In anticipation of the April 14 performance of Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D Major, Liz Wood (musicologist and widely published author) gave an illuminating talk about Smyth and the origins of her Mass. Virginia Woolf described Smyth’s vigorous character, calling her a pioneer and a courageous window-breaker (referring to her role in the Suffrage movement). The image we get of Smyth is close to that of the dread-naught, the largest and most-feared of the British warships. It’s true that Smyth’s personality could be overpowering. But also her musical ability and creative powers reveal a composer of monumental stature, and her personality should not distract us from that.
Smyth, in her period of study in Leipzig, was introduced to Brahms and Clara Schumann, and became very friendly with Grieg and his wife. But a focal point of Wood’s presentation was the role of Tchaikovsky. He not only praised her chamber works (in particular the Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 7), but also he emphatically urged her to turn to writing for orchestra, so that the grand scope of her musical vision could be better realized. “Listen to the voices of people in intelligent conversation,” he urged her, “to engage with the nuances of tone color and articulation.” Smyth took him very seriously, and threw herself into the study of orchestration, by following that unorthodox advice, and also by the more time-honored practice of attending symphonic concerts and turning her ear to the use of the orchestra.
Another central issue in Wood’s presentation was Smyth’s turning to religion, in the face of personal crisis. Smyth was overwhelmed by confusion after she was rejected by a lover, and consequentially also lost her artistic supports and mainstays—the circle who had previously encouraged and nurtured her during her study in Leipzig. To understand the intersecting love triangles/quadrangles one would surely need some kind of chart. Then her emotional upheaval continued as she experienced death—of her mother, and then of the love interest who had spurned her. The turmoil left her reeling and confused. She turned to religion and the Mass is the result. “That’s the answer,” she wrote to a friend, with a sense of revelation, “Angus dei, qui tollis pecata mundi, dona nobis pacem.” After writing the Mass— and its successful premiere in 1893—Smyth returned to her secular belief system and wrote no more religious music.
Concerning her placing of the Gloria movement last, this allowed her to have a conclusion that was jubilant and triumphant. It was also is (as Wood pointed out) a feature of the Anglican liturgy.
Chatting with the Cecilia Chorus’ music director Mark Shapiro, after Prof. Wood’s presentation, he was eager to express his enthusiasm and commitment to the work. It will be his second time to conducting it—he led the Monmouth Civic Chorus (New Jersey) in it just over 20 years ago (celebrating the centennial of its premiere), and he is thrilled to have this opportunity to bring a new level of insight and experience to this piece, which he sees as a profound expression of the human soul. Some of the chorus members (who were excited to be able to attend the talk and learn more about Smyth) also commented on how impressed they were with the Mass, and how happy they are to bring this great work it to New York and Carnegie Hall.
In short—looks like it’s the place to be on April 14, tickets available here!