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Bishop's Stortford Choral Society celebrates composer who defied her father to make music


By Jill Goldsmith


British composer Dame Ethel Smyth
British composer Dame Ethel Smyth

Why are there so few celebrated female composers? Classic FM's list is not long and includes few from current times. But Bishop's Stortford Choral Society will be acknowledging one of them when it performs Ethel Smyth's Mass in D on Saturday (Dec 1).

About the choral society

Bishop’s Stortford Choral Society is a group of around 100 singers led by musical director Richard Brain. It sings large-scale choral music by new and established composers and holds its concerts locally, most often in the town.

The choir sings at community events too, most recently at the Bishop’s Stortford Armistice Day centenary event. It will be singing carols at Waitrose on December 7 and in Market Square on December 8.

The choral society rehearses on a Thursday evening at 7.45pm at Water Lane United Reformed Church from September to July. It is always open to new members and will hold its next open rehearsal for new members on January 17.

n For more information visit www.singwithbscs.org.uk or find them on Facebook.

Even those female composers we are familiar with struggled to pursue their music.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s father is thought to have said that for her younger brother, Felix, music might become his profession, while for Fanny music “can only be an ornament”. Although she wrote 460 pieces of music, she chose to publish some of them under Felix’s name.

Clara Schumann performed from the age of eight and started the practice of playing music from memory. But she devoted much of her life to promoting her husband Robert’s work rather than her own.

Ethel Smyth was born in Sidcup, Kent, in 1858 and she too had to battle to make music her career. She wrote that her father, John Hall Smyth, a major general in the Royal Artillery, would sooner see her “under the sod” than learn music seriously.

She got money from his account with tradesmen so that she could illicitly go to concerts, taking public transport – which at that time “decent” girls did not do on their own.

Eventually her father consented to her going to Leipzig Conservatory to study music and from then she took her own decisions, learning from many of her friends and idols along the way, including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky.

In her 50s Ethel became an active suffragist. She was arrested for breaking windows and served five weeks of a two-month sentence in Holloway prison. Thomas Beecham visited her there and found her conducting fellow prisoners singing her March of the Women as they exercised in the yard.

In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922 – the first female composer to be awarded a damehood. She died in 1944 at the age of 86.

The choral society’s concert audience will be able to compare Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D to better-known works of her friend, Hubert Parry.

The choir, conducted by Richard Brain, will be performing the Mass with Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia and four young soloists: Tess Pearson (soprano), Felicity Buckland (mezzo soprano), Richard Robbins (tenor) and Edward Kay (bass).

The concert is sponsored by Tees Law and will be supporting the Bishop’s Stortford Winter Night Shelter.

* The concert takes place at All Saints’ Church, Stansted Road, Hockerill on Saturday December 1 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14 in advance from the Tourist Information Centre in Market Square, on 01279 715001 or online via Ticket Source. They will cost £16 on the door. Students and under-16s go free.



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