The Story of Ethel Smyth, Breaker of Operatic Glass Ceilings


Last night, New York City's Metropolitan Opera premiered an opera composed by a woman. The last time that happened, it was 1903. Here’s the story of the feisty (and eccentric) composer-turned-suffragist who broke that musical glass ceiling 113 years ago.

Hundreds of women were walking by twos and threes down London’s main thoroughfares when the riot erupted on March 1, 1912. At precisely 5:30 p.m., the line of ladies stopped along Westminster’s busiest roads—from Piccadilly to Regent Street—pulled hammers and rocks out of their handbags, and began smashing the windows of shops, department stores, and political offices that opposed a woman’s right to vote. The mass riot, coordinated by the militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, had begun.

"Never since plate glass was invented has there been such a smashing and shattering of it as was witnessed this evening when the suffragettes went out on a window-breaking raid in the West End of London," The New York Times reported the following day. By night’s end, 148 women had been arrested.

Ethel Smyth was one of them. She was jailed for hurling a rock through the window of Lewis Harcourt's home—Harcourt was an avowed anti-suffragist and the Secretary of the State for the Colonies. When Smyth’s friend, the musician Thomas Beecham, visited her at Holloway Prison, he stumbled upon a remarkable scene: Dozens of suffragettes had rallied together in the prison yard to sing.

Long, long—we in the past / Cowered in dread from the light of heaven / Strong, strong—stand we at last / Fearless in faith and with sight new given. / Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty / (Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!) / These, these—beckon us on! / Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Above the courtyard, Smyth stood in her jail cell and proudly listened to the women below. They were singing "The March of Women," a piece she had composed two years earlier as the anthem for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Smyth grabbed a toothbrush, reached her arms beyond the bars of her prison window, and conducted the chorus below.

Few moments define Ethel Smyth better. She was a feisty, and sometimes radical, activist for equality, whether it was in the voting booth or in the male-dominated world of classical music. She was a talented, and fiercely independent, musician—one of England’s most successful turn-of-the-century composers. Not only did she break the glass windows surrounding anti-suffragist politicians, she also cracked the glass ceiling of one of America’s most illustrious concert halls: The Metropolitan Opera.


Ethel Smyth always had a defiant streak. Born in 1858, Smyth grew up in Kent, England, where she hunted, hiked, and mountain climbed. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she also enjoyed "unladylike" activities such as tennis, golf, and bicycling. (A lot of people freaked out about women riding bicycles back then. Consider this gem from an 1891 Sunday Herald: "I think the most vicious thing I ever saw in all my life is a woman on a bicycle … I had thought that cigarette smoking was the worst thing a woman could do, but I changed my mind.") The adult Smyth must have been a double whammy: she bicycled and smoked cigars.

However, little is audacious about her musical upbringing. At age 10, she started composing hymns and chants and learned how to play the piano. Her keyboard studies were short-lived. Two years later, she accidentally injured her left hand with a knife, ending her piano career. But it didn't matter. She was hooked on music. She studied composition throughout her teens and, ignoring the demands of her father, a stern military general, she left home in 1877 for Leipzig, German to study music at the conservatory.

That was short-lived too. Smyth found conservatory life dreary. After one year of school, she left to study privately with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Through that relationship, she met and studied with Johannes Brahms—who for some reason nicknamed her "The Oboe"—and met musical luminaries such as Pytor Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Antonin Dvořák, and Clara Schumann.

For the next decade, Smyth slowly carved a name for herself in Leipzig by writing lieder (German lyrical poems meant for a solo voice and piano), piano music, and short violin sonatas. In the 1890s, she returned to England and composed what many consider her orchestral masterpiece: "Mass in D." The playwright Bernard Shaw was fascinated by the piece, later calling it an antidote for sexism. "It was your music that cured me for ever of the old delusion that women could not do man’s work in art and all other things," he said.

With that, Smyth’s friends begged her to take the next step. She needed to write an opera.

View from New York's old Metropolitan Opera House. Image credit: Getty.

Classical music today has a reputation for being homogenous. The repertoire is rife with white European men, most of them dead. Contemporary composers—both men and women—must compete for space in every program against a centuries-old lineup of deceased, crowd-pleasing masters. It's not much better on the podium. Only about 11 percent of America’s major symphony conductors are women. And in the opera world, the 50 most performed works? All by men. More than 500 operas by women exist today, but it’s hard to find a major opera house that will produce any of them.

It wasn’t always this way. One of the first operas ever written, the comical The Liberation of Ruggiero, was composed by a woman, Francesca Caccini, in 1625. As Elizabeth Davis explains on Classic FM, Caccini was one of the best paid musicians in all of Tuscany. A century later, Italy's Maria Teresa Agnesi, who composed six operas, was one of the most popular musicians in the country. During the 19th century, Princess Amalie of Saxony was among the most prolific opera composers in Europe, writing 14. Countless more talented women filled salons and concert halls with their music.

That may be because, for about two centuries, concert halls featured works by living composers. But as the 19th century wrapped up, that changed: A canon of male operatic "geniuses" formed, including Scarlatti, Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini, Wagner. As opera houses resurrected the works of dead composers, living writers were pushed to the fringes. The problem was especially severe for women.

