MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle ProMusica Sings Ethel Smyth & W.A. Mozart

For the grand finale to their 50th-anniversary season, Karen P. Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica will pair major works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra by Ethel Smyth and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart at St. James Cathedral this Saturday, May 20, at 8 pm. Tickets here. You can also register for free access to an online stream here, which will be available starting May 27 at 7:30pm until June 26, 2023.

Thomas will lead Seattle Pro Musica and the orchestra, plus soloists Tess Altiveros (soprano), Dawn Padula (mezzo), Zachary Finkelstein (tenor), and Charles Robert Stephens (bass) in Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D (1891) and Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427 (1782-83).

Thomas provides the following commentary:

Mass in D by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

“The exact worth of my music will probably not be known till naught remains of the writer but sexless dots and lines on ruled paper,” Ethel Smyth wrote in 1928. It seems she was right, and her music is only recently beginning to get the attention it has so long deserved. Ethel Smyth was a radical and a non-conformist from a young age.

Born into an upper-middle class family, she rebelled against the restrictions of her Victorian-era girlhood. Her father strongly opposed her desire to study music – so she locked herself in her room and refused to eat until he capitulated. She began studying at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1887 at the age of 19. Leipzig was a great center of music activity, and while there Smyth met influential composers such as Antonín Dvořák, Clara Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, and Johannes Brahms. Her best-known work, The Wreckers, was performed in London by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1909. In 1903 she became the first woman to have a work performed by the Metropolitan Opera – Der Wald (The Forest), and in 1922 she became the first female composer to be granted Damehood.

“She was a force of nature, a feminist composer of phenomenal talents, whose music set records and won great acclaim. She had passionate affairs with prominent women – including the celebrated suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst – and a lasting friendship with Virginia Woolf,” writes Beverley D’Silva of the BBC. “Her unstoppable spirit shocked polite society…her activism landed her in prison.”

All her life she fought to have her music performed in the face of misogyny and male critics who dismissed her as a “lady composer.” Dr Amy Zigler, assistant professor of music at Salem College, wrote that if Smyth and others wrote music that was “energetic, loud, forceful or virile” it was damned as “unnatural and unbecoming of a woman.” If they wrote music that was “graceful, soft, lyrical or sentimental, it was deemed to be just ‘parlour’ music for young women to play at home – unimportant or inferior.” While fighting such sexist attitudes, Smyth won the support of conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, and Adrian Boult.

In 1910, at the age of 52, Smyth joined the Women’s Social and Political Union to campaign for women’s suffrage, giving up her music career for two years to further the cause. She and Emmeline Pankhurst went on a campaign in March 1911 in response to adverse comments by a secretary of state about the Votes for Women campaign; they broke windows at the Houses of Parliament, were arrested, and sent to Holloway Prison. On visiting her in prison, Thomas Beecham arrived in the courtyard at Holloway to see the spectacle of a “noble company of martyrs marching round it and singing lustily their war chant, while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”. This “war chant” was the work Smyth wrote and dedicated to Pankhurst, The March of the Women, which became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.

Smyth composed the Mass in D following a renewal of her Anglican faith, stimulated by reading The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, while she was ill in Munich on Christmas Eve 1889. The book belonged to her Catholic friend Pauline Trevelyan, to whom Smyth dedicated the Mass. She composed much of it while a guest of Empress Eugénie at Cape Martin near Monaco, in the summer of 1891.

The Mass in D was premiered in January 1893 with about 1000 performers in the enormous Albert Hall in front of an audience of 12,000 people. The “Gloria” was performed as a festive finale at the end of the Mass, as she specified. In spite of the enthusiastic reception at the premiere, the work languished and did not receive a second performance until 30 years later. Smyth blamed this on prejudice against female composers.

The Mass was revived in February 1924, conducted by Adrian Boult. George Bernard Shaw reviewed the performance, and thought the Mass “magnificent.” In the years following, it was performed a number of times. In 1934 a performance of the Mass conducted by Thomas Beecham, attended by Queen Mary, was the culmination of the Festival Concerts celebrating Smyth’s 75th birthday. By this time, Smyth had lost her hearing and was suffering from tinnitus – she turned from music to writing, producing 10 mostly autobiographical books. She died in Woking, Surrey, in 1944, aged 86.

In her late seventies, writing in the final memoir As Time Went On, Smyth declares that the musician in her “won through in the end,” in spite of her deafness:

“If you are still in possession of your senses, gradually getting accustomed, as some people do, to a running accompaniment of noises in your head; if instead of shrinking from the very thought of music you suddenly become conscious of desire towards it… why, then anything may happen… and once more you begin to dream dreams.”

Great Mass in C minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)

As with his other monumental work, the Requiem, Mozart left the Mass in C minor incomplete, missing portions of the Credo and the entire Agnus Dei. It is certainly his most ambitious and complex sacred work – even in its unfinished state, it is immense in conception. The choral writing ranges from four-part and five-part choruses to the eight-part Osanna, and includes an impressive fugue, Cum Sancto Spiritu. The contrapuntal writing for chorus clearly shows the influence of Mozart’s study of the music of Bach and Handel, while the writing for solo voices owes much to his fluency in Italian operatic style.

From the age of 16 to 24, Mozart was in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg – an appointment which had been secured by his father, Leopold. Restrictions on the duration and dimension of music in the liturgy, along with severe limitations on his ability to travel to the musical centers of Europe to advance his career were a source of frustration for the young composer. He eventually asked to be released from the archbishop’s service in 1781. The break with the archbishop and Mozart’s subsequent move to Vienna was also a break with his father. His courtship of the young soprano Constanze Weber further widened the rift, and on August 4, 1782 the couple was married at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, without having received Leopold’s blessing.

Mozart began writing the Mass in C minor in the summer of 1782, probably shortly after his marriage to Constanze. He mentioned the work in a letter to his father, dated January 4, 1783, with an indication that it was half finished. Wolfgang and Constanze arrived in Salzburg in July 1783, and the Mass in C minor was premiered on October 26 at the Benedictine Abbey Church of St. Peter, with Constanze singing the soprano solos. By all accounts, the visit did not go well – after this visit, the composer never returned to Salzburg. And though the music of the Mass in C minor was later recycled as the cantata Davidde Penitente, the work itself faded into obscurity, to be revived only in the 20th century.

Filed under: Uncategorized, choral music, Mozart, Seattle Pro Musica, Ethel Smyth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: