The Prison: Ethel Smyth

It was well-received at its first performance, in Edinburgh in February 1931, with the composer on the conductor’s podium, and a few days later in London’s Queen’s Hall, led by Adrian Boult. But, The Prison has had to wait nine decades for its first recording. This is thus a welcome Chandos release by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus under their founder and conductor, James Blachly.

The Prison is based upon the philosophical ‘dialogue’ of the same name that Smyth’s mentor and close friend, Henry B. Brewster, had published in 1891 and which was reissued with in an edition which included a memoir of the author by Smyth in 1931. In Brewster’s text, four friends engage in a philosophical dialogue in the manner of Plato, examining – from various perspectives, supernaturalist, Neoplatonist, Christian, and positivist – the moral and philosophical issues arising from a newly discovered text which is presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of his execution. Smyth excised the philosophical commentaries and presented a direct conversation between the innocent man, jailed and awaiting execution, and his own soul, with choral interjections representing both the human inner life and the heavenly firmament. The Soul guides the Prisoner through his doubts and fears, towards acceptance of himself and his life, achieving reconciliation with death, and inner peace. There are obvious spiritual, though not specifically religious, parallels with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

Harry Brewster was Smyth’s closest friend, perhaps lover, and artistic collaborator – the writer of the libretti for her operas, The Wreckers and Fantasio. He introduced her to many philosophical writings, including his own, and exercised an enormous influence upon Smyth. Indeed, her first biographer, Christopher St. John (nÈe Christabel Marshall), complained that, ‘The present writer, and other friends of Ethel’s later years who had never known Brewster, found her constant quotation of him as an unimpeachable authority on nearly every subject rather irritating.’ Smyth constantly revisited The Prison throughout her life; in one letter to Brewster, in October 1893, she (perhaps somewhat hyperbolically) refers to having read it for the thousandth time, and after his death in 1908 it seems to have become a way to understand and retain a closeness with him.

Smyth was no stranger to prison herself, having spent two months in Holloway Prison in 1912, after having been involved in a suffragette window-smashing campaign which resulted in the shattering of the windows of Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies; he seems to have become the target of Smyth’s ire because of his remark that he might agree to votes for women if all women were as submissive and clever as his wife. She had become a committed suffragette after meeting Emily Pankhurst in 1910, whereupon she immediately made the decision to cease composition for two years and devote herself to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Writing about Smyth in The Musical Times in 1958, Sir Thomas Beecham – who did not approve of her political activities – described a visit to Holloway during Smyth’s imprisonment, noting that while her punishment was intended to inspire her to reflect and repent, ‘she neither reflected nor repented. She pursued a joyously rowdy line of activity. Accompanying her were about a dozen other suffragettes, for whom Ethel wrote a stirring march, ‘Song of Freedom’ [known as the ‘March of the Women’] … on this particular occasion when I arrived, the warden of the prison, who was a very amiable fellow, was bubbling with laughter. He said, “Come into the quadrangle.” There were the ladies, a dozen ladies, marching up and down, singing hard. He pointed up to a window where Ethel appeared; she was leaning out, conducting with a toothbrush, also with immense vigour, and joining in the chorus of her own song.’

Smyth became Pankhurst’s close companion during these years. During one detention, in 1914, Pankhurst wrote to her, ‘Oh, my dear, I feel that all this has broken into your work sadly, but you will have to feel as people do whose sons are at a war, and just go on having faith in my star and a certain way I have of smoothing my path in prison’; words which resonate painfully in the knowledge of horrendous policies such as the forced feeding of suffragettes who went on hunger strike. On one occasion, when Pankhurst had been granted a temporary release from prison (such licences were usually followed by re-incarceration as soon as the suffragettes had begun to recover their health), Smyth recalled (in Female Pipings in Eden, 1933) that her friend ‘was heartrending to look on, her skin yellow, and so tightly drawn over her face that you wondered the bone structure did not come through; her eyes deep sunken and burning, and a deep dark flush on her cheeks.’

“Who doesn’t have a prison?” the Prisoner asks in Brewster’s Dialogue. Increasingly entrapped within her own silent world, Smyth may have asked herself the same question. Her score includes echoes of some of her earlier works – the E minor String Quartet, the Mass in D, and her operas The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate; perhaps, in looking back, The Prison – structured in two parts, ‘Close on Freedom’ and ‘The Deliverance’ – was a musical summation of her life.

