Ever heard of Alice Mary Smith, the first known woman in Britain to have composed a symphony?

23 February 2021, 16:11 | Updated: 23 February 2021, 17:55

Alice Mary Smith, the first British woman to have composed a symphony
Alice Mary Smith, the first British woman to have composed a symphony. Picture: Chandos

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Have a listen to the first known symphony ever composed by a British woman – Alice Mary Smith’s Symphony in C minor.

“Her music is marked by elegance and grace... power and energy,” reads an obituary from The Athenaeum, on Victorian composer and musician Alice Mary Smith.

Smith was a British female pioneer in 19th-century England and her music, bathed in Mendelssohnian influence through her teachers, is well-orchestrated and compelling.

She published her first song in 1857, aged just 18. And six years later, she became the first known British woman to compose a symphony, with her Symphony No. 1 in C minor, which was performed by the Musical Society of London (listen below).

A review in The Illustrated London News read: “... Miss Smith’s symphony especially, coming from the pen of a young lady, was a striking proof of sound studies and high attainments of the female votaries of the art in this country”.

Here’s a dive into Alice Mary Smith’s life and music.

Read more: 21 of the greatest women composers in classical music >

Alice Mary Smith - Symphony in C-minor (1864)

Born in the 19th-century into a comfortable family, Alice Mary Smith showed impressive musical promise in her early years and took private lessons.

Years of practice paid off, and Smith went on to become a prolific composer in 19th-century England, writing two symphonies; several choral works, both sacred and secular; four piano quartets; three string quartets; a clarinet sonata; and six concert overtures.

She also composed two large stage works, including the operetta Gisela of Rüdesheim, and boasts one of the largest collections of sacred choral music by a woman composer.

Forever pioneering, Smith’s anthems ‘Whoso hath this world’s goods’ and ‘By the waters of Babylon’ mark the first recorded instance of music by a woman composer to be used for the liturgies of the Church of England.

Read more: Meet Amy Beach, the first American woman to publish a symphony >

Alice Mary Smith - Andante für Klarinette und Orchester

In November 1867, the year she married lawyer Frederick Meadows White, she was also elected Female Professional Associate of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

In 1884, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music. That same year, she fell ill and died of typhoid in London.

Since 2010, Smith’s manuscripts have been housed in the Royal Academy of Music Library.

Today, her music is seeing a gradual revival. Her elegant ‘Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra’ (listen above) has been recorded by Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players for Chandos, along with her Symphonies in A and C minor.

The Athenaeum’s 1884 obituary, published in full in Maestros, Original Obituaries of 101 Great Composers, concludes: “Her forms were always clear and her ideas free from eccentricity; her sympathies were evidently with the Classical rather than with the Romantic school.”

Want to vote for Alice Mary Smith’s music in the world’s biggest survey of classical music tastes? Cast your vote before 14 March 2021 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.