Each week, the OUMS newsletter features an interview with someone who positively contributes to the Oxford music scene. This week, we were super excited to sit down with Dr Leah Broad, an award-winning music writer, historian, public speaker and research fellow at Christ Church, to ask about her research exploring histories of women in 20th century music. The interview is published in anticipation of the world premiere of Ethel Smyth's The Song of Love, op.8, in a concert organised by the Alternative Canon Project on Monday, 8th May.
Dr Leah Broad
Music writer, historian, and broadcaster
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us. We seem to be entering a Renaissance of women’s music, with composers such as Florence Price, Helen Hagan and Louise Farrenc finally achieving the plaudits which evaded them in their lifetimes. What makes the work of initiatives such as the Alternative Canon Project so important? There are very often periods in history where it seems like there’s a Renaissance for women’s music — it’s “in fashion”, as it were. But unless we build systems for lasting change, these moments pass and women’s music vanishes off programmes again and we’re back where we started. If women’s music is to remain on concert programmes rather than being a fad or a trend, then we need publications, recordings, regular performances -everything that allows a piece of music to become known and to become popular.
In your debut biography, 'Quartet', Ethel Smyth plays a pivotal role. What was she like as a composer? Extremely determined! In a society in which women were expected to write small-scale “feminine” works, Smyth defied all expectations and composed operas, became the first woman to have an opera staged at the Met in New York (and remained until 2016 the only woman to do so), received a DBE for her services to music, and three honorary doctorates for composition. Oh and she also wrote eleven books. And penned the choral work ‘The March of the Women’ that became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union. And did I mention she was also jailed for her role in the militant suffrage movement? Truly, Smyth was an exceptional woman. On the 8th of May, Oxford is hearing the world premiere of Ethel Smyth’s cantata ‘The Song of Love.’ How is it that we are only just hearing this work for the first time in 2023? It’s a very good question! Smyth did send round the score to choral societies when she composed it, but they weren’t prepared to take a risk on an unknown composer, and especially an unknown British woman composer. Then Smyth composed her Mass which did get performed, and she dedicated her energies to promoting that instead. The Song of Love got rather pushed into the background, and has remained in manuscript in the British Library. As for why it’s not been performed recently, I suppose the emphasis has been on Smyth’s operas first and foremost. But it’s a crucial work for understanding her early compositional development, so I’m very excited to hear it in full for the first time! It’s certainly not often that one has the privilege of hearing the world premiere of a piece of music composed nearly 150 years ago. I’m sure lots of people are wondering what The Song of Love is like. What should someone who has never listened to the music of Ethel Smyth know about the piece before hearing it? This was Smyth’s first large-scale choral work. It sets texts from the Song of Songs, and was written in the 1880s shortly after she had become embroiled in a very intense love triangle with the philosopher Henry Brewster and his wife Julia. She initially loved Julia, then Henry as well when it became apparent he had feelings for Smyth. Smyth and Henry wanted an open, three-way relationship, but Julia did not. It got incredibly messy, and I suspect it’s no coincidence that Smyth found the Song of Songs an engaging text to set at this point in her life. How much are things changing for women composers today? The message in Quartet isn’t one of linear progress, rather that history has consisted of many steps forwards and backwards. Do women composers still face prejudice today? I feel like I can’t speak for composers here about their experiences, as I’m not a composer myself. But statistically, it’s something of a mixed story. Statistics released by Bachtrack for 2022 are relatively positive — they show that there are 9 women in the top 20 most performed contemporary composers worldwide. That is a vast improvement on previous years, and I think reflects the fact that there is real recognition that classical music has historically had a big gender problem, and that needs to be redressed. Women can and do write excellent music, and it should be performed. But I also want to guard against complacency, because the broader picture is more bleak. Research conducted by DONNE: Women in Music found that only 7.7% of orchestral repertoire performed worldwide in the 2021-22 season was written by women. That’s pretty shocking. What is next for you? Are you currently working on any other projects? Right now I’m giving a lot of talks and concerts based on Quartet, showcasing music written by Smyth, Clarke, Howell and Carwithen. That’s taking up most of my time! But I’m also working on my second book. I can’t say what the topic is yet, but it is women and music related! As our final question, we always like to ask for a music recommendation — what are you listening to at the moment? Oh my goodness lots of things. Obsessed with Anna Meredith’s music at the minute — if you don’t know her work I’d recommend starting with Nautilus, moonmoons and Calion. I also keep returning to Dobrinka Tabakova and Errollyn Wallen’s cello concertos, and Valerie Coleman’s Portraits of Langston. Also Kate Bush and Lizzo. And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Valse Suite, Op. 71.
For more information on Leah's upcoming projects, visit the links below:
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