Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald: a new recording on Resonus Classics

In March 1903, The Metropolitan Opera presented a double bill of Verdi’s II trovatore and Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald (The Forest)The latter was the first opera written by a female composer that the company produced.  It was performed in the original German, Smyth (1858-1944) having written her own libretto, with Henry (Harry) Brewster, in the language of the country where she began her career and where, at the Königliches Opernhaus in Berlin, the opera was premiered on 2nd April 1902, to a rather lukewarm reception.

In July that year, Der Wald had its UK premiere at Covent Garden (generally well-received, it was revived the following year), and for that production Smyth translated the libretto into English.  And, it’s an English version that can be heard on a new recording of Der Wald that will be released on the Resonus Classics label next month, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers conducted by John Andrews, and a cast comprising Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Matthew Brook, Andrew Shore and Morgan Pearse.

To be performed at these prestigious opera houses, Smyth had to fight and push her way in a male-dominated musical world.  In conversation, John Andrews notes that the Met was until recently one of the most conservative opera houses, and Der Wald remained the only opera by a woman composer performed at the Met until 2016 when Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin was presented there.  Moreover, as John points out, it seems incredible that a young, female English composer could have an opera premiered in Berlin at a time when anti-English sentiment, and pre-existing cultural conflict, had been further provoked by the Boer Wars. 

At the start of the twentieth century, operas by women before Der Wald “were probably rarer even than they had been a century and a half earlier,” says John.  “There are the wonderful works of Pauline Viardot, for example, but they are relatively intimate chamber pieces. Whilst Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625) had found successors in Italy and there are fine operas by German aristocratic women in the eighteenth century, and some fantastic symphonic works in the nineteeth, by the beginning of the twentieth, operas by women had become almost unknown.  And yet, as a one-act work, Der Wald could be paired with almost anything and commercially the production at the Met was successful.  [A second performance at the Met given on 20th March was paired with La fille du regiment and proved even more successful than the latter’s previous pairing with Pagliacci.]  It’s also a reminder of how long an evening in the theatre could be back in 1903!” 

Playbill for the premiere of Der Wald at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives)

Smyth had fought against her father’s conservative views and pursued her ambition to study music in Leipzig, becoming, in 1877, the first woman to be admitted into Carl Reinecke’s composition class.  She was not impressed with her teachers at the Conservatory though, describing Reinecke and Salamon Jadassohn (with whom she studied harmony and counterpoint) as ‘rather a farce’, and Joseph Mass (her piano teacher) as ‘a conscientious teacher but dull’.  She left within a year and continued her studies privately with the Austrian composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg, president of the Leipzig Bachverein.  In Leipzig she had the opportunity to meet composers such as Brahms, Grieg and Tchaikovsky; the latter, and the conductor Hermann Levy supported her, and encouraged her to write an opera. 

But, Smyth could be a ‘difficult’ person to work with.  And, her relationship with her librettist Harry Brewster was unconventional.  “She had a very peculiar relationship with Brewster and his wife,” John comments.  “One could push this too far, but it’s hard to resist the idea that a man having to choose between a conventional, feminine wife, and this woman who was a force of nature – a central dilemma of the opera – didn’t to some degree reflect the tension between her intellectual love for Brewster, and her more erotic inclinations towards his wife.”

John Andrews, rehearsing Der Wald with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers

John has been building a reputation for ‘rescuing’ operas by English composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, with esteemed Resonus releases of Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley, Arnold’s The Dancing Master– which won the 2023 and 2021 BBC Music Magazine Opera Awards respectively – and Sullivan’s The Light of the World and Haddon Hall.  “Both during my PhD (on Handel’s London) and when working on Sullivan’s serious works, I realised that there was a rich hinterland of English music, not neglected exactly, rather deliberately excluded – works which had been left on the side-lines; I discovered that there are enormous riches from the 18th through to the 20th centuries that could and should be explored.”

