Review – A memoir by Ethel Smith
Fight for recognition
September 25, 2023 Written by Svenja Vizer
Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky: Ethel Smith knew them all, argued with them, and was inspired by them. As a composer in a patriarchal society. She describes how she experienced this exchange in her memoir, now published as Timpani Rhythms from Heaven.
Image source: Picture Alliance/United Archives/WHA
Composer Johannes Brahms is a silent and erratic type. Only a good meal will melt him away. Clara Schumann – despite her artistic brilliance – is a woman of frayed nerves, regularly crying in her dressing room until shortly before a concert because she cannot get on stage. Peter Tchaikovsky has the most interesting character. It is he who advises Ethel Smyth to focus more on instruments when composing.
Smith and male society
Not only can Ethel Smyth compose, she also has a very special gift of observation. This appears in her written memories. During her studies in Leipzig, Ethel Smith met famous composers, quickly saw them in all their aspects and regularly challenged them with their humble, direct style. For example, during dinner, she exchanges blows with Edward Grieg, a private encounter she records in her diary.
“I will never forget how he figuratively slapped me in the face. He was a staunch supporter of Liszt, but it was fashionable among younger musicians to reject that composer completely; I explained this to Greg emphatically. What he called the ‘well’ was perhaps an older musician who deserved to be accepted as a contribution to Conversation, he found it unbearable to come from the mouth of a student, and his anger was completely aggravated by my very undifferentiated comments. He yelled at me very loudly about what I was imagining, an arrogant young man, talking to this great artist! The next morning, this friendly person came up to my attic early in the morning to apologize! This little incident laid the foundation for a warm and cordial friendship – a heartfelt bond between the Greggs and me.”
Inspired by Brahms
Ethel Smith is originally from southern England. Her father is a general and was once stationed in India, and her mother is a woman with a talent for languages and music. She was so impressed by the concert of Johannes Brahms that she decided to study music in Leipzig. Thanks to family connections and her own sociability, Ethel Smith soon becomes a welcome guest on the artistic scene. Luckily! Because we discover first-hand what ideas drove the self-confident and sympathetic composer of the late nineteenth century.
“I showed a large choral work of mine to Levi, the famous Wagner conductor; he was an open man and not afraid to face the truth. After listening to my works, he said: ‘I would never have believed it.’ A woman wrote that!” “No,” I replied, “and what’s worse is that you won’t think it’s possible in the future either!” He looked at me for a moment and then said slowly: “I think you’re right!” Prejudice will simply take over his personal impression and thought – and in the end he will surely feel that there must be something wrong somewhere…! This doubt about feminine abilities holds women back more than physical obstacles.”
Ethel Smith repeatedly describes the daily struggle to visualize women in her memories. For example, the reign of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, who used her rule to introduce permanent positions for women throughout the postal sector. But Ethel Smith also describes her deep admiration and passion for women, mostly older women, with great sensitivity and honesty. At the same time, her bold and assertive nature is just a joy to read! Finally a piece of music history from a different perspective.
Information about the book
Ethel Smith’s memoir Blows from Heaven is published by Ebersbach & Simon. 240 pages cost 24 euros.
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