April 23rd 2008 will see the 150th anniversary of the birthday of the forgotten British compser Dame Ethel Smyth. audite celebrates the anniversary with a special offer of the production of her "Mass in D" valid throughout the whole year.
Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 daughter of a British general major. Being a child of the Victorian age she received a strict education at home and at a boarding school against which she revolted again and again. Against her fathers wish she managed to study music in Leipzig - strength of will and persistence were here strongest characteristics.
In Leipzig she is disappointed with the ancient curriculum at the conservatoire but fascinated by the city, the concerts, the meetings with Brahms, Grieg and Clara Schumann. Heinrich von Herzogenberg gave her private lessons and also Tschaikowsky later on. She composed chamber- and pianomusic, a serenade for orchestra was her first success in England. In 1893 it was surpassed by the premiere of the Mass that remained her only religious work. Then she devoted herself to the opera. The most successful opera "The Wreckers", composed after a sinister Cornish legend was conducted by Bruno Walter, Arthur Nickisch and Sir Thomas Beecham.
"When I was young, engrosses as we all were in the story of the Oxford Movement, I had been very High Church, and later when belief passed, this aspect of Anglicanism had never lost its grip on my imagination ... In order to round off the story of this phase of intense belief – belief in the strictest sense of the word – I ought to say that during this and the ensuing year I was composing a Mass ... Into that work I tried to put all there was in my heart but no sooner was it finished than, strange to say, orthodox belief fell away from me, never to return ... Who shall fathom the Divine Plan? Only this will I say, that at no period of my life have I had the feeling of being saner, wiser, nearer truth. Never has this phase, as compared to others that were to succeed it, seemed overwrought, unnatural, or hysterical; it was simply a religious experience that in my case could not be an abiding one."
In the summer of 1891 she searched all over England for a conductor who was daring enough to conduct the big choir composition of a quite unknown composer. She had the feeling as if she was standing up against a wall. The highly respected composers of that time and guardians of tradition, Perry, Standford and Sullivan, whom she knew personally, did not make any allowances to help her.
She found support in a totally "unmusical" source: the French empress Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III, living in exile in England. She supported Ethel Smyth by financing the publication of the Mass at the Novello Press and by giving her the chance to introduce herself to Queen Victoria including the possibility to present a part of the Mass before her court.
She was seated in front of a gigantic grand piano and performed the "Benedictus" and Sanctus as "... in the manner of composer that meant singing the chorus as well as the solo parts, and trumpeting forth orchestral effects as best you can, a noisy proceeding ... emboldened by the sonority of the place, I did the "Gloria" the most tempestuous and ... best number of all. At a certain drum effect a foot came into play, and I fancy that as regards volume of sound at least, the presence of a real chorus and orchestra was scarcely missed."
One and a half year later, in January 1893 the premiere was held with about 1,000 performers in the enormous Royal Albert Hall in front of an audience of 12,000 people. It was received with enthusiasm. The "Gloria" was also performed as festive finale at the end of the Mass being the composer's utmost wish. Fuller-Maitland, a critic at Times wrote:
"This work definitely places the composer among the most eminent composers of her time, and easily at the head of all those of her own sex. The most striking thing about it is the entire absence of the qualities that are usually associated with feminine productions; throughout it is virile, masterly in construction and workmanship, and particularly remarkable for the excellence and rich colour of the orchestration"
In spite of this the work vanished from sight to reappear again 30 years later.
"In the middle twenties, I bethought me, I forget in what connection, of the Mass, which had never achieved a second performance, which none but greybeards had heard, and the existence of which I had practically forgotten. A couple of limp and dusty piano scores were found on an upper shelf, and after agitated further searchings the full score turned up in my loft. In spite of the judgement of the Faculty the work had evidently been appreciated by the mice, and on sitting down to examine it I shared their opinion, and decided that it really deserved a better fate than thirty-one years of suspended animation. But when I consulted the publishers as to the possibility of a revival, the reply was, 'Much as we regret to say so, we fear your Mass is dead'.
This verdict stung me into activity, and to cut a long story short, in 1924 Adrian Boult produced it brilliantly in Birmingham and the following week in London. This time the press was excellent."
Writing to a friend about the performance Ethel Smyth noted critically:
"On the whole satisfactory, but you know how hard I am to please ... Audience warm (for stodgy Birmingham). Chorus fine. Boult first rate. Orchestra putrid ... All the trombones were played by policeman."
The greatest pleasure Ethel Smyth had was in a letter from George Bernhard Shaw, who had been to the premiere of the Mass 30 years earlier and had a very detailed witty and altogether positive critic which had been published in "The World".
"Dear Dame Ethel, – Thank you for bullying me into going to hear that Mass.
The originality and beauty of the voice parts are as striking today as they were 30 years ago, and the rest will stand up in the biggest company. Magnificent!
You are totally and diametrically wrong in imagining that you have suffered from a prejudice against feminine music. On the contrary you have been almost extinguished by the dread of masculine music. It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do men's work in art and other things. (That was years ago, when I knew nothing about you, and heard an overture – "The Wreckers" or something – in which you kicked a big orchestra all round the platform.) But for you I might not have been able to tackle St Joan, who has floored every previous way playwright. Your music is more masculine than Handel's.
Your dear big brother, G. Bernard Shaw."
For this re-performance in 1924 she revised the composition. The changes refer to a small improvement in the choir- and orchestralparts and a reduction of the metronome beat most considerably in the fast movements. The changes are surely due to the remembrance of the premiere with its gigantic number of performers. Here our recording again approaches the original intention of the composer.