Written by Monika Fabijanska
This week, The Juilliard School’s Annual Focus Festival will celebrate the 20th century women composers in 2020 to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage (January 24-31). Co-curator of the festival, Odaline de la Martinez, remarks, “We’re making a point-- for the students and for the public--about standing up for women composers and recognizing women who fought hard for what we have today.” The six concerts of the festival feature the music of 32 composers, born in 15 countries on five continents who struggled to establish themselves professionally, but paved the way for women composers today. Music of many earlier women composers was performed and appreciated during their life, but later forgotten. Here is an example of those whose achievements are an inspiration for today’s feminists:
Ethel Smyth’s (1858–1944) rich oeuvre includes “The Wreckers” – considered the most important English opera composed between Purcell and Britten, and “Der Wald” – which for more than a century was the only opera by a woman ever produced at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Smyth joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1910, giving up music for two years to fight for women’s suffrage. Her "The March of the Women," became the anthem of WSPU and the Suffrage Movement. In 1912, Smyth was among 109 members who responded to the call to break a window in the house of any politician who opposed votes for women, and all were imprisoned. London Philharmonic conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in jail, and found suffragettes marching while singing the “March” as Smyth leaned out a window conducting with a toothbrush. We celebrate Ethel Smyth as she is an inspiration to not only women composers, but women everywhere through her dedication to music and activism.