Profiles of two female composers featured in 'Scoring Suffrage' at the Florence Lyceum
by Margie MacKinnon
A supermoon illuminated the sky over the Arno as the music of women composers filled Florence’s Lyceum Club for the inauguration of ‘Palace Women – Oltrarno and Beyond’ in September 2023. Serendipity? Perhaps, but there is no doubt that the presence of this symbol of female energy added to the sense that ‘Scoring Suffrage’ (as the recital was called) was an exceptional event. Below, we take a closer look at two of the composers whose work featured in the recital.
Near contemporaries from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Florence Price (1887-1953) and Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), fought against prejudice to have their compositions recognised and performed. The body of work they left behind is testament to their talent and perseverance.
Portrait of Florence Price looking and the camera, Special Collecions, University of Arkansas Libraries
Florence Beatrice Smith was born into a prominent family in the Black community of Little Rock, Arkansas. Her mother was a talented singer and pianist who quickly recognised her daughter’s musical gifts and sent Florence to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. In addition to excelling at her piano and organ studies, she took private lessons in composition with the school’s director. That Florence encountered discrimination along the way is evidenced by the fact that, in her final year at the Conservatory, she falsely registered as a Mexican resident in an effort to avoid harassment from segregationist Southern white students, not an unusual occurrence for students of colour. In fact, Florence’s background included a mixture of French, Indian, Spanish and African American ancestry, and she would draw from this “racial melting pot” in composing her music.
Florence returned to Little Rock after graduation and married Thomas Price, an up-and-coming lawyer. When racial tensions in the city later erupted in violence, the couple, with their two young daughters, joined the Great Migration of Blacks fleeing northward, eventually settling in Chicago. Florence continued to study composition, publishing four pieces for piano in 1928. When her marriage ended in divorce in 1931, she supported her family by working as an organist for silent film screenings and composing jingles for radio advertisements.
Her ‘break’ came when she won the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Award, a competition for Black composers, with her entry ‘Symphony No 1 in E minor,’ which was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the World’s Fair in 1933. The Chicago Daily News’ music critic described it as “a faultless work … that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”
In explaining how Price went from relative obscurity to being showcased by a major orchestra, pianist and music historian Dr Samantha Ege notes that, “there’s this idea that this all-white, all-male orchestra just sort of magically took an interest in Price’s music, but actually it was Maude Roberts George working behind the scenes, supporting Price in getting the score finished and making sure the world could hear it.” Ege explains that both Price and George were part of an active network of Black women, many with conservatory training, who supported a growing musical community during the 1920s and 1930s. George’s support for Price extended to personally underwriting the cost of the Chicago Symphony performance.
Even as she tirelessly composed new pieces, Price continued formal studies in harmony, orchestration and composition at the Chicago Musical College and the University of Chicago.
Her music was performed by at least nine major orchestras, and her vocal and instrumental chamber music and piano compositions were sung by some of the great soloists of her day – including Marian Anderson who famously performed Price’s arrangement of a spiritual on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, when she was barred on racial grounds from appearing in Washington’s Constitution Hall. Price also taught piano and mentored young composers. While she succeeded in publishing some of her scores, most were still in manuscript form at the time of her death.
Price’s compositions clearly reflect the influence of her classical training. For those familiar with this repertoire, echoes of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin are evident in her work. Musicologists cite Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ as the primary model for her first symphony. But what sets her compositions apart is the way in which she integrated musical idioms from outside the traditional orchestral world. In particular, she drew on the African American soundscape of church spirituals, plantation and folk songs with which she would have been familiar from her Southern childhood. Written descriptions cannot hope to capture the emotion of this music and encountering it for the first time is a pleasure that awaits the uninitiated. Ege, who has recorded many of Price’s pieces, says, “I wanted to recreate for the listener that sense of wonder I had when I first heard the music … It was a real invitation to listen … to enter this world with her … and I think it’s the way she treats African folk song with such respect and sensitivity …” Ege adds that Price would have been aware that touring groups in the late Nineteenth Century had made the Negro spiritual an art form. Music that had once been denigrated because of its origins was seen in a new light
in the concert hall.
In 1943, Price wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the highly regarded Boston Symphony Orchestra, hoping to encourage him to read some of her scores. Explaining her style, she told him, “I believe I can truthfully say that I understand the real Negro music. In some of my work I make use of this idiom undiluted. Again, at other times it merely flavors my themes. I have an unwavering and compelling faith that a national music very beautiful and very American can come from the melting pot just as the nation itself has done.” Unfortunately, Koussevitzky was not interested in programming any of her work.
Price’s ‘Fantasie No. 1 in G minor’, which was performed as part of ‘Scoring Suffrage’, is a wonderful example of her ability to seamlessly insert recognisable African American themes into the highly structured form of classical European concert music. It is one of four ‘Fantasies’, which at one time had been presumed lost. Fortunately for music lovers, in 2009, a cache of dozens of boxes containing the composer’s letters and manuscripts was discovered in a long-neglected house in Illinois that had been Price’s summer refuge. That discovery heralded a renaissance in Price’s work and a renewed interest in performances and recordings of her extensive catalogue. Her “very beautiful and very American” music deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.
