Classical Album of the Week: They Persisted, Chamber Music by Amy Beach, Ulric Cole & Ethel Smyth

Jun 20, 2019

June 24, 2019. They Persisted is the latest project of pianist Joanna Goldstein, Indiana University Southeast Music Professor and Temple University alumnus. Tying this album together is the thread of the women’s suffrage movement — a research interest of Goldstein’s. Three composers are featured on the album — Amy Beach, Ulric Cole and Ethel Smyth — each with a highly distinctive creative and professional arc to her life, and each active during the era of suffrage. 

Works included are: Amy Beach’s Piano Trio Op.51 (1938) based on Inuit melodies, Ulric Cole’s jazz-inspired Violin Sonata (1930) and Ethel Smyth’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1928), a work dedicated to the founder of the famous London Proms.

June is Pride Month and in celebration, let’s take an in-depth look at gay English composer, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). Don’t know Smyth? Here’s a quick primer. Bruno Walter and John Barbirolli conducted her pieces. John Singer Sargent made drawings of her. Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky all crossed her path. Virginia Woolf was her friend. She was no stranger to activities as divergent as mountain climbing, golfing and political activism. Ethel was, well, as a Victorian wonder — a step ahead of the 20th and 21st century norms and values to come.

In her own day, her gusto for life was a thing of legend. As a young woman, she resisted her father’s attempts to usher her into polite society and avoided the social engagements expected of her.  Such was her lack of cooperation with convention that she took off to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, leaving her father exasperated. Once there, she soon grew dissatisfied with her teacher Reinecke and never finished.

This decision did little to slow her down. She went on to generate a varied compositional output — spanning opera and song, chamber and orchestral music. Throughout her career, she was ambitious and an effective promoter of her own work and the work of other women artists. She was writing pieces for some of the world’s most respected soloists of the day and, in 1902, became the first woman composer to have an opera performed at Covent Garden.

However large music loomed in her life, women’s suffrage was no less important to her. In fact, it often consumed her. Highly principled, relentlessly driven Smyth went so far as to take two years off of composing in order to focus on her role as suffragette. This time was not without its colorful episodes. According to conductor Thomas Beecham, she threw bricks in the windows of cabinet ministers and ended up being arrested, tried and imprisoned. Not one to be silenced by such setbacks, while inside, she rallied her fellow lady inmates into rousing choruses, conducting them with a toothbrush, claimed Beecham.  

During the 1920s, age began catching up with Smyth and her hearing had begun to fail.  By the end of the decade, she was writing some of her last works. The Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1928) was among them. In its original form, it was the Double Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra (1927) and Smyth, the following year, arranged it as a trio for piano. 

It’s not only noteworthy as the first significant work for horn by a female composer but also for the ways Smyth experimented with unusual horn techniques normally associated with much later 20th century works. The orchestral version of the piece made such an impact upon its London premiere in 1927 that it saw its second performance just one year later by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Listen to the first movement of Smyth’s trio, performed by Steve Moeckel (violin), Bruce Heim (horn) and Joanna Goldstein (piano):

More about Ethel Smyth from actor and vocalist Lucy Steves:

Throughout the week, hear works from this album on WRTI 901. FM and the live stream.