commanded to have mercy” (this mirrors Smyth’s normal mode of interaction).  The biggest surprise was Harry Brewster’s presence; at this point Smyth had not seen him for five years.  They immediately picked up right where they had left off and remained close for the rest of his life.

The Mass was published the same year; the Empress arranged for its printing (by Novello, whose 1925 revised edition we’re still using today).  But despite Smyth’s efforts, more than 30 years passed before the Mass received its next performances.  In 1924 Adrian Boult conducted it in Birmingham (on February 7) and London (March 3).  At the latter performance, in Royal Albert Hall, Smyth sat next to Queen Mary in the Royal Box, but was unfortunately too hard of hearing at that point to hear either the Mass or the acclaim it generated.  All the press was good this time.  Smyth revised the work the following year, but performances have still been far less frequent than the piece deserves.  Christopher St. John suggest several factors behind this, at least in England: the expense of performing large-scale choral/orchestral works, the difficulty of the Mass, being English when the public preferred foreign composers, and the fact that “She was born at least twenty years too soon for the merits of her music to be immediately recognized by her contemporaries.  Its vigour and rhythmic force, its intensely personal character, were something new in English music of the early nineties.”

The basic layout of the Mass is given below.  Tempo indications, meters, and keys are those at the beginning of movements; each component typically changes over the course of a movement.  Although the Mass is published in the standard order, with Gloria following the Kyrie, Smyth left a note in the score recommending performance of the Gloria last.  This is clearly against liturgical practice, but the mass was always intended as a concert piece, not for use in a church service, even though Smyth supposedly wanted it heard in a cathedral at some point.  In any event, she wanted a triumphant conclusion to the piece.  She also said that she “was bent on two things only: to make a pleasant noise, and to manage that every word should go straight home to my listeners.”

KyrieAdagio2/2dm263 mm.
CredoAllegro con fuoco¢DM284 mm.
SanctusAdagio non troppo3/2DM94 mm.
BenedictusAndanteCCM80 mm.
AgnusAdagio non troppo¢dm203 mm.
GloriaAllegro vivace3/4DM615 mm.

The Kyrie is a staggering 263 mm., longer than the Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus, and nearly as long as the very wordy Credo.  This length is impressive, given that the entire text consists of “Kyrie eleison” and “Christe eleison.”  Smyth does an excellent job in this all-choral movement of creating a serious, indeed somber mood with constant reiteration of the opening melodic material; the movement nonetheless includes a significant tempo contrast (beginning m. 129 before returning to tempo primo in 173) as well as a more forceful mood for the Christe section.

Smyth wanted the Credo to follow the Kyrie, and it provides a very dramatic contrast to the opening movement.  The switch to major, an initial “allegro with fire” tempo, and the opening homorhythmic texture all signal that this movement is completely different.  In addition, the Credo now includes the SATB soloists.  Throughout, Smyth pays careful attention to the meaning of the text and writes accordingly.  At “et homo factus est” (and was made man; this part always sounds a little Lisztian to me) she has the men sing alone, each part divided; “Crucifixus” starts with a descending motive in minor, “et resurrexit” sends the melodic motion up again, and so on.  The expected fugue shows up on “et vitam venturi,” and it’s a gnarly one.  A challenging and rewarding movement!

The triple-meter Sanctus features an alto solo, with the choir now divided into eight parts.  The Benedictus portion is a surprise: instead of soloists for the Benedictus and chorus for the return of the Osanna, as very frequently happens in mass settings from the eighteenth century on, Smyth instead writes for a solo soprano supported by women’s choir only (three and sometimes four voice parts)—an unusual and beautiful texture.  The only disadvantage to this arrangement is that the women don’t get as much vocal rest as usual, and we have not just the Agnus ahead of us but also the massive Gloria.

Years before she composed the Mass in D, Smyth wrote “Oh what a Mass I will write one day!  Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi.  What words! What words!”  According, the Agnus is a gorgeous movement.  We are back in minor, like the Kyrie; the tenor plays a big role here, and opens the movement with a lengthy solo.  There’s a strong whiff of the Verdi Requiem when we get to the Dona nobis pacem.  Those wishing to sing things in the usual order and end with this movement will have a very satisfying conclusion.

And then, assuming we follow Smyth’s wishes, there’s the humongous Gloria, the last mountain to climb before the end.  Once again Smyth is closely attuned to the text and its many subdivisions.  There are plenty of switches between meters, tempos, moods, and textures.  There’s more than one nod to Brahms, who was Smyth’s compositional ideal when she learned her craft, including a glance at the Requiem (mm. 118 on) and the displaced accents (such as at the beginning) that wreak havoc with our sense of meter.  Smyth also repeats big sections: the opening music comes back at 189; the “Tu solus” material reappears in mm. 520, and so on. That last appearance begins the drive to a very satisfying cadence and a powerful, joyful conclusion to the whole mass.

