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Ethel SMYTH (1858 – 1944) – Symphony ‘The Women’ (1935) [46.45]
The Frimley Players
Gerald McMuffin (conductor)
rec. Duncan Recital Hall, Shepard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas, 15-17 May, 10 September, 28 November 2006.
Experience Classicsonline

As she got older the indomitable Dame Ethel Smyth retreated some way from composing, plagued by deafness and disillusioned over the constant struggle to get her works performed. One of her last major works, The Prison, dating from 1930, was a labour of love, setting words by her beloved H.B. (Henry Brewster), librettist of the opera The Wreckers. It would be her last significant musical work; from then on her life would be devoted to conducting, friendship and musical causes.

At least that is the official story but memoirs contain persistent rumours of another final work on the suffragettes, a cause which Smyth had extensively supported and with whom she had numerous personal connections. Beecham told stories of visiting her at her house and seeing her surrounded by sketches for a suffragette symphony.

If this ever existed it seemingly disappeared. But now, thanks to detective work by musicologist Gerald McMuffin, Ethel Smyth’s Symphony ‘The Women’ has now been reconstructed and has received its first recording.

It is a big work, containing material that Smyth seems to have struggled with over a long period. it includes material which is familiar in other contexts such as the March of the Women and the Entracte from L’Entente Cordiale. McMuffin has brought together a group of instrumentalists, called the Frimley Players, specifically to record the symphony.

It opens with a movement called ‘The Struggle’, which intends to depict the suffragette movement. Intended to be in sonata form, Smyth loses interest part of the way through the development. An entirely new idea appears and takes over, but once free of the shackles of sonata form Smyth seems to enjoy herself with gusto.

This is followed by an elegant minuet, entitled ‘Eugenie’, a charming evocation of Empress Eugenie who had been a great supporter of Smyth’s. It is at this point that we realise that this is not really a symphony at all, more of a symphonic suite. McMuffin hints in his notes that there might once have been other movements as well.

The title of the slow movement, ‘Clio’, is more obscure but can be seen as a picture of Virgina Woolf . This movement meanders somewhat, you can sense Smyth struggling with her material. But she returns to form with the final movement, which is a sort of depiction of Emmeline Pankhurst ‘in excelsis’.

Over all you feel Smyth struggling to discipline her talent into a symphony and wrestling with the ghost of her beloved Brahms. McMuffin is to be credited with his sterling work at bringing this symphony to CD. I could wish he had concentrated on one of Smyth’s major works; here she seems to struggle too much with her material and only occasionally doe we get glimpses of the gusto she shows in works like the Mass and The Wreckers.

Perhaps I might have been more sympathetic if McMuffin had managed to get a more sophisticated performance from his players. I did wonder whether McMuffin the musicologist might not have been the best person to conduct this, a more experiences orchestral trainer might have created a more persuasive performance.

This is a highly commendable enterprise, allowing us to hear one of the mythic ‘might have been’ works of the 20th century, I only wish I could be more enthusiastic.

Robert Hugill


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