It’s the story of Ethel Smyth, one of the most brilliant British composers of the 19th/20th Centuries. I’m not sure what the title will be so I’ll miss it out for now. Any comments, more than gratefully received! Apologies for any typos or other errors. It’s still a first draft! More chapters will follow!
There is nothing any of us can do about the family we are about to be born into, whether rich or poor, aristocratic or humble, sane or deranged, righteous or criminal, healthy or sick, happy or unhappy. Neither is there anything we can do about the era we are to be born into. We simply arrive in the midst of it, if there is a midst to arrive into. Our heroine’s good fortune was the fact that she was born into a wealthy, upper class Victorian, military family which lived in a house in Sidcup, not far from Woolwich where, after returning from the Indian Mutiny, her father, General Smyth, took charge of the Artillery Depot. By the time she was nearly twelve the family had moved to Frimley so that her father could command the artillery at Aldershot.
In terms of appearances, the family had everything the prosperous could wish for: a battery of servants and housekeepers, governesses, horses and carriages and a good few acres of land. They could tirelessly indulge in parties, hunting and other leisurely pursuits. By virtue of her father’s eminent rank, and her mother’s wit and French education, the local gentry rapidly accepted and embraced them and their seven offspring.
Strains, tensions and a soft blanket of unhappiness lurked within, the source of which could often be her mother. At cock crow one autumn morning, not long after the move the Frimley, Ethel woke to the sound of her bedroom door being flung open against the wardrobe.
‘Wake up, you horrible creature. You are so unkind to me. Where you get your spiteful bitchiness from God only knows. Not from me or your father. You deliberately dropped that egg on the pantry floor, just to annoy me. And why did you contradict and humiliate me at Lord and Lady Fitzwilliams’ on Friday night. That was unforgivable!’
Ethel was to a degree hardened to these outbursts by her mother whom she truly loved. So Ethel’s response disarmed her. ‘You know I love you, Mama. You are the cleverest, the most charming and wittiest woman I know so please don’t hurt me with these words. I wouldn’t dream of hurting you and I hope you know that.’
Her mother slammed the door shut as she dashed back out of the room. Ethel thought she heard from Mama a sob, a whimper or perhaps just a sharp intake of breath.
Within a few moments she could hear an adjacent bedroom door crashing against a wall, probably in Mary’s room. Mary was the closest sister to Ethel, who was less than two years younger. Then a similar but indistinct rant. Then wordless tears from Mary as her mother abruptly closed that door and attacked her next victim: Johnny, Alice, much the oldest, Nina, Violet or little Nelly, until then the youngest.
Ethel laid there in bed reflecting in this painful series of events. She never felt close to her mother, not in the emotional sense. And mother made things worse by her unpredictable mood swings. She could charm anybody, the local clergy, the delivery boy from the butcher’s, anyone in her upper class circle of friends. But she could descend into the deepest of depressions and would apologise for her outbursts soon afterwards, usually through a veil of tears. And she was pregnant for her eighth child which must have made things even worse.
A mother can change her daughter’s state of mind, her preferences and her personality. Ethel fell into being the perfect example of this. Her mother’s lack of love for her manifested itself in attempts to compensate, usually through the medium of fantasy. She reacted to her mother’s high handedness by being boisterous and often difficult. One of Ethel’s early favourites, if not her earliest memory of a governess, was Miss Hammond, a pretty young lass from a nearby poor family who took up the post as nothing more than a modestly paid job, marginally better paid than a housekeeper. In one of the most intimate moments with Miss Hammond, Ethel shocked the girl by making a surprising confession.
‘Can you keep a secret, Miss Hammond?’ she asked.
‘Of course, my dear. And what would that secret be?’
‘Your assurance is not quite good enough,’ said Ethel.
‘Really, Miss Smyth?’
‘No. I have a Bible here and I want you to swear on this Bible that you will repeat my secret to no one.’
‘And what if I should, perchance, break my oath?’
‘I will stone you to death at the far end of the apple orchard.’
‘In which case, I don’t want to hear your secret,’ said Miss Hammond.
‘Don’t be silly, of course, I wouldn’t do that!’ Ethel didn’t expect this response and immediately retracted.
The swearing ceremony over, Ethel made her confession. ‘You are a beautiful and especially attractive woman, Miss Hammond. I want to let you know that I am so fond of you that I have put your name on my list of “passions”. These are the women or girls that, if I were a man, I would propose to marry!’
Miss Hammond blushed and lifted her hands to touch the back of her chignon.
‘I believe you are serious, Miss Smyth. I think I feel duly flattered. Tell me. How many of us women and girls are on your list?’
‘I haven’t counted them recently but over a hundred.’
‘I am still flattered despite being one of so many,’ said Miss Hammond smiling wryly. ‘For how long have you been compiling this?’
‘Since we lived in Sidcup. I was probably nine or ten when I started feeling these wild passions for girls and women always older than myself.’
‘Did any one of them start you off?’
‘Yes,’ she blushed. ‘Two in fact. First a lady called Ellinor, one of my parents’ hunting friends. She was a gorgeous looking woman and had a bouncing personality to go with it. I swooned every time I saw her. Then there was my cousin, Louie. I loved to sit on her lap and cuddle into her and bury my face in her soft ample bosom. At my tender age I thought that love was the only thing that mattered in life, the flame that never dies.’
‘I think I have caused you some embarrassment, Miss Smyth. So let’s resume our lesson shall we? We were discussing the rights and wrongs of women being denied the vote.’
