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August 2013

Suffragette Composer Reappraised

Composer Ethel Smyth was a wrecker. No, not because of her opera on Cornish shipwreck looters The Wreckers, but because she took up arms – well, stones at least – in the Suffragette cause, heeding Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to break the windows of prominent politicians.
As part of a BBC collection of Suffragettes speaking in their own words – a site that makes you realise how close we are in time to the lives of those radical women of the last century – you can listen to Dame Ethyl talking in her magnificently stentorian tones in 1937 about how she took to central London armed with an arsenal of stones and a fierce determination to be arrested for lobbing them through the windows of high-profile politicians. As you’ll hear, she asks a policeman where her target’s house is located, chucks her ordnance in full view of him, and is then taken into custody.
Smyth’s March of the Women was the Suffragettes’ theme-song, and Thomas Beecham, who put on The Wreckers at Covent Garden in 1910, remembers visiting Ethel at Holloway prison, where she conducted her fellow Suffragettes with a toothbrush through the bars of her cell. Are we due for a reconsideration of Ethel’s music? We haven’t heard The Wreckers for 15 years in this country, so maybe it’s time to dust off her most famous opera again in honour of its composer – a real wrecker with a cause.
This article first appeared in The Guardian in 2009. The Wreckers was performed in America this year ( Read More »Suffragette Composer Reappraised