‘Yes, I know you think a woman couldn’t have written this, but trust me, I did.  Let me play it for you’ – Ethyl Smyth

Ahead of International Women’s Day, BIF talked to Dr Leah Broad about Ethel Smyth who composed the festival’s eagerly-awaited forthcoming opera production, The Boatswain’s Mate.

Dr Leah Broad is a multi-award-winning writer, historian and public speaker.  Leah specialises in twentieth-century cultural history, especially women in the arts.  Many will remember her from the the 2023 Festival and her fascinating talk on her book, Quartet, a group biography of four women composers: Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen.


  1. How and when did you first encounter Ethel Smyth? And which came first for you, Ethel or her music?

It was definitely Ethel’s music first. It was a recording of her Mass that I heard and I absolutely loved it. And when I went to find out who the composer was, it was this woman, Ethel Smyth.  She is surrounded by so many myths and legends that she really intrigued me.  I wanted to find out more about the composer at the centre of these incredible, and sometimes unbelievable, stories.  And it turns out the most unbelievable ones are true! Yes, it was definitely her music first and then the intrigue followed.

I think it happens quite rarely that I hear a piece of music and think, wow, that’s so good, I want to find out everything I can about this composer and what they wrote.  It’s a special moment when a piece of music really hits you and stays with you.

  1. Do you think Ethel’s musical style was influenced by the misogyny she faced as a female composer?

I think the topics that she chose to write about were definitely influenced by the prejudices that she faced as a musician.  For example, The Boatswain’s Mate, is very heavily influenced by her experiences in the suffragette movement.  She’s one of the few composers who actively tackled misogynist attitudes in her music.

Having said that, I think Ethel Smyth very much had her own style.  At the time it was thought of as being very masculine and unusual but that was her way of expressing herself. I’m not sure her style was influenced by gender prejudice because things got worse for her in that way whereas the elements of her musical style remained very consistent.  But the topics she composed on absolutely were influenced by the misogyny she faced.

  1. Do you think she threatened her musical peers/contemporaries?

Absolutely. She made good friends with the people she wrote about.  And the ones who she didn’t get on with, she just chose to write less about them. The thing that comes across most in the way that other composers responded to Ethel, is shock.  Shock that a woman was capable of writing the music of the quality and kind that she wrote.  Once they got to know her and her music, they realised she was worth taking very seriously. I think she always had to get past that initial feeling of “a woman couldn’t have written this”, and she is very explicit in her memoirs about the kind of strategies she used to counter that sense of surprise.  For example, she’d say: “Yes, I know you think a woman couldn’t have written this, but trust me, I did.  Let me play it for you.”  And she wasn’t writing small songs, she was writing enormous operas and that was another level of disbelief that she had to get past.

  1. Ethel was writing at an extraordinary time in women’s history and yet it seems her music largely died in popularity when she did. Why do you think it took so long for her to be rediscovered and celebrated?

This was one of saddest things I came across when writing my book.  At the time of her death, she had three honorary doctorates in music, she was the first woman to be made a Dame for her services to composition – in other words, she was really extraordinarily famous.  And yet in her diary, she talks about being afraid of dying because she thought her music would die with her and there would be no-one left to fight for it.  I rather naively thought that because she was so incredibly famous, that could never have happened.  But when I read her obituaries, the over-riding theme of them was that she was an interesting writer (she wrote books as well) who made a stir because she composed music that was ambitious for a woman. And that was it.

I think what happened is that her reputation circulated as a sort of funny anecdote. A lot of her music wasn’t published and it certainly wasn’t recorded.  After she died, people ignored her music.  It was not until the 1990’s when the composer and conductor, Odaline de la Martinez, conducted The Wreckers at The Proms, that the music started to be able to speak for itself.  It’s really thanks to Odaline that the tide began to turn and lots of Ethel Smyth’s music came out of obscurity.  There was a good 50-year gap when Ethel Smyth was just a “funny footnote” which is tragic.  Her music was not allowed to speak.  It’s so important to have opportunities to hear her music now so that people can make up their own minds.

Writing the book made me realise how much difference one person can make.  Obviously Odaline made a difference and also, when Henry Wood was in charge of the Proms, he regularly programmed women’s work. When he died, almost exactly at the time Ethel Smyth died, women disappeared from The Proms.

  1. Are there other Ethel Smyths out there that we don’t know about yet?

Yes, but there are so many women composers being championed now by various people that’s it’s just a matter of googling. That’s a wonderful thing which wasn’t afforded to Ethel in her lifetime. There are composers like Louise Farrenc, Emilie Mayer, sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger – so many women in fact – and it’s possible to discover them thanks to the advocacy of fellow musicians and musicologists.

  1. It is said that the protagonist in The Boatswain’s Mate, one of our BIF productions this summer, might be modelled on fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Do you think that’s true and, if so, was it a homage to her?

Absolutely, it’s definitely true. Ethel Smyth wrote this opera when she was living in Egypt and pleasingly her letters to Emmeline Pankhurst written at that time, have all survived.  It’s made quite clear in her letters that the character of Mrs Waters is modelled on and inspired by Emmeline.  Much of the opera is built around Ethel’s time as a suffragette, with in-jokes and stories.  This is definitely an opera saturated with suffragette thinking and suffragette humour.

I don’t think the opera is a love story or homage to Emmeline but I do think that her song Possession is.  The song is about loving someone so much you have to let them go. It’s a heart-breaking piece, so beautiful, and I think that is a very personal love story dedicated to Emmaline.

  1. Do you think we have reached the point when a female composer’s name on a concert programme is unexceptional?

No. Urgh – I wish that was true!  In the UK, I think a lot of institutions are getting better at including women’s music on their programmes year-round, but it’s still very variable. I’m really heartened to see that Buxton has The Boatswain’s Mate on its roster this year.

The majority of literature that I consume now is written by women – without even trying – but that’s definitely not the case with the concerts that I go to.  I think it’s always been worse for musicians. When Virginia Woolf talked about women composers she said she thought writers had it bad, but crikey, women composers really had their work cut out because the music world was so prejudiced about women in creative roles.

However, when you look at the women composers who are composing now, there is so much rich and inventive composition out there that I hope it will change the needle on people’s perceptions of what is normal.

  1. If you met Ethel Smyth for dinner, would there be topics of conversation you’d have to avoid?

Ha ha – yes – nearly ALL politics – we’d definitely disagree on politics. Her views are not at all compatible with my 21st century perspective.  I would love to talk to her about her gender and her sexuality though.  I think she was quite uncertain about how to speak about herself and I guess the way we think and talk about gender and sexuality today – with new vocabularies and conceptual frameworks – would make it much easier for her.

  1. If you were introducing Ethel Smyth’s music to someone for the first time, what would you suggest they listened to?

If I was introducing someone to Ethel Smyth gently, I’d recommend the song Possession.  It’s a really beautiful and intimate piece.  If I was introducing them to Ethel Smyth’s style, I’d play them the overture to The Wreckers which is a really rabble-rousing piece, full of passion, which was very popular in her lifetime. And I think her Violin Sonata, which is one of her early works, is a really gorgeous piece of music too.  It works especially well in performance.   And then it would be time for The Boatswain’s Mate….


The Boatswain’s Mate will be performed at Buxton International Festival on:

  • Monday 8 July, 7.15pm
  • Sunday 14 July, 7.15pm
  • Friday 19 July, 7.15pm.


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