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Here is a roundup of music and movie news of interest to followers of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.

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Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle concert poster spotted in Cambridge last month.

Professional contralto and actress Lucy Stevens has developed a new show, Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle, to coincide with and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in the UK getting the vote.

The concert will be staged Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Stapleford Granary. Tickets are £15 for general admission and £8 for those under 16.

About Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth, a friend and frequent correspondent of Virginia Woolf and a political activist and composer, was imprisoned in Holloway Prison with Sylvia Pankhurst. As a composer, she wrote the anthem for the suffrage movement “The March of the Women” as well as six operas and many chamber, orchestral, and vocal works.  As an author she published ten books.

In 1902 Ethel Smyth was the first female composer to have an opera performed at Covent Garden and, in 1903, she was the first female composer to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The next opera by a female composer to be performed at Covent Garden was in 2012 and at The Met in 2016.

About the concert

Grasp The Nettle weaves her music, songs and greatest opera, “The Wreckers,” with her battle for an equal voice.It is Illuminated with anecdotes from her confidants, her letters and her own writing “…which is peculiarly beautiful and all of it rippling with life” (Maurice Baring).

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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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Musician Mike Posner

The chart-topping musician and songwriter, Mike Posner, famous for the singles “Cooler Then Me” and “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”, references Virginia Woolf in a new song, “Be As You Are” from his recently released album, At Night, Alone.

The song lyrics mention Woolf immediately:

Virginia Woolf and poetry
No one seemed to notice me
Being young was getting so old
Cheap beer and cigarettes
Life was like a movie set
And I seemed to be given no role

Posner composed annotations for this song over at Genuis.com, and he writes in detail about how Virginia Woolf’s work influenced his “life as a reader” and as a song writer:

So I read Mrs. Dalloway in high school, and this was probably the best class that I ever took, including all the classes I took at Duke. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Mundy, Susan Mundy, and her class changed my life. She taught me how to read. Like, I knew how to read before but I didn’t know how to read a novel – where if someone was saying that “the sun set and it was dark,” they weren’t just saying “the sun set and it was dark.” They were saying a million other things. And she taught us how to read that way. I am sure if you like Virginia Woolf then you know how to read that way. But that totally changed my life as both a writer and a reader.

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A still shot from Posner’s music video for “Be As You Are”.

Posner also writes about how he identifies with the character Septimus Smith from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and how he connects with and is inspired by this character’s depression:

So I have a kinship and a sort of affinity to anyone that felt sad and depressed, because I felt that way very much in my teenage years, especially in the winter time. And that is where this lyric about “poetry” comes from. Just the name Virginia Woolf reminds me of all those sort of depressed, nostalgic feelings. Now I will occasionally feel a hint of that depression and it is weird to say it but I actually sort of like it a little bit because there is a familiarity there. And all of my music to this day is either a reaction against that soil of sadness or it is nostalgic, against that soil of sadness.

You can read Mike Posner’s full annotations of his song lyrics for “Be As You Are” here, and you can listen to the song below.

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Thanks goes to @louisbarabbas on Twitter for the news about this song based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and written especially for Manchester After Hours for the 90th anniversary of the 1925 novel.

Musicians from Debt Records took part in the open recording of the song, which writers Louis Barabbas and Felix Hagan call “something of a tug-of-war between light and dark.” It was recorded in the Henry Watson Music Room at Manchester Central Library on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

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A literary soundtrack inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway from The Paris Review, July 24, 2012.

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