British composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a rulebreaker on more than one score. Suffragist activities landed her in prison in 1912. Her personal affections inclined mostly toward women. And she persisted in a composing career despite gender prejudice resulting in a lack of critical acceptance.
Her late work “The Prison” is all that’s needed to counter the critical disapprobation of her time. The world premiere recording of this superb work is now here to do just that.
A number of her era’s great male composers and conductors knew and respected Smyth. Brahms, one of her compositional idols, is said to have approved of her music but didn’t at first believe a woman had written it. In 1903 she became the first woman to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York.
But, shunted during her lifetime onto a lower shelf reserved for “women composers,” she has not enjoyed the renown her work merits. The Experiential Orchestra and Chorus led by James Blachly has taken a welcome step towards remedying that with the first commercially released recording of “The Prison,” Smyth’s late cantata (I choose that word for convenience – there’s no easy way to classify the work), out Aug. 7 on Chandos.
Blachly spent years preparing for the piece’s U.S. concert premiere, initially working from a handwritten manuscript. Produced by Grammy winners Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror, the recording is timed for release on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote beginning in 1920.
Smyth was active beginning in the 1870s. She capped a prolific career with “The Prison,” her last major work, in 1929-30. She conducted the premiere the following year, though she was going deaf, at Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Adrian Boult conducted the London premiere five days later. In 1934 Smyth was honored at a festival for her 75th birthday. She couldn’t hear the applause. This recording will earn “The Prison” fresh kudos.
“The Prison” is a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Smyth’s music, as I was. This flowing, highly charged performance features soprano Sarah Brailey and Grammy-winning bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Together with the orchestra and chorus they do full justice to the enormous creative power Smyth wielded as her career crested.
Given the struggles she faced and took on during her life, including that stint in jail, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that the text she chose for this grand work – from The Prison, a Dialogue, a philosophical work of fiction by her friend and companion Henry Bennet Brewster – centers on a Prisoner (Burton) and His Soul (Brailey). Movements bear titles like “The Prisoner understands his own immortality” and “He disbands his own ego.” Liz Wood’s valuable notes to the New York premiere in 2018 place the work in the context of the composer’s travels and studies. In one movement, for example, she uses the melody of the ancient Greek Song of Seikilos.
But if the text is cerebral, the music has an epic grandeur. A naturalistic Wagnerian glow underpins a Romantic sensibility. A few passages remind me of the glowing drama of Mendelssohn’s oratorio style. Yet, working with traditional harmonies and under the influence of better-known composers, Smyth crafted an entirely distinct musical world.
Brailey’s golden tone is a perfect instrument for it. In one movement, in a nod toward the modern, Smyth has the soprano soloist sing most of her part on just one note while the orchestra twists intriguing melodies and harmonies around it. Brailey’s performance throughout is one of profound grace, complemented nicely by Burton’s smooth, sensitive and focused portrayal of the Prisoner, who ultimately “disbands his ego” and glories in death’s summons.
After my close listenings, I put the recording on at a low volume on a very modest bluetooth speaker while I was doing something else and so paying only half-attention. Surprisingly, this time a fuller sense of joy seemed to emanate from the speaker, even in darker or more solemn tracts like “The Prisoner asks the secret of emancipation” or “Voices sing the indestructibility of human passions.” As interesting as the music is, it’s also an easy listen, in the best sense of the word.
Yet this consummately crafted music speaks deeply of the ill-ease that Smyth observed and experienced. Some may know of her through her “March of the Women,” which she famously conducted with a toothbrush through the bars of her cell as a chorus of her fellow Suffragettes sang in the prison’s exercise courtyard in 1912. The song was adopted as the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Women in the UK were more than ready for it.
James Blachly has said that “we believe that the world is finally ready for her music.” I’d counter that the world has long been ready. For the spectacular “The Prison,” a release like this one is way past due.
The world premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” is out August 7 and available for pre-order now.