The Pioneering Queer Composer and Defiant Genius Ethel Smyth on Making Music While Going Deaf – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

“Tell me nothing of rest,” the young Beethoven bellowed when he began losing his hearing, resolving to “take fate by the throat” despite his disability. A century later, another trailblazing composer of uncommon artistic ability took her own fate by the throat as she faced the same embodied disability.

Pioneering Queer Composer

As a young woman, Ethel Smyth (April 22, 1858–May 8, 1944) had weathered her father’s wrath at the clarity with which she saw music as her life and the determination with which she pursued it, animated by one of her musical heroes’ credo that “to live by music, you must live in music.” And so she lived in it and by it, against the tide of her time — bicyclist, mountaineer, golfer, always with a large dog at her side, counterculturally clad in tweed suits and men’s hats, a woman of inconvenient genius and indecorous passions, writing staggering sonatas for violin, symphonies for cello, raptures for orchestra.

Still a self-described “half-baked neophyte,” she met Brahms (who dismissed her), Clara Schumann (who inspired her), and Tchaikovsky (who — perhaps because he was raised a proto-feminist and probably because he sensed another queer person of talent against an even greater tide of convention — actively encouraged her to find her voice).

Having perfected her craft in Florence, Smyth made her debut as a composer of orchestral music in London’s Crystal Palace with her soulful Serenade in D. She was thirty-two. But it wasn’t until late middle age, when she was already losing her hearing, that her work finally began gaining commensurate recognition. Her 1911 choral suite “Songs of Sunrise” became the official anthem of the suffrage movement, known as “The March of the Women.”

Across the Atlantic, The New York Times did not hesitate to scintillate with reports of Smyth being arrested and accused of arson for her activism. While they published no notable reviews of her music, they ran an obtuse review of her memoir under the headline “A Militant Victorian.” In the journalistic equivalent to the posthumous Royal pardon for the gruesome mistreatment of computing pioneer Alan Turing, the paper would make belated reparations a century later.

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