Dame Ethel Smyth’s father was an army officer who, perhaps
predictably, did not take kindly to his daughter’s wish to be a professional
musician. Her musical training took place almost totally in Germany, so
it is not surprising if her music carries from time to time a certain
German accent, nor, perhaps, that a largely German team decided to carry
the flag for her on these recordings. Once established in the profession
she seems to have suffered her fair share of prejudice, but was sufficiently
forceful to be able not only to combat this but to use it to her advantage.
Her own memoirs, plus published letters written to Adrian Boult and others
show her to be a tireless promoter of her own works, and the short passage
about her in Bernard Shore’s celebrated book The Orchestra Speaks
leaves no doubt about her strength of character and single-mindedness.
The earliest work here is the String Quintet of 1883
in which the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet is joined by cellist Johanna
Varner. Two substantial movements frame three shorter ones in a structure
lasting a little under half an hour. The German accent already alluded
to is in evidence here, but the musical language is for the most part
conventionally diatonic, with nothing of the harmonic complexity or
variety of Brahms, for example, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 is more or
less contemporary with this work. The first two movements are very ordinary,
but the piece warms up a bit from the third movement scherzo onwards
and leads to an arresting close. The finale has a second theme in that
lyrical pastoral vein familiar to all lovers of modern English music,
but it is the fourth, slow movement which is by far the most successful
and deeply felt. The work as a whole is well crafted but not particularly
individual, even allowing for the fact that the composer was only twenty-five.
The language rarely deviates from the conventional
in the Cello Sonata too, but the music, at least in the first two movements,
is perhaps more consistently individual than the earlier Quintet. There
is a certain darkness here, which is affecting, but the problem is that
the musical ideas themselves are rarely very memorable, so much so that
after listening to the work for the third time I still had difficulty
remembering what the first two movements were like beyond a certain
yearning quality in the first movement and a somewhat sombre character
in the second. The finale falls back on a rather formulaic main theme
which is frankly of little interest but which suddenly comes alive in
a passionately lyrical passage shortly before the end. In spite of its
strengths I can hear little evidence in this music of the composer dealing
with major issues, nor any feeling that the musical material has been
moulded into the only formal shape possible for it.
The four movements which make up the A minor Violin
Sonata amount to almost half and hour and the work was clearly an ambitious
undertaking. The first movement alone lasts an imposing nine minutes
and is fairly lively for most of its length but ends again in darkness,
an effect which is both surprising and affecting. The scherzo which
follows, at two and a half minutes, seems to end almost before it has
begun. The long slow movement is a kind of Sicilienne and the finale
is dramatic and excitable by turns. The work is well enough written
for the two instruments, but the problem, as elsewhere, is that although
the composer is successful in establishing mood and at controlling the
ebb and flow of the music, the actual musical material itself is neither
very individual nor very memorable.
The first two movements of the E minor Quartet were
completed in 1902 and the two remaining movements ten years later. Even
in 1902 there is clear evidence that the musical language has evolved
beyond the rather conventional tonality of the earlier works, and this
is even more in evidence in the second half of the work. The slow movement
is again the most attractive, perhaps, ghostly and with an insistent
rhythm to it, but there is much of interest in each of the four movements
of this forty minute work. But how one longs for the music to blossom
into something more lyrical, a striking turn of phrase, a tune to sing
on the way home!
The single disc opens with the Four Songs of 1907.
Whether they were ever intended to be performed as a group of four is
unclear from the booklet notes, but the fourth of these songs to French
texts certainly received its first performance after the other three
and is the only one not to a poem by Henri de Régnier. The first
song, Odelette, is a surprisingly dramatic setting of a poem
telling of love misunderstood and gone wrong. The second, Danse,
is a collection of reflections by the poet as he contemplates his loved
one dancing. The music makes use of some rather obvious triple time
dance rhythms with a tambourine marking the off-beats. The third, Chrysilla
seems to me the most successful, a moving reflection on approaching
death which manages totally to avoid lachrymose tendencies. The fourth,
Ode Anacréontique, is, to my mind, an almost totally unsuccessful
attempt at a drinking song, where any notion of intoxication is quite
disappointingly absent. There is some idiosyncratic percussion writing
in these songs, particularly for the side drum, the reasons for which
are not always immediately obvious from the texts. The composer establishes
atmosphere in each one of these four songs, but again, to my ears at
least, melodic interest and originality is almost totally lacking.
Melinda Paulsen makes the best possible case for the
Three Songs of 1913, but even her committed advocacy can’t save them.
The texts pose a major problem: compared to these the Edwardian lyrics
set by Elgar in his Sea Pictures (including one by his wife)
are poetic masterpieces. The first of Smyth’s songs, The Clown,
has the distinction of having as its text possibly the worst poem –
by one Maurice Baring – I have ever read:
"O clown, silly clown, O why do you dance?
You know you can never be free.
You are tied by the leg to the strings of chance,
Yet you dance like a captive flea."
The musical response to the idea of the clown’s dance
is conventionally rhythmic, melodically inert. The tragedy of the clown’s
situation is revealed in the final lines: "My soul is a house of
foam without reins/That dances on deathless sands" and clearly
these lines inspired the composer because she repeats them endlessly.
In the second song, Possession, the poet realises that giving
freedom to her friend will bring greater joy than restricting her, this
lesson learned after discouraging experiences with a rose and a caged
linnet. Thank goodness that here the composer manages to surpass this
twaddle with music of an affecting quality, but the text of the final
song, On the Road, is a truly terrible piece of pseudo-political
doggerel – "O to fight to the death with a hope through the strife/That
the freedom we seek shall be ours" and Smyth’s admittedly forthright
music does nothing to redeem it.
The Double Concerto with which the disc ends is the
composer’s own transcription of a work for violin, horn and orchestra
first performed in 1927 and conducted by its dedicatee "… the best
friend of English music, Henry Wood." In this work, more than all
the others on these three discs, we hear the essentially muscular character
of Smyth’s music. There is nothing shy or retiring about the violin
writing here, though the horn is much more modest and discreet, and
is, by consequence, more easily hidden by the accompaniment. The slow
movement creates a powerful atmosphere and the rather inflated close
is preceded by a long cadenza for the two instruments. There are one
or two strange noises from the horn in the cadenza which I can’t identify,
but which only add to the generally mysterious atmosphere.
These three discs serve, then, as a good introduction
to the composer, though of course only the chamber music is featured,
and you would have to look elsewhere for examples of Smyth’s choral
and operatic output. Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa, the first violinist of
the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, was perhaps the instigating force behind
these issues as she has written an apparently learned article of some
eleven pages about the composer which accompanies the two disc set,
apparently, because the article is in German only. Notes on the
actual works recorded are very short and confined to the inside back
cover of the booklet. The single disc is accompanied by a booklet which
is rather confusingly laid out and presents an uneasy mixture of German
and English, but which does include the texts of the songs.
The performances are variable. The American mezzo Melinda
Paulsen deserves enormous credit for her efforts in respect of the songs
and with her vocal quality and intelligent singing she sometimes almost
succeeds in convincing me. Friedemann Kupsa delivers an excellent performance
of the Cello Sonata, and her accompanist, Céline Dutilly, brings
distinction to every work in which she participates. Moments of imperfect
intonation mar the contribution of the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, though
they fare better in the rather meatier E minor Quartet than in the earlier
Quintet. Renate Eggebrecht-Kupsa does not emerge unscathed from the
more challenging passages of her solo works, though she is partnered
in the Concerto by the excellent horn player Franz Draxinger.
The sound is very good for the most part, though there
is what sounds like a clumsy edit in the slow movement of the E minor
Many commentators have written high praise about the
music of Ethel Smyth, and the musicians on these discs are certainly
convinced by it. I have never found it particularly satisfying, however,
and though I was also left unmoved by most of the music here I can only
urge those with an interest in twentieth century English music to try
these performances for themselves.