Smyth: String Quartet in E Minor

october COMPOSER: dame ethel smyth

Ethel Smyth

string quartet in e minor, 1902-12

String Quartet in E minor is one of Dame Ethel Smyth’s most popular works. She began the quartet in 1902 then abandoned it to work on an opera. She didn’t pick it up again until ten years later when she wrote the final two movements. In those intervening years significant events happened in Smyth’s life: she became an active part of the Suffragette movement and she lost her close companion Henry Brewster. Both of these — her grief over Henry and her desire to show other women what could be achieved — heavily influenced the final composition. String Quartet was Smyth’s first published quartet (she wrote a couple of others while studying in Leipzig). It is a bold and stirring piece, but not without its playful elements. It’s said by many to have been the composition where Smyth found her voice.

Watch the Mannheim String Quartet

String Quartet in E minor is around 40 minutes long and was written for 2 violins, viola and cello. It has 4 movements – the first 2 written in 1902 and the final 2 written in 1912. The first movement Allegro lirico is serious but soft and leads us gently into the Allegretto molto leggiero, the dance movement, which brings some frivolity to the piece.The third movement Andante once again brings us back to a solemn, reflective state before finishing with the final movement Allegro energico.

Suffragettes with Votes for women signBy finishing this string quartet – a style of composition at the time thought of as a very masculine domain –  Smyth wanted to show other women that they too could do great things. It was a subject close to her heart. Years before after Smyth met Emmeline Pankhurst she set aside her musical career to become a Suffragette activist fighting for the rights of women in the United Kingdom. Smyth went on to compose their anthem, The March of the Women. It is during this time when she was imprisoned for disorder in Holloway Prison that the infamous scene was witnessed where she conducted a group of women singing The March of Women with her toothbrush. This story, I think, adds the element of playfulness to a serious subject – something that you can often hear in Smyth’s compositions.

Front page of opera program showing Ethel Smyth and Henry BrewsterWhile Smyth admits to have always been attracted to women, by her own accounts her relationship with Henry Brewster was a very close one. He was in fact the cause of the great rift in her friendship group in Germany. She turned down his numerous marriage proposals claiming that marriage killed women’s creativity. However, Henry’s death caused her to spiral into a paralysing depression and she stopped writing music altogether. Until she was convinced to finish this quartet. It is this piece that she credits with pulling her out of her grief. Perhaps it is because she managed to channel it beautifully into the music.

dna Smyth’s managed to wrap her two great loves, women’s liberation and Henry Brewster, around  each other to produce this achingly personal and intimate composition. You can feel her grief in the final two movements, but you can also feel her love. In the gentleness, in the dance, and in the melody. Whatever she may have felt was her reason for writing it, its evident that she cared a great deal about this music, and about the people in her life.

*images in order of appearance courtesy of public domain, public domain,CC, CC

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