top of page

'A moment of real gravity and historical significance' - Alternative Canon Project Review

Sitting surrounded by the Headington stone of Christ Church Cathedral, it was difficult to experience Monday’s world premiere of Ethel Smyth’s op. 8 cantata The Song of Love without the feeling that one was experiencing part of a powerful watershed in history. A work resurrected; nurtured by Oxford students from 200+ page manuscript, to first edition, to performance.

History is never neutral, and the phlegmatic machinery of canons which have been projected onto the past often cast aside complex and diverse figures who were famous in their day, but since have been forgotten. Dame Ethel Smyth is one such figure. Branded a ‘stubborn, indomitable, unconquerable creature’ by Thomas Beecham, and ‘of the race of pioneers’ by her close friend Virginia Woolf, Smyth was a prominent participant in Victorian high society. Nonetheless, she was forced to contend with many institutional barriers throughout her lifetime, and the history of The Song of Love is emblematic of this. The op. 1 of Smyth’s contemporary, Edward Elgar, (The Wand of Youth suites) is widely known and performed today. So, it speaks for itself that Smyth’s op.8 sat (until a handful of months ago) untouched in the British Library following its rejection by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1888.

Set in eight subtly interrelated movements, the cantata takes texts from The Song of Songs, exploring different perspectives on love, perspectives which become particularly relevant when considering the autobiographical context of the work’s composition; Smyth had recently separated from her lover Henry Brewster. The opening chorus foregrounds hope and bliss, with lyrical woodwind lines blossoming from outstretched violin gestures, accompanying the text ‘Arise, my love…the winter is past…flowers appear on the earth.’ Contrasted to this joyful, tender opening the cantata quickly turns to anguish. Heartbreak permeated Steph Garret’s commanding delivery of the fourth movement — ‘my beloved had withdrawn himself.’ With stirring chromatic string lines and brass swells, it was easy to envisage Smyth’s own pain projected through the music.

This sense of desolation reached its climax in the dramatic penultimate chorus, as the choir entered spotlit above open fifths in the orchestra. The text, ‘who is this that cometh out of the wilderness’ encapsulates the feelings of shame and ostracisation that so often accompany heartbreak. Recalling the opening, the final chorus, ‘Many waters cannot quench love,’ presents a final testimony of trust in the enduring power of love. Supported by lush, late-romantic orchestral textures, recalling Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the work concludes with the repeated edict ‘For love is as strong as death.’

The Song of Love itself is capricious and kaleidoscopic in equal measure. Vacillating between Wagnerian chromatic instability and Mahlerian furore, the music bore many of its influences on its sleeve, whilst simultaneously demonstrating a nascent musical language all of its own. It is not altogether surprising that Smyth branded the work ‘an amusing first attempt.’ The music lacks an overriding sense of thematic coherence, but The Song of Love is permeated with many moments of real beauty, bearing witness to a skilful compositional voice, which would be finessed in later works such as the Mass in D.

Both sensitive and fervent when required, Archie Inns and Steph Garrett delivered the tenor and soprano roles (representing two abstracted lovers) with great detail, however the centrepiece of the performance was the chorus, blending comfortably whilst also propelling the music forward with great passion and drive. Conducted by Alice Knight, the orchestra, too, connected to the dynamism of the music. The muted sixth movement was a particular highlight, as rich cello lines and Ivy Lau's pastoral violin solo combined with intricate woodwind arabesques to create some moments of true orchestral bliss.

Above all, however, it was uplifting to hear this cantata finally receive the premiere it deserved. Musicology and scholarship combining with some of Oxford’s finest young musicians to create a moment of real gravity and historical significance. ‘I hope Smyth would be proud of this revival,’ reflected Angie Wyatt (editor) during her introduction to the concert. I certainly think she would have been.



bottom of page