Ethel Smythe, the daughter of General J. H. Smyth, was born in London in 1858. She studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory and two of her works, a string quintet and a violin and piano sonata were performed with success in 1884.
Returning to England her Serenade in D was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1890 and the following year Mass in D was premiered at the Albert Hall. These works established Smyth as the most important woman composer of her time. Smyth also wrote operas such as Der Wald (1901) and The Wreckers (1906).
She frequently wore male attire and had relationships with women – one famous passion was Virginia Woolf. She was a strong advocate of women’s rights. Smyth pledged to give up music for two years and devote herself to the cause of votes for women. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and as a result of her militant activities was imprisoned for three months. In 1911 she composed the WSPU battle song, The March of the Women.
and premiered by a chorus of Suffragettes at a fundraising rally at the Albert Hall in London on March 23, 1911. The latter tune became the battle cry of the suffrage movement and was published in arrangements for mixed voices and unison singing.
Its most famous, though least public performance occurred in Holloway Prison in London in 1912. Over 100 suffragists, including Mrs. Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth, who had smashed windows of suffrage opponents’ homes in well-coordinated simultaneous incidents all over London, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Ethel Smyth found her time in prison an exalting experience of communal determination and sacrifice by women of all ages and classes. One day, while the prisoners were taking their outdoor exercise, Ethel Smyth appeared at a window overlooking the prison yard, and conducted their singing of the suffrage battle anthem by waving her toothbrush.
She became a dame in 1922. Smyth wrote two volumes of autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933) and What Happened Next (1940). She died in 1944.
Her passion for music, politics and women make her a fascinating woman, always tilting at windmills and creating waves!