drplacebo: (Default)
[personal profile] drplacebo
OK, it's quite definitely Saturday now, but let's do this anyway!

Even in an era in which women composers all struggled to achieve recognition, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) had more difficulty than most, for a variety of reasons. Her political activism tended to overshadow her music: she was highly visible as one of the more militant leaders in the British women's suffrage movement, and spent time in prison for her role in organizing the simultaneous smashing of windows at dozens of suffrage opponents' homes in 1912. She was openly lesbian in the socially conservative Victorian era, which made many British musicians of the time wary of associating with her. And in an ironic but not entirely unsurprising twist, while other women composers tended to be stereotyped as incapable of writing "serious" music, Smyth was instead panned by critics for writing music that was often too powerful and "masculine" for a woman composer. Often it was only sheer persistence that got her music performed: she traveled all across the Western world lobbying conductors and opera directors to perform her works, with stops everywhere from the United States to India; most of her music was premiered outside the UK. In 1903, her opera Der Wald became the first by a woman composer to be staged at New York's Metropolitan Opera -- and it remained the only one until December 2016. Recognition eventually came, but perhaps too late. In 1934, when she was honored with a two-week festival commemorating her work and featuring several of her operas, Smyth had already ceased composing due to deafness.

Smyth's double concerto, completed in 1927 at the height of her fame as a composer, was her last major work, composed when she was almost completely deaf. The piece was dedicated to horn virtuoso Aubrey Brain, and as such, remains one of the most difficult pieces in the horn repertoire. It was one of the first to require the horn soloist to play multiphonics, heard in a cadenza-like passage in the third movement. The horn finds an unusual partner in the violin -- that combination of soloists was found nowhere else in the concerto repertoire at the time, and was anticipated only by the Brahms horn trio (for violin, horn, and piano). Despite the difficulty of balancing the two vastly different solo instruments, the combination is remarkably effective.

The first movement covers a broad range of moods, with three contrasting themes woven tightly together: one majestic, one wistful and meditative, one jocular. The second movement (10:07) is subtitled Elegy (In Memoriam). Smyth never definitively said for whom or what the elegy was intended, but a few candidates come to mind. One is her mentor Johannes Brahms: the second theme in the movement (12:13) closely resembles a the horn solo that opens Brahms's second piano concerto, and the Smyth double concerto was first performed shortly before the 30th anniversary of Brahms's death. Another is what she saw as the loss of the German musical tradition following the First World War, as her writings in the 1920s lamented that Germany could no longer afford to maintain its musical establishments and "tradition of perfection"; a third possibility is that she was mourning friends who perished in the war, several of whom she wrote about extensively in memoirs around the same time. The final movement (17:34) returns to a more playful mood. The violin and horn begin to go their own ways in this movement. As in the finales of many horn concerti, the horn plays triplet figures that resemble hunting calls -- but these are 20th-century hunting calls that feature tritones and whole-tone scales rather than adhering to the harmonic overtone series. Meanwhile, the violin dances, and at times seems to interject with gentle mockery.

Profile

drplacebo: (Default)
Andrew

September 2017

S M T W T F S
      12
34567 89
1011121314 1516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags