SMYTH: 4 Songs for Voice & Chamber Orchestra.* Songs & Ballads, Op. 3. Lieder, Op. 4. The Clown. Possession. On the Road: A Marching Tune / Lucy Stevens, alto; Elizabeth Marcus, pno; *Berkeley Ensemble, cond. Odaline de la Martinez / Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0611
I’ve been a firm fan of Ethel Smyth’s music since the late 1980s, when I first read her autobiography and heard a good deal of her music—the chamber music issued on TroubaDisc CDs, and her Mass in D as performed by Philip Brunelle on Virgin Classics—but have, sadly, watched her star (such as it is) come and go, wax and wane, briefly shine as yet another CD of her music is released only to see her fall back into oblivion.
Part of the reason for this is that she is often viewed, musically, as a Brahms clone who wasn’t as good as he was, yet Brahms himself thought very highly of her talents. Another reason is that her largest-scale opera, The Wreckers, has a very uncomfortable and disturbing plot which is not the sort that can be applied to other people and situations. But the third reason is Ethel herself, a very mannish woman who rode bicycles, smoked cigars, cursed like a soldier and was bisexual leaning towards full-out lesbian. She had affairs with Lisl von Herzogenberg, wife of the burgher who helped her career in Germany and introduced her music to his friend Brahms, Emmaline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, and late in life, with Virginia Woolf. But she also had a long and torrid love affair with poet Henry Brewster, author of her Wreckers libretto, which wrecked his marriage and for which she was never forgiven. Although Ethel lived a long life, it was not a happy one. By the 1920s her music was rarely performed except a short piece, once in a while, by Thomas Beecham who happened to like her for her outspokenness. Later on she went deaf, and ended up a pretty lonely old woman. Just about the one constant love of her life were her dogs, of which a particularly large specimen named Marco was her absolute favorite.
During the sojourn in Leipzig, a friend of Ethel’s went on a trip to Vienna and brought back a dog named Marco. Marco was…unique. According to Ethel, he was “half St. Bernard, and the rest what you please,” and “a huge sprawling yellow-and-white puppy of the long-haired kind generally seen dragging washerwomen’s carts.” Unfortunately, her friend already had four sporting dogs, and Marco had a tough time fitting in with the pre-existing pack. Ethel fell in love and begged to take him. And so began Ethel and Marco’s happy life together!
Marco living at Ethel’s home posed its own challenges. For one thing, they lived in a small apartment, and for another, said apartment was on the third floor. So every time Ethel needed to take Marco out, they’d have to traipse down several flights of stairs. In her memoirs, Ethel remembered the torture of a cold winter when Marco had digestive problems.
But despite the unconventional arrangement, it was a match made in heaven. Ethel even wrote, “For twelve years that dog was the joy of my life.” In her memoir she described how she spoiled Marco rotten, and how his head would rest luxuriously “on the pedals of a seldom silent piano, as if washerwomen had never been heard of.” At one point she told her young nieces and nephews how similarly large dogs were used by washerwomen to drag their carts. They tried harnessing him up, but Marco protested.
The present album is apparently a labor of love by Lucy Stevens, who has not only given programs impersonating Smyth but also Kathleen Ferrier and Virginia Woolf. She has a large, rich, booming British contralto voice of the kind we used to hear from Helen Watts back in the 1960s. It opens with four songs for voice and chamber orchestra, dated 1908, written in her later French-influenced style. This was the influence of Brewster, himself a big Francophile, and one can hear how cleverly she wedded her German-based concept of melodic structure with the advanced French harmonies of her day. Stevens has a rich and powerful voice but not, alas, very clear diction. Several consonants are swallowed, but her singing is so good that one simply turns to the texts in the booklet and lives with it. As in her landmark recording of The Wreckers, de la Martinez’ conducting shows a sure and steady hand as well as an excellent understanding of the music. The first three songs are based on the poems of Henri de Régnier while the fourth is based on a poem by Leconte de Lisle. Smyth’s music is consistently interesting and yes, in its own way quite original, with the harp replacing the piano in providing the rhythm while the flute dances above the light string writing to produce a quite novel effect. The last song is the fastest and liveliest of the set, making a nice finish to this mini-cycle, and around the 2:30 mark she throws in some nice chromatic changes.
The remaining songs are all with piano accompaniment, with the Op. 3 and 4 sets coming from her early years when she was still studying in Germany. The melodies of the five Op. 3 songs are fairly simple, though attractive, showing the composer in her early stages when she was still getting her feet wet, so to speak, yet already showed here a good sense of matching words and music. Many a 19th-century composer would be happy to claim them as his own. These are their first recordings in English.
The Op. 4 set opens with “Tanzlied,” a song which, despite its minor key, is a somewhat cheerier tune than any of the Op. 3 set. It is also more developed a piece of writing, showing an advance even at this early stage. In the second song, “Schlummerlied,” her writing is nearly as sophisticated as that of Schubert in his prime—a remarkable advance. Her song about the nightingale is also quite original. Her song about the clown is also very good, while Possession, dedicated to suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst, has a simple but passionate tune set to words by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth about a linnet that flew into her apartment, was caged, but then pined away because it was not free.
We end our survey with one of Ethel’s marches, On the Road, dedicated to Emmaline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel, with words about the ongoing feminist struggle: “O to fight to the death with a hope through the strife / That the freedom we seek shall be ours!” It is a more sophisticated tune than her March of the Women, which appeared as an extra track on Brunelle’s recording of her Mass in D.
All in all, an important as well as educational and enjoyable release, a must for all Ethel Smyth aficionados.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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