#5: Catherine Smale

On the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, our resident oboist Catherine Smale reflects on the our recent performance of the fabulous music of Ethel Smyth and the representation of female composers in classical concerts.


“I feel I must fight for my music, because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.” (Ethel Smyth)

I stumbled across this quotation when I was browsing the internet for information about Ethel Smyth, whose Serenade in D featured in our last two SELO concerts. I spend part of my day-job carrying out research on women’s rights and political activism, so I was immediately hooked: I wanted to know who this composer was and what had prompted her to make this bold statement, so I began to find out as much as I could about her.

It turns out that Smyth was a rather formidable woman, determined to forge her way in a male-dominated musical world and fight for women’s rights. She later became involved in the suffragette movement and was sent to jail after throwing a rock through the window of the MP Lewis Harcourt, because he had made a condescending remark about women. The composer Thomas Beecham, visiting her in prison, was surprised to find the inmates marching and singing in the courtyard while Smyth “beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”!

I found it quite hard to shake this image of Smyth from my mind as we began rehearsing her Serenade. The piece itself is rather quirky, with luscious lyrical sections interspersed with exuberant, syncopated passages and dance-like tunes, and I suspect the energy of the music reflects some of Smyth’s own unstoppable passion and drive. The orchestration often has a richness that reminds me of Elgar or Brahms, so it seems surprising that, even today, Smyth is still much less well-known than these celebrated male composers.

In some ways, in fact, little seems to have changed since Smyth’s comment about her desire to fight for her music. Though gender equality has progressed considerably, music by female composers is still all too often overlooked. Works by women are given less air time on the radio than those by men, and they are performed less frequently by professional and amateur orchestras alike. As recently as December 2015, the A-level music syllabus featured 63 male composers and not a single female one, and it took the campaigning of schoolgirl Jessy McCabe to change this: she argued that the omission of women served to “normalise sexism” and limited students’ understanding of music history.

It therefore means a lot to me that SELO programmed Smyth’s music to coincide with the Vote100 celebrations marking the centenary of women gaining the right to vote. Not only have I discovered a new favourite composer, I also have the sense that we are beginning to push the boundaries of the musical canon and allowing lesser-known voices to be heard. I hope that this will be the first among many works by female composers that SELO will perform in the coming years, as there are clearly many to choose from. As well as recovering forgotten female composers, we have the chance to explore and promote works by contemporary women, some of whom are just setting out on their musical careers. By performing works by these composers, we’ll be able to challenge the assumption that women have not been particularly active in music history and inspire more girls and young women to become composers and musicians.

I hope that, as SELO continues to grow and develop, we’ll be able to take up the baton from Ethel Smyth and champion female composers, in order to showcase the true breadth and diversity of classical music.

If you look carefully, at our next concert, you might spot Dave, our conductor, with his toothbrush at the ready. Or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking…!