Composer Ethel Smyth receives first Grammy nomination 90 years after work’s premiere

11 December 2020, 11:57 | Updated: 11 December 2020, 14:41

Composer Ethel Smyth receives first Grammy nomination 90 years after work’s premiere
Composer Ethel Smyth receives first Grammy nomination 90 years after work’s premiere. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Three quarters of a century after her death, composer and political activist Ethel Smyth has received her first Grammy nod.

The trailblazing 20th-century composer, Dame Ethel Smyth, has received her first Grammy nomination 76 years after her death.

Smyth’s 1930 two-part symphony The Prison, recorded by conductor James Blachly and soloists Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, has been recognised in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category.

According to musicologist Dr. Liane Curtis, this is the first Grammy nomination for a composition by Smyth, who struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits, rather than on the basis of her gender.

Until this year, the only other historic woman composer to be nominated was Amy Beach. The belated nod is among several historical firsts for women at this year’s Awards, as they lead nominations in the four general categories for the first time.

Curtis says: “As such, this nomination has taken on new energy for advocates for Smyth and women composers in general.”

Read more: Meet Ethel Smyth, the composer who was also a suffragette >

Dame Ethel Smyth was a political activist and suffragette
Dame Ethel Smyth was a political activist and suffragette. Picture: Getty

Ethel Smyth fled home aged 19, landing in Leipzig with dreams of a composing career. Her music was greatly admired by Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Dvořák, and in 1903 she became the first woman to have an opera performed at the New York Met Opera.

But she faced significant discrimination as a female composer throughout her long career, with critics saying her music was “too feminine,” or “too masculine,” or “a remarkable achievement – for a woman.” Brahms, it is reported, approved of her music but did not at first believe it had been written by a woman.

Later in life, Smyth became an active member of England’s Suffragette movement, and even went to prison for throwing a stone through an MP’s window. She also made no secret of her relationships with women, and her gender politics and sexuality were cause for attacks by critics.

Read more: 15 great classical composers who also happened to be gay >

The Prison (listen below) was released in August 2020, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. The idea of “the prison” has been interpreted as both an actual jail and a metaphorical one for Smyth.

Conductor James Blachly, who began work on The Prison began in 2015, said: “It is incredible that 90 years after the premiere of Ethel Smyth’s career-culminating masterpiece, she is finally receiving her first Grammy nomination.

“There are so many reasons to be inspired by her – the way she lived, all of her ‘firsts’ as a woman composer, the way she held strong against the powerful pressures of society that would not accept her work, her strength of purpose and her openness of her sexuality, her political activism, and more.

“But for me, it was the experience of conducting this piece for the first time that led me to understand – in a flash, at the downbeat of the first rehearsal – that I was conducting a work that deserves to be heard throughout the world. The moment I heard that first note in the rehearsal hall, I got shivers up and down my spine, and my life has not been the same since.”

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

The Prison, out now on Chandos Records, was Smyth’s last work and her only symphony – she was 72 when she completed it in 1930. She stopped composing shortly after, due to advancing deafness.