As was the case with numbers of governesses before her, Miss Hammond’s tenure expired within a few months. The strain of trying to teach two difficult and conspiring sisters, Ethel and Mary, took its toll. What made matters worse was that, while out for a stroll with the two girls in the freezing winter, she fell upon the ice and twisted her ankle. Her chignon fell from her head and rolled into a ditch. Once recovered and not long after, she left the family. In an act of childhood cruelty, Ethel shouted at her while riding down the drive on the back of her open carriage.
‘I know your chignon is false!’
Not many governesses later, a new one arrived in the Smyth household. Her name was Fraulein Greta. For once, their mother had recruited a woman of considerable talent. Ethel’s first encounter with Greta was almost an interview.
‘So where did you study, Miss Greta?’
‘In Germany, at the Leipzig Conservatorium.’
‘And what subject?’ Ethel asked, revealing her not surprising ignorance. After all she had only just turned twelve years old.
‘There is only one main subject and that is music,’ said Greta.
‘Interesting,’ said Ethel, raising her eyebrows a little. She was expecting something like mathematics, German history or something to do with words or sums. ‘I suppose you play the violin or another instrument? And you must be able to read music.’ Ethel put a stress on the ‘must’.
‘Very good Miss Smyth. Not many children of your age know about reading music. Tell me how you know!’
‘Simple! I can read music myself! My mother taught me and I can now read it better than her!’ she said, not realising what a precocious reply she had uttered.
‘Very good,’ said Greta, not wanting to over play her praise. ‘Yes, I do play musical instruments. Mainly the piano but I also play the violin.’
‘I sing and can compose,’ said Ethel. ‘I’ve put some poems to music and some hymns.’
Greta was surprised at that Ethel was saying and immediately recognised a musical talent, assuming her young interrogator was telling the truth! The interrogation then became more of a conversation with Ethel explaining more about her musical experiences. She told Greta that she had written some chants and other music, mainly of a religious kind and that the family had regular singing sessions in which Ethel’s music would be sung, often by her and her sister Mary who had a lovely voice. Ethel told Greta that each of her pieces was named after a girl or woman she liked. Greta merely smiled as she listened to what this clever sounding child was saying.
‘I have an idea,’ said Greta at a point when Ethel stopped to take breath. ‘I can play you some music on the piano, maybe tomorrow. The kind of music I developed a love for while studying at the Conservatorium. I have brought quite a number of pieces with me and I’ll compile a little programme.’
Ethel’s enthusiasm boiled over. She went over the Greta and put her arms around her waist. ‘I can’t wait until tomorrow,’ she said smiling with the joy of anticipation.
The family piano, of the classic upright variety, stood against a gaudily papered sidewall in the lavishly furnished drawing room. Ethel’s mother drew great satisfaction from replacing at frequent intervals the carpets and furniture in the main rooms of the house. The General despaired at the sheer amount of waste these unwelcomed indulgences created. Mrs Smyth simply gave away the old furnishings or sent them to the local dump. Such extravagances were all part of the woman’s complex mental state. And once these projects were completed she often found the result less than satisfactory only to wait for the next opportunity to start again. So on the morning of Greta’s recital, the room glowed with a new found opulence as the latest round of Mrs Smyth’s restoration had been completed only a few days before.
Fraulein Greta and Ethel had agreed to meet at 10.30 in the drawing room. By then Ethel was sitting on one of the new sofas facing the piano and twiddling her thumbs in an act of impatience and relish at what was to come. Her lips were moist at the thought. Her irritation was assuaged just five minutes later when a smiling Greta appeared at the doorway, carrying an armful of sheet music and a number of scores. She ambled over to a large mahogany table at placed the heterogeneous bundle near the edge. Then she looked at Ethel whom she had avoided up to then. She took a score from the pile and walked over to the piano and turned to Ethel.
‘First I am going to play you a short piece, called a bagatelle, by a German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven,’ said Greta, standing by the piano and with her arm placed on its top. ‘Have you heard of Beethoven, Ethel?’
Ethel said she had but had never heard any of his music. Greta then sat on the piano stool, lifted the lid, adjusted the stool to suit her not inconsiderable height and played a few single notes.
‘You have a good tuner or one of you has a good ear,’ she said. Ethel said nothing. She then started to play. Ethel sat in enraptured silence, her eyes focussed on Greta’s hands as they effortlessly traversed the keyboard. She had never heard any classical music before and was enthralled, not only by the music but also by Greta’s faultless playing. She smiled and her face glowed during the whole performance and gave a solo round of applause as Greta stood and took a bow at the end of the piece.
‘I’m glad you enjoyed that little sketch,’ said Greta. ‘I’d now like to play something a little more demanding. It’s called “The Moonlight Sonata”. It’s also by Beethoven. It is in three movements with a short break between each.’
Greta went over to the table and sorted through her music papers. She picked up a substantial score, placed it on the piano stand and sat back down again. She opened it to the first page, shuffled her bottom on the stool and started to play. Again, Ethel was entranced. She could not conceive how anything else could be as pleasurable as listening to this music. It transported her into another world, a world of mixed feelings and emotion. A world of abstraction created by a stream of individual notes, harmonious chords, beautiful themes and variations in tempi and intensity of sound. She almost cried at the sad feelings which enveloped her in the middle movement and smiled again as the third launched itself, in the dextrous hands of the virtuoso Greta.
Just as Greta played the closing chords, a blinding flash confronted Ethel’s mind. It was as if a lightning bolt had struck her and she would never, ever be the same again. This music revealed to Ethel her ultimate destiny. She would become a composer. And she would go to the Conservatorium in Leipzig to learn how.