Positive critical reactions to the mass have been many.  Conductor Hermann Levi, very impressed with the mass, claimed that “no living German composer...could have written it” as well as “Never, never could I have believed that a woman had written this!”  Critic J.A. Fuller Maitland, editor of the 1911 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, wrote that “The work definitely places the composer among the most eminent composers of her time, and easily at the head of all those of her own sex.  The most striking thing about it is the entire absence of the qualities that are usually associated with feminine productions; throughout it is virile, masterly in construction and workmanship, and particularly remarkable for the excellence and rich colour of the orchestration.”  George Bernard Shaw, writing after the 1924 performance, stated that “The originality and beauty of the voice parts are as striking today as they were 30 years ago, and the rest will stand up in the biggest company.  Magnificent!...It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do men’s work in art and other things...Your music is more masculine than Handel’s...You scorned sugar and sentimentality; and you were exuberantly ferocious.  You booted Elgar contemptuously out of your way as an old woman.”  (Yes, these dudes were obsessed with masculinity).

Donald Francis Tovey, the leading English theorist of his day, devoted an eight-page essay to the Mass in his Essays in Musical Analysis, calling it “God-intoxicated music” and a “locus classicus” in choral orchestration; he compared it favorably to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (both are grandiose works in D).  Musicologist James Garratt states that, “Exhibiting an impressive armory of German symphonic and contrapuntal techniques, the Mass seemingly shakes its fist at the conventionality and isolationism of the British choral tradition.”  And a more general assessment of Smyth (by a journalist in 1911) notes that “there is a virility [that darn word again!] in her style of expression, a depth in her thought and a resourcefulness in her command of the orchestra that places her music on a higher plane than that attained by any of her contemporaries.”  Note that both Elgar and Delius were alive and productive in 1911.  Another contemporary, conductor and composer Sir George Henschel, called Smyth “The most remarkable and original woman composer in the history of music.”

Why then is Smyth’s music still so little known?  The Wreckers is the only one of her operas included in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, where the article mentions (sigh) “Smyth’s virile music.”  Smyth is not included at all in Dennis Shrock’s big Choral Repertoire (2009), Stephen Town’s An Imperishable Heritage: British Choral Music from Parry to Dyson (2012), or Chester Alwes’s two-volume History of Western Choral Music (2016).  Each of those books includes many pieces of far less value than the Mass in D by composers far less gifted than Smyth.

Aside from the slowness with which much music by women composers has been embraced, Smyth’s music is challenging.  In 1921 Holst (who directed choirs as one of his many activities) wrote to Smyth about another choral piece of hers, saying “Why, oh why is Hey Nonny No so hard!”  And certainly the Mass in D is not an especially easy piece.  Rapidly shifting tempos and meters, frequent mini-modulations, irregular phrase lengths, the occasional unexpected choice of text underlay—all of this means that we singers are constantly on our toes in this piece.  As I write this three weeks before the concert, the Gloria and Credo in my score are peppered with post-it notes marking places that need some extra attention (but I’ll nail those suckers before the concert!)

The first time I sang Beethoven’s Missa solemnis happened to be the first time I taught a course on “Women and Music.”  Here I learned about French composer Augusta Holmès, most of whose operas were considered “too hard” to be performed.  I have no idea whether they were too hard, but I was struck by the fact that no one seemed to consider Tristan und Isolde (or other such works) “too hard” to be performed not long before Holmès was writing her works.  And each week in rehearsal we were very, very painstakingly woodshedding our way through Missa solemnis, which is (to put it mildly) a bit of a bear in the choral department.  That work is certainly “too hard” to perform without a serious commitment of rehearsal time.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether Holmès’s works were really “too hard” or whether no one wanted to bother with something by a woman composer (whose work was nonetheless described at the time as—you guessed it—masculine and virile).  I don’t know any of her music; maybe she deserves her neglect.  But maybe not.  And if Missa solemnis had come at the start of Beethoven’s career—before he had become the famous “Beethoven”—would anyone have bothered to invest the amount of time necessary to uncover the value of that difficult piece?

I absolutely love the Mass in D and think it deserves to be performed by every serious choir out there; it should show up with regularity on the programs of major symphony orchestras, and her other choral and instrumental works and operas deserve hearings as well—what other gems are out there?  I’ll close with Bruno Walter’s assessment: “I consider Ethel Smyth a composer of quite special significance...I believe also that her work is permanently destined to succeed although its recognition, like the recognition of all true originality, only comes gradually and in the teeth of opposition.”  Let’s begin the fight!

November 2023