Issues in the critical reception of Ethel Smyth’s Mass and first four operas in England and Germany
AuthorKertesz, Elizabeth Jane
Faculty of Music
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsKertesz, E. J. (2001). Issues in the critical reception of Ethel Smyth’s Mass and first four operas in England and Germany. PhD thesis, Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2001 Dr. Elizabeth Jane Kertesz
The composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) claimed that sex discrimination had prevented her from succeeding as a composer, and she cast much of the blame on the press. This study examines the critical reception of Smyth’s Mass and first four operas in England and Germany, with a focus on their premieres. It evaluates Smyth’s claims, and places the works more broadly in context, tracing the processes by which they gained performance, and the circumstances of the productions. Rich and multiple interpretations are made possible by reading from different perspectives, allowing the complexity of critical commentary and the subtle intersection of concerns with gender, nationalism and style to be revealed. Despite the pervasiveness of gender bias in the reviews, there is much more to the critical reception of Smyth’s music than the way in which it represents her in relation to patriarchal stereotypes of femininity. Performances researched include the Mass’s premiere in 1893 and its revival in 1924, and the early productions of Fantasio, Der Wald, The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate. These operas were composed with hopes of performance both in England and Germany, and therefore provide the best case studies for an examination of press reception in these two countries, notwithstanding the fact that the first was performed only in Germany and the fourth only in England. The reviews are interpreted in light of the different contexts that affected critics’ perceptions: local circumstances, contemporary politics and knowledge about the composer. Chapter 1 explores the significance of Smyth’s biography and autobiography and Chapter 2 traces each work from composition to performance, examining the challenges Smyth faced and her responses to them. Smyth’s connections with royalty and aristocracy, both in England and Germany, were of great assistance to her, and this has hitherto been insufficiently acknowledged. Smyth’s music elicited a diverse range of praise and criticism from critics, and the last three chapters focus on issues of gender, discussion of the libretti and music of the operas, and national preoccupations. The complex question of gender in the Smyth criticism includes the problem of the woman composer, definitions of femininity and masculinity and the effect of Smyth’s feminism and persona on reception of her music. Critical writings rarely included detailed technical discussion of the music, but libretto and comedy, text-setting and orchestration all received attention. The division of Smyth’s career between England and Germany led to her being seen as foreign in both countries, and the performance of her music contributed to nationalist debates about the selection of repertoire. The division between English and German critics is most marked in their attribution of influence on Smyth’s operas. German critics distinguished various styles and genres in Smyth’s music and were perceptive in recognising the underlying eclecticism of her mature voice. Smyth’s countrymen knew she had studied in Germany and persisted in hearing this influence in her scores, although some allowed that she was contributing to the formation of an English voice.
KeywordsEthel Smyth (1858-1944); critical reception; English opera (19th-20th century)
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