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Archive for July 3rd, 2019

The rise and rise of Ethel Smyth

Editor’s Note: This post was written by David Chandler of the Retrospect Opera and a professor of English at Doshisha University, Kyoto.

The Virginia Woolf community will know that Woolf became a close friend and prolific correspondent of Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Britain’s leading female composer. Smyth fought a long, hard battle to break women’s music out of the heavily gendered constraints which had been placed upon it in the nineteenth century, and from the 1890s onward achieved a long run of important successes.

But like most female composers, her music mostly sank into oblivion after her death, and it was not until the 1990s that it began to be recovered, performed, recorded, and praised. In recent years, Retrospect Opera, a recording company set up as a charity, has led the way in restoring Smyth to her proper place in the history of music, theatre, and women’s cultural history.

Smyth recordings

Our recording of Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), her most commercially successful opera by far, and the one generally recognised as having a feminist story – the overture includes Smyth’s famous Suffragette anthem, “The March of the Women” – was released in 2016, conducted by the famous champion of women’s music, Odaline de la Martinez. It has been highly praised by reviewers and described on BBC Radio 3 as the finest ever recording of Smyth’s music. It is an exceptionally tuneful comic opera and the obvious place to start for anyone new to Smyth.

On the back of The Boatswain’s Mate, we re-released Odaline’s famous recording of The Wreckers (1906), Smyth’s biggest, most ambitious opera, and for that matter the most substantial of all her compositions. This had been released on the Conifer Classics label in 1994, but had long been unavailable.

Fundraising for a third opera

We are now fundraising for a release of a third Smyth opera, Fête Galante (1923), perhaps the most beautiful of all, and certainly the most original. Drawing on the world of the traditional commedia dell’arte, it stands on the border between opera and ballet; Smyth called it a “Dance Dream.” (It was in fact played as a straight ballet in the 1930s, with sets by Vanessa Bell.) Again, Odaline has conducted it.

Like all our releases this is being crowd funded. All donations of £25 or more are listed on our website, and all donations of £50 or more are also listed in the booklet that goes out with the CD, containing the full libretto and three introductory essays.

How you can help

We already have a number of Woolf scholars from all around the world supporting us, but we do hope to find more! If you don’t want to donate to Fête Galante, simply buying The Boatswain’s Mate, or The Wreckers, or any of our other releases, or getting your friends or library to buy them, is another valuable way you can help us put Smyth and women’s music firmly back on the map.

For more information on the Fête Galante project, see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/SMYTH/FeteG.html

And to buy any of our existing catalogue, please see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/CD_Sales.html

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