Ethel Smyth and her dog, Marco, 1891, Wikimedia Commons
Her Majesty’s Prison Holloway is perhaps London’s most famous institution for women. In March 1912, it was the venue for an exceptional performance of the Suffragette anthem ‘The March of Women’. The chorus was sung by inmates marching in the quadrangle, while the anthem’s composer, Ethel Smyth, leaned out of her prison cell window to conduct them with her toothbrush. Smyth had been arrested two months earlier, along with her friend Emmeline Pankhurst, for throwing stones at the houses of politicians who opposed votes for women. Smyth herself took credit for teaching Pankhurst how to throw stones and practiced with her by aiming stones at trees near the home of a fellow activist. At the age of 52, Smyth had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Pankhurst in 1903, to campaign for women’s suffrage. She took two years out from her musical career, by then well-established, to devote herself to the cause. This was typical of the passion and fearlessness with which Smyth approached every aspect of her life.
Her determination not to be bound by social convention was apparent early on. Born in 1858 into a well-to-do family in Victorian England - a time when it was unseemly for women of her class to have their own profession - Smyth overcame her father’s objections to her unshakeable desire to study music by locking herself in her room and refusing to eat or leave it until he relented. She was admitted to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1887 and met some of the most renowned composers of the day, including Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Antonin Dvorak and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The latter would eventually recognise Smyth as “one of the few women composers whom one can seriously consider to be achieving something valuable in the field of musical creation.” Tchaikovsky’s backhanded compliment typifies the prejudice faced by female composers. Her work was not evaluated on its own merits but as that of a “woman composer”. While some critics praised the “masculinity” of her more powerful compositions, others complained that her work was lacking in the feminine charm to be expected of woman, whatever her other accomplishments.
Following her formal education, Smyth travelled throughout Europe, mainly in Germany and Italy, refining her style, falling in and out of love and cultivating friendships with patrons, musicians and other intellectuals who were part of the artistic milieu of the time. She returned to London in 1889 where she composed works ranging from choral arrangements and chamber music to orchestral pieces and operas. Her first of six operas, ‘Fantasio’, debuted in 1898 in Weimar, Germany. Despite the insidious prejudice against women as composers, Smyth was able to get many of her works performed, thanks to a combination of talent, support from conductors such as Sir Thomas Beecham, and her own formidable ambition.
Smyth’s ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor’, composed in 1887 and dedicated to her friend, Lili Wach, the daughter of composer Felix Mendelssohn, was the centrepiece of ‘Scoring Suffrage’. A review of its first performance in 1887 praised the musicians while declaring that the work itself lacked originality and was a slavish copy of Brahms, a critique that Smyth dismissed in her memoir Impressions that Remained saying, “A listen to the piece will prove just how wrong the reviewers were!” When violinist Ruth Palmer (see feature on p.x) first looked at Smyth’s violin sonata, she thought, “There’s so much Brahms here. Where’s the Smyth? But when you get to know it, you realise, actually, she’s got so much personal power and narrative in that piece. She is not Brahms at all. It’s just that that is the vernacular that she was speaking in because that’s what was going on in Europe at the time. But she brings her own voice to the music and she says something original with it.”
In 1912, Smyth began to lose her hearing, eventually giving up composing as a result. She turned from music to writing, completing ten mostly autobiographical volumes. In them, she writes openly about her love affairs, many with famous women, including Emmeline Pankhurst, writers Virginia Woolf and Edith Somerville, and the heiress Winnaretta Singer. Her only male lover is said to have been Henry Brewster, the librettist of some of her operas, with whom she had a lifelong friendship. It is disappointing (if not surprising) to discover that, according to biographer Dr Leah Broad, Smyth held bigoted opinions about race, subscribing to the belief in white English superiority, despite having faced prejudice throughout her life because of her gender and sexuality. In this, she went along with views that were prevalent at the time.
Yet there is no denying Smyth’s many accomplishments. She was the first woman to have an opera (‘The Forest’) staged at the New York Metropolitan Opera, in 1903. In 1922, She was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the first female composer (and possibly the only one with a criminal record!) to be given the title of Dame. She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree in music from Oxford University, in 1926. More recently, Smyth was the first woman composer to have an opera staged at Glyndebourne, in 2022. Their production of Smyth’s 1906 magnum opus, ‘The Wreckers’, attracted rapturous reviews (and favourable comparisons to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’) for the staging and for the work itself, with the Financial Times critic claiming, “there is no English opera written before or after ‘The Wreckers’ that can match Smyth’s open-hearted, unapologetic, no-holds-barred passion.” Smyth’s final major work, a choral symphony called ‘The Prison’ was first performed in 1930 but only recorded 90 years later. That recording, by Chandos, won a Grammy in 2021.
Among her many accolades, I like to think that Dame Ethel would have been particularly “chuffed” to have been given a seat at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1974-79). In this ground-breaking installation artwork, a triangular table with place settings for 39 significant women from history and myth, Smyth finds herself in the company of Sojourner Truth, Georgia O’Keefe, Artemisia Gentileschi and her dear friend, Virginia Woolf, among others. Representing her work as both a composer and a champion of women’s rights, Smyth’s place setting includes musical motifs such as a plate in the form of a grand piano, a treble clef incorporating her initials and a metronome. On the runner, a tweed suit has been laid out, as if being tailored. This is a reference to Smyth’s preference for dressing in a ‘masculine’ style, and, perhaps, to her wish to be considered as worthy a composer as any of her male counterparts.
Passionate composer, radical activist, prolific writer and non-conforming lover of women (and at least one man), Dame Ethel Smyth would be a fascinating guest at any fantasy dinner party.