None of that deterred Smyth. It motivated her. Between 1899 and 1901, she began work on her second opera, Der Wald, and she was hell-bent on getting it produced—if not for her sake, for the women who followed her. "I feel I must fight for Der Wald," she wrote in a letter in 1902, "because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea."

A one-act, 75-minute German-language opera, Der Wald is set in a tranquil forest of cypress trees during the Middle Ages. The woods are full of nymphs and woodland-living spirits who sing about the insignificance of humanity in the face nature. The show includes witches and a woodcutter and a man with a pet bear, and like all good operas, somebody dies at the end.

Der Wald premiered in Berlin on April 9, 1902 and received some hisses from the crowd. But in London, it broke attendance records. Across the pond in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera agreed to give Smyth a shot.

The first performance in New York was a hit, financially speaking. The show earned the Met $10,390.60, making it highest grossing production all year. The New York World said the performance "stirred the blood with clangor of brass, the shrieks of strings, the plaint of wood winds…" When the curtain fell, the audience roared their unyielding approval for 10 to 15 minutes. Smyth took seven curtain calls and left the stage, The New York Times noted, with "flowers by the cartload."

Most critics gave it a thumbs down anyway. They griped that the music was too beefy for a woman composer. It was like Wagner took HGH injections. "This little woman writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to the especial gift of the rougher sex. There is not a weak or effeminate note in Der Wald, nor an unstable sentiment," The Telegraph said. The New York World concurred: "Her work is utterly unfeminine. It lacks sweetness and grace of phrase." The New-York Commercial Advertiser complained that Smyth had tried too hard "to take the sex element out of her work" and, by compensating, had surpassed "in masculinity anything that a man might do." The New York Times simply called it, "a disappointing novelty," lamenting that, "it is difficult to find much import in this sophisticated Grimm's fairy tale."

Smyth was undaunted. She continued writing operas and found a cause in the women’s suffrage movement. She composed a satirical choral work called 1910, which her obituary called a "grotesque symphony of suffragettes, anti-suffragettes, and the hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot." She also wrote the aforementioned "The March of Women," which became the rallying cry for the suffragette cause. She befriended the activist Emmeline Pankhurst—who encouraged fellow feminists to fend off police with jiu jitsu—and spent the next few years protesting, and getting arrested, by her side. (She’d spend two months in prison for chucking that rock through Lewis Harcourt’s window.)

The March of the Women (Shoulder to Shoulder) from Wild Love Music on Vimeo.

Smyth may have been Beethoven reincarnate, too. During her activist years, her hearing deteriorated. (She coped with the oncoming deafness by visiting Egypt, playing a lot of golf, and writing a comic opera called The Boatswain’s Mate.) During World War I, she worked as an X-ray nurse in a military hospital. And yet, despite losing her hearing, she continued conducting and writing music. And memoirs. She defied taboos and wrote openly and earnestly about her attraction to women, while late in life she scribbled a play about her close friend (and crush) Virginia Woolf. Woolf was amazed by Smyth’s talents, remarking, "How you do it, God knows."

In 1922, Smyth was honored with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. All the while, she continued to not give a hoot about what anybody thought of her. Her eccentric wardrobe mirrored the official colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union: "She would don a tie of the brightest purple, white and green, or some hideous purple cotton jacket," Pankhurst recalled. Put lightly, Smyth stuck out in a crowd.

In 1934, a special concert of Smyth’s music was played at Royal Albert Hall in London. The Queen attended and led the applause. Sadly, Smyth was so deaf that she couldn’t hear the music or the ovation. By her death at the age of 86 in 1944, Dame Ethel Smyth had written 10 books, a concerto, countless orchestral works, and six operas.

Dame Ethel Smyth conducts a police band in 1930. Image credit: Getty.

In the United States, Ethel Smyth continues to stand out in musical circles for Der Wald, though not necessarily for the best reasons. Not only was she the first woman to have an opera produced at the Met, she was also the last. Until now.

Yesterday, on December 1, 2016, the drought ended. After a 113 year dry spell, the Metropolitan Opera produced its second opera by a woman: L’Amour de Loin, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The work, which first premiered in Salzburg, Austria, in 2000 has been praised by The Guardian as "luminous but inescapably dramatic." (The Met’s staging, a dazzling sea of 28,000 LED lights, looks equally dramatic.) The performance is being conducted by Susanna Malkki, just the fourth woman to command the Met orchestra in the organization’s 136 year history.

"It just shows how slowly these things evolve," Saariaho recently told The New York Times, remarking on the gap. "But they are evolving—in all fields and also in music." It’s true. The United States alone is now home to a growing Mount Rushmore of incredible female classical music composers: Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, and Ellen Zwilich have all won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Joan Tower, a giant in the profession, has earned three Grammys.

As for the current production of L’Amour de Loin, there will be seven more performances this December. If you pass through New York, treat yourself with a ticket. After all, Ethel Smyth didn’t go around smashing those glass windows and ceilings for nothing.

A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut

In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.

At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.


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