Having received a copy of Smyth’s score from the publishers, it was a question of finding the right opportunity for performance.  “During the pandemic lockdown, I pitched for a concert performance, and it looked as if that might happen; but then it suffered the fate of so many such things, and it disappeared because of the financial and logistical constraints.  However, it was on my desk, and a future recording seemed possible – it fits beautifully on a single disc.  There had been discussion for a while with Resonus about collaborating with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, and Der Wald seemed a perfect fit.  There was a role for the BBC Singers, as villagers and spirits, and fine roles for a cast of young British soloists.  There are some fantastic protagonists, particularly Röschen, Iolanthe and Heinrich.  These are show-piece roles.  The opera may be short, but Smyth goes from 0 to 60 in a couple of minutes!  The whole of the journey of the Romantic hero and heroine is here, condensed into super quick time.”

Natalya Romaniw

The story is framed by the tranquillity of the eponymous forest, voiced by a chorus of spirits.  In the village, the peasants celebrate the forthcoming marriage of Röschen (here sung by Natalya Romaniw) to a young woodcutter, Heinrich (Robert Murray).  But, Iolanthe (Claire Barnett-Jones), the mistress of a local lord, Count Rudolf (Morgan Pearse), seeks to seduce the handsome Heinrich.  He resists her advances, and she sets out to gain her revenge.  A village pedlar (Andrew Shore) denounces Heinrich as the slayer of a deer, an act punishable by death, and Heinrich is given a choice: obey Iolanthe or accept his sentence. 

The musicologist, and Smyth’s biographer, Elizabeth Wood suggests that Smyth, who had grown up within earshot of her military father’s artillery depot at Aldershot, and was herself a skilled horsewoman, hunter and player of the hunting horn, was ‘literate in hunting’s musical and sexual meanings’, and that in Der Wald ‘she arranged and transcribed literal hunting calls that function as sequential signs of the huntress-heroine’s discovery, pursuit, catch and kill of her male quarry and female rival, to alert a knowing audience to precise moments of seduction and capitulation in the drama’.[1]

Although at the time of composing Der Wald (1899-1901), Smyth was not openly or actively involved in feminist politics, in 1910 she would join the Women Social and Political Union and, pushing her musical activities to one side, devote her energies to the WSPU and the suffrage movement between 1911-13.  Some critics have argued that Smyth’s best-known opera, The Wreckers, in which Thirza revolts against a loveless marriage and the mores of her community, contains feminist elements, and one might see the beginnings of such concerns, if more ambiguously expressed in Der Wald

Claire Barnett-Jones and Robert Murray

The female characters are indeed powerful, and capable of destruction if crossed, notes John.  “Iolanthe is a witch, a sorceress – in the tradition of figures such as Alcina [and one might add, Armida, the sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, or Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera] – but there’s no obvious magic.”  She’s both a villain and a model of female self-determination, I suggest.  “Yes, she’s independent and capable of asking for and taking what she wants: the huntsman and the Count are both at her beck and call.”  Wood recognises in Iolanthe a ‘revolutionary feminist figure’ whose voice is ‘unsentimental, powerful, and defiant in expressions of desire’[2], and John suggests that “there’s an unapologetic sexuality about Iolanthe which is quite stark.  We’re not so far from Salome, perhaps”.

Röschen is no less ambiguous.  At first, she appears modest and pure, professing herself unworthy of the wedding presents offered, her name a diminutive form of that flower of love, the rose.  Yet, as Judith Lebiez suggests, ‘we may find that this rose has thorns.  We learn from the chorus that Röschen was “stolz and spröde” [proud and demure] before Heinrich was able to tame her’.[3]  And, while initially she sees Heinrich as her protector, Röschen urges him to go with Iolanthe, to save his life; but when he refuses, she triumphantly confronts Iolanthe, ‘er folgt dir nicht’ [he doesn’t follow you].  However, Lebiez suggests that, ‘After Heinrich’s death, Röschen, showing equal [masculine?] courage, behaves like a truly Wagnerian heroine.  She lifts her arm in ecstasy, sings of love and death, and “falls lifeless on Heinrich’s corpse”: like Isolde, she dies for no other reason that her man’s death, as if having no existence of her own.  Her good behaviour and status as a victim attract the audience’s sympathy, without calling into question stereotypes of femininity.’

