Dame Ethel Smyth was a celebrated composer, author, musician and suffragette. She was the first female composer to be awarded a damehood.
Smyth showed a talent for music at a young age, but had to fight to be able to study it as her father did not support her interests. At 19, Smyth was allowed to travel to Leipzig to study at the Conservatory. She wished to study orchestration, which was not included in her tutition and left the Conservatory to study with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, a private tutor. Herzogenberg and his wife, Elisabeth (Lisl) quickly became a surrogate family to Smyth, and Lisl is considered by some to be Ethel’s first ‘great love’.
Ethel described her own sexuality as an ‘everlasting puzzle’ and once confided to her only known male lover that it was ‘easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours’.
In 1910, Smyth was awarded an honorary doctorate for her success in music from the University of Durham. That same year, she met Emmeline Pankhurst and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was rumoured that Smyth and Pankhurst later became lovers.
In 1911, Smyth combined her talent for music with her activism when composing ‘The March of the Women’, which became the battle song of the WSPU. She participated in the militant actions of the suffragettes, and on one occasion threw stones through a Conservative MPs window, landing her in jail for two months.
While in jail, Smyth was visited by Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who would later state that he saw the women parading around the courtyard chanting ‘The March of the Women’ while Smyth conducted them with a toothbrush.
In 1934, Smyth’s work as a composer was celebrated at a festival, the final event of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Her music included songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas. She was the first female composer to be awarded a damehood.