In his Conductor’s Note in the liner booklet accompanying this world premiere recording of The Prison, conductor James Blachly tells us that when he heard first heard the opening notes of Smyth’s score, ‘I felt shivers up and down my spine’. He prepared a new performing edition, gave the US premiere of the symphony in 2018, and has now released this long overdue recording, with bass-baritone Dashon Burton taking the role of the Prisoner and soprano Sarah Brailey singing the Soul, accompanied by the New York City-based Experiential Orchestra and Chorus which Blachly founded in 2009.

I can’t agree with Blachly estimation of the score: I don’t think that The Prison is a musical masterpiece. The vocal melodies are rather uninspired, sometimes ‘leaden’ and there’s a tendency to use repetition rather than development. Somewhat bass-dominant, the score is animated by percussive outbursts, harp flourishes, and woodwind motifs which flicker above the dark depths. There are a lot of unimaginative pictorialisms: even in the opening bars the Prisoner’s first statement, “I awoke in the middle of the night/ And heard the sighing of the wind”, prompts some rather obvious woodwind whistling, rustling and quivering. And, Smyth doesn’t avoid overblown rhetoric either: “Behold! in this very movement, I am outliving death!” the unison chorus cry, surging from pianissimo to fortissimo in just a few bars, pulling on the brakes as they swell luxuriantly. Moreover, Smyth may have come from a military family, and memories of WW1 were no doubt near at hand for many contemporary listeners, but the sound of the Last Post at the moment of death feels incongruous and melodramatic today. Her friend, Virginia Woolf, who had attended a private rehearsal of the symphony described the music as ‘too literary – too stressed – too didactic for my taste.’ But, such are the quality of the performances on this disc, that The Prison does at times compel, and there are some striking and memorable episodes.

In less astute hands both pace and idiom might seem rather monotonous, but Blachly ensures that dramatic tension is sustained from the first rumbling C, for low clarinet and strings, through to the final choral echo of the Prisoner’s last words, “The love, the silence, and the song … I am the soul … the home”, and the bugle’s quiet peak. The Prisoner may be in solitary confinement, but in fact his prison is metaphorical: the ‘self’, or ego. Dashon Burton is very ‘human’; the Prisoner’s dilemmas feel real and recognisable. The bass-baritone creates touching contrast between self-absorbed introspection and the instinctive desire to connect with the world and hold onto life. Unwaveringly lyrical whether tentative or defiant, Burton’s Prisoner is both vulnerable and possessing of inner strength.

Sarah Brailey’s soprano has a lovely tender softness, but it also gleams radiantly: this ‘soul’ is no ethereal haunting but a real presence. At the start of ‘The Deliverance’, after a rather bombastic instrumental apotheosis, the Soul declaims on a monotone as the harmonies shift and slide. There’s a religious assurance about Brailey’s offer of comfort, “The struggle is over;/ the time has come./ Your choice is made.” Blachly does not let the momentum flag, and the instrumental interjections are vibrant and finely etched, avoiding any sense of sentimentality.

The choral singing is terrific: the voices are lithe, animated and shimmer with hope, certainty and conviction – “We are full of immortality/ It stirs and glistens in us/ Under the crust of self/ Like a gleam of sirens under the ice.” But, while there are Elgarian echoes and vigour at times, Smyth’s choral counterpoint is often workaday.

Towards the close, Burton’s Prisoner, more robust of voice, more jubilant of temperament, sounds genuinely uplifted and transfigured as Burton’s enriches, focuses, and injects stirring vigour into his warm bass-baritone: “Go then, pass on, immortal ones!/ Behold, I burst the bonds that pent you up/ Within in; disband myself!” he proclaims, as Blachly whips up the instrumental and choral passion.

The CD liner booklet includes an article by renowned Smyth scholar, Elizabeth Wood, and a biographical sketch of the composer by Amy Elizabeth Zigler (both are presented in English, German and French), as well as a full libretto in English. This is a valuable recording. Whatever its musical merits, as the culmination of a musical life, a record of a loving friendship, and a testament to a personal creed, The Prison deserves the commitment, affection and assured performance that it receives here.

Tell them that no man lives in vain
That some small part of our work
For reasons unknown to us, has been tossed aloft
And gathered in for ever.
(Brewster, The Prison: a Dialogue)

In Brewster’s words, Smyth surely found her own consolation and peace.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Chandos 5279
product_title=Ethel Smyth: The Prison
product_by=Dashon Burton (Prisoner, bass-baritone), Sarah Brailey (His Soul, soprano), James Blachly (conductor), Experiential Chorus, Experiential Orchestra
product_id= Chandos 5279 [63:50]