What was the music of the women’s suffrage campaign? Who were the leading women composers and musicians of 1910s and 20s, and what was their contribution to the suffrage cause? On 1 November, the IHR co-hosts, ‘Songs of Suffrage’—a concert of music and readings where we’ll listen to the links between music and suffrage.
At 6.30pm on Thursday 1 November the Institute of Historical Research, together with Senate House Library, hosts ‘Songs of Suffrage’, an evening of music and readings featuring works by three leading English women composers—Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) and Dorothy Howell (1898-1982)—whose music was central to the suffrage campaigns of the 1910s and 20s.
Tickets for the concert, which takes place in the Chancellor’s Hall, Senate House, University of London, are now on sale, priced £10 and £5 concessions. The ticket also includes a glass of wine before the performance, and admission to a special exhibition of papers from the composers’ archives, and from Senate House Library’s extensive collections for early twentieth-century music and women’s suffrage.
The concert will be performed by London’s Berkeley Ensemble, with readings by the BBC Radio 3 broadcaster Dr Kate Kennedy. Put together by Kate and the Ensemble, the programme includes four rarely heard works for string quartet, violin and piano, and piano trio:
Ethel Smyth: String Quartet in E minor (1912), 1. Allegretto lirico (listen)
Dorothy Howell: Phantasy for violin and piano (1925)
Dorothy Howell: Quartet Movement (date unknown)
Rebecca Clarke: Piano Trio (1921), 1. Moderato ma appassionato (listen)
The four short pieces will be contextualised by readings—chosen and read by Kate—from the composers’ diaries and letters, and those of fellow suffragettes and members of the Society for Women Musicians, founded in 1911. The concert ends with a rendition of the celebrated suffragette anthem, ‘March of the Women’, composed by Ethel Smyth.
The concert’s four chamber pieces were all premiered at the height of the suffrage campaign, and its aftermath (1912-25), and each was professionally acclaimed. Rebecca Clarke’s piano trio (1921) won second prize at the Coolidge competition, held annually in the United States, while Dorothy Howell’s Phantasy for violin and piano received the Royal Academy of Music’s Cobbett chamber music prize.
Ethel Smyth, the best-known of our three composers, had enjoyed a international reputation from the 1890s for her choral and operatic scores, as well as her chamber works. These included a string quartet which she completed in 1912 at the height of the women’s suffrage campaign. Smyth’s achievements as a composer led George Bernard Shaw to write that: ‘It was your music that cured me forever of the old delusion that women could not do a man’s work in art and in all other things.’
Smyth’s reputation also owes much to her membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, or ‘suffragettes’), led by Emmeline Pankhurst who was a close friend. In the run up to 1914, Smyth dedicated herself to the suffrage cause, composing the anthem ‘March of the Women’ (1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton) and serving time in prison for smashing windows.
The works of Dorothy Howell and Rebecca Clarke were also regularly performed in the 1910s and 1920s. Howell’s symphonic poem Lamia (1919) was premiered at that year’s Proms, and her later compositions were performed in Proms concerts during the 1920s, including for the ‘last night’ in 1928. Rebecca Clarke similarly received chamber commissions from prominent American patrons.
However, the music of both Howell and Clarke faded from view in the mid-twentieth century. Clarke’s chamber compositions—including her piano trio which features in ‘Songs of Suffrage’—were rediscovered by chance in the 1970s. They’ve since been widely performed and recorded. Until recently Dorothy Howell received even less recognition. ‘Songs of Suffrage’ will, it’s hoped, further an appreciation of her contribution to early 20th-century chamber music.
In addition to her prize-winning ‘Phantasy’, the concert will feature a movement from Howell’s string quartet. This was first performed at the Wigmore Hall, London in 1919, after which part of the printed score was lost. Thanks to the generosity of Dorothy’s niece and nephew, Merryn and Colm Howell, the IHR and Senate House Library have been loaned the original score from which a section of the quartet has now been recreated by members of the Berkeley Ensemble. Its performance on 1 November will, we believe, be the first time that the concert’s been performed since its premiere ninety-nine years ago.
This championing of ‘forgotten’ twentieth-century English chamber music is a particular interest of our musicians, the Berkeley Ensemble and Kate Kennedy. The ensemble was formed with the aim of exploring little-known 20th- and 21st-century British chamber music, alongside more established repertoire. Established in 2008, the Berkeley Ensemble recently celebrated its 10th birthday with a concert at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank and its annual Little Venice Music Festival.
Dr Kate Kennedy is a music historian and broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and BBC television. She is the consultant to Radio 3 for their First World War programming and a specialist in early to mid-twentieth-century British music. Kate is also Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, and teaches in the English and Music faculties. She is the author of books and collections on Benjamin Britten and of a major forthcoming biography of the poet and composer, Ivor Gurney.
‘Songs of Suffrage’ will be the highlight in a series of events organized by the Institute of Historical Research as part of its year-long ‘Suffrage season, 1918-2018’, and by Senate House Library in its Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words season. The concert is generously funded by the University of London’s Coffin Bequest and ‘Leading Women’ campaign. It promises to be a very special evening of music and readings, and we look forward to seeing you there on 1 November.