Andrew Shore

John suggests that Heinrich takes on a lot of traditionally female characteristics and traits; for example, he decides that chastity is more important than life.  In this regard, Lebiez notes that ‘the terms that Iolanthe uses to describe Heinrich … “schön”, “ahnungslos”, “scheu”, “jung”, “frisch” and “stolz” [beautiful, unaware, shy, young, fresh, proud] could all be applied to a girl which further disturbs the partition of conventional gender roles’.  Count Rudolf, too, shows emotional vulnerability, and Iolanthe scorns his attempt to adopt a position of patriarchal protector, asserting her right to choose her own lover.

I ask John, too, about the musical influences on Smyth’s opera.  “Well, like anything written in the later nineteenth century it bears some of the Wagnerian traits its critics accused it of, though it doesn’t sound like Wagner.  Smyth uses some leitmotifs, but not rigorously.  The most obvious similarity is that Smyth uses a very big orchestra to accompany what are essentially very intimate scenes.  But, there’s also an obvious link to Tristan in the ‘love’ potion: is it really magical or is it just a placebo that makes one give into one’s inner desires?  There are Freudian echoes here.”

John Andrews

And, in this regard, John remarks that one piece that he keeps coming back to – and an opera that Smyth certainly knew later in her life – is Hansel and Gretel.  “From the world of the mundane and comforting village, we move deeper and deeper into the woods.  Again, there’s a Freudian sense of going into the psychological darkness and releasing inner repressions.  And, as we move further into the words, so the music that Smyth writes becomes more expressionistic and radical – angular, edgy, fragmented and uncomfortable.”

And, what about the musical language?  “Musically, there is fantastic variety.  There’s beautiful lyricism, again recalling Hansel and Gretel, when the world of the forest is established at the start.  And, the duet for Röschen and Heinrich is Romantic and poetic.  There’s also a folk vein; the world of the village is rumbustious, and the harmony tonal.  But, then the language gets stranger as we venture into the forest.  The journey is a really persuasive one.”

It’s also much shorter and tauter that Smyth’s The Wreckers.  “Yes, I don’t want to overstretch the parallels with Strauss, but it is a terrifically compact one-acter.  Smyth retains the dramatic intensity, so it’s a really strong piece of theatre.  No scene is more than ten minutes long, and she powers her way through, from episode to episode.  There’s a relentless sense of purpose.”

John’s enthusiasm for Der Wald is infectious.  “There’s no risk – you could pair the opera with anything, Puccini, say, and half the audience would come because they hadn’t seen Smyth’s opera before, and the other half would come to see the other half of the bill.  It’s a winner.” 

John’s only misgiving is the action’s inclusion of a tame bear.  “I’ve been trying to imagine how you could stage this.  Would you suggest that the bear is in the Pedlar’s imagination?  Or use a puppet?  Or have an actor in a bear suit?  I think one would have to accept Smyth on her own terms and find a way around the bear, and there are worse challenges in the theatre!”

Der Wald is released by Resonus Classics in September.

Claire Seymour

[1] Elizabeth Wood (1995) ‘Lesbian Fugue’, in Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth A. Solie, University of California Press, pp. 164-83.

[2] Elizabeth Wood (1994) ‘Sapphonics’, in Queering the Pitch, ed. Philip Brett et al, Routledge, pp.27-66.

[3] Judith Lebiez (2018) ‘The Representation of Female Power in Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald’, The German Quarterly, Volume 91, Issue 4, pp.415-24.