Dame Ethel Smyth, The Wreckers

By Sophie Fuller

Written for the concert The Wreckers, performed on Sep 30, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Ethel Smyth arrived in Leipzig in November 1906 for the dress rehearsal of her third opera, The Wreckers, she was horrified to find that the musical director of the opera house had made extensive cuts to the final act. Smyth threatened not to attend the premiere, but in the end couldn’t resist. To her surprise, the members of the audience—overcoming their distrust of an opera by a foreigner who was also a woman—were extremely enthusiastic. But, having asked in vain for the cuts to be restored for the second performance, Smyth then took the extraordinary step of marching into the orchestra pit, removing all the parts and the full score, and catching a train to Prague, making further performances in Leipzig impossible.

Smyth had been fighting for a performance of The Wreckers for two years. That she was prepared to forego performances at one of Europe’s most important artistic centers, rather than compromise what she saw as the musical integrity of her work, tells us a great deal about her character and her determined belief in the importance and worth of her music.

Ethel Mary Smyth had shown this kind of grit and resolve throughout her life. Born in 1858, she came from a military family for whom the idea of a daughter trained as a professional musician was initially unthinkable. But Smyth won them round and spent most of the 1870s and ‘80s studying composition in Germany. Much of her work from this time is chamber music, written in a decidedly Germanic musical idiom.

In the 1890s, based back in England, Smyth achieved several high-profile performances of orchestral and choral works. She also decided to concentrate her musical energies on composing opera. Both her comic opera Fantasio (1892-4) and one-act music drama Der Wald (1899-1901) were premiered in Germany. In 1902 Der Wald was produced at London’s Covent Garden and the following year became the first opera by a woman to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

For her third opera, Smyth turned to a story that had first come to her after a Cornish walking holiday in 1886. As she was to write in her memoirs:

“Ever since those days I had been haunted by impressions of that strange world of more than a hundred years ago; the plundering of ships lured on to the rocks by the falsification or extinction of the coast lights; the relentless murder of their crews; and with it all the ingrained religiosity of the Celtic population of that barren promontory…”

Her close friend Harry Brewster provided a libretto in French verse, Les Naufrageurs, and Smyth worked on the opera from 1902 to 1904, creating a commanding, dramatic, and passionate score.

Les Naufrageurs was to be premiered at Monte Carlo with the French soprano Emma Calvé. But this production fell through and, with the libretto translated into German as Strandrecht, Smyth turned to Germany. After the fiasco in Leipzig in 1906, Smyth was hoping for better things from presentations in Prague. But the under-rehearsed performances there were a disaster. The first staged performances in the UK, with the libretto translated into English as The Wreckers, were heard in June 1909, conducted by the young Thomas Beecham at His Majesty’s Theatre, London and underwritten by Smyth’s reclusive millionaire friend, Mary Dodge. The Wreckers was finally heard at Covent Garden in 1910.

The story of Smyth’s struggle to get The Wreckers heard shows how hard it was for a British composer to achieve performances of grand opera. Covent Garden, the leading British opera venue, would only accept a new opera once it had achieved some degree of success abroad. Smyth’s situation was made more difficult by her position as a woman composing large-scale musical works at a time when women were assumed to be only capable of composing songs and small piano pieces. Smyth’s determination was rare in an age when women were expected to be demure and decorous rather than assertive and demanding. But it was these qualities, in both Smyth herself and her music, that ensured her work a hearing.

Smyth was to produce three more operatic works, including her most feminist work, The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14). She also continued to fight for the things that she believed in—from a subsidized national opera for England to the rights of women orchestral musicians, and always, of course, for her own music—as well as turning her creative energies towards writing a series of compelling memoirs. During the ‘20s and ‘30s she achieved notable performances of both old and new works, although her private diaries reflect her deep-rooted feelings of despondency and bitterness over her neglect by the British musical establishment. The neglect continued after her death in 1944, although in recent years Smyth’s powerful and expressive music has deservedly found both new advocates and enthusiastic audiences.