The Loeb Music Library recently acquired a first edition of Ethel Smyth’s Sonata for violin and piano in A minor, Op. 7, composed in 1887. Born in 1858, Smyth is remembered as an independent and strong-willed woman who studied music against her father’s wishes. She was a leading suffragette, and in later life actively authored polemical writings. For a brief introduction to Ethel, see Five facts about Dame Ethel Smyth on the Oxford University Press blog, and for much more, including a discography and list of her manuscripts, check out the work of Drs. Liane Curtis and Amy Zigler, and Chris Trotman at ethelsmyth.org.
This first edition was published by J. Reiter-Beidermann, a reputable Swiss music publisher. Founded in 1848, the company was later purchased by C.F Peters in 1917. A subsequent edition of Smyth’s Sonata Op. 7 was printed by Universal Edition in 1923, also held in the Loeb Music Library collection. The manuscript of the work is held at the British Library, Add. MS 45950, as well as an additional manuscript, MS Mus. 1781, with an inscription date of 27/5/87 referring to the date this exact manuscript was delivered for printing.
In the same year as publication, 1887, the Sonata premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Performers included Fanny Davies (piano) and Adolph Bordsky (violin).
The performance was praised by The Monthly Musical Record in December 1887, which states, “The work was played by Fraulein Fanny Davies, from London, and Herrn Brodsky, to such a way that the composer had every reason to be thankful.” The same review casts an unfavorable posture on Ethel as a female composer, stating “The sonata for violin and piano by E.M. Smyth…proved to be the clever work of a lady who makes no pretensions to originality, but slavishly follows Brahms, and who possesses but little taste.”
Smyth remembers this common characterization in her memoirs, Impressions that Remained, by acknowledging “the critics unanimously said it was devoid of feminine charm and therefore unworthy of a woman – the good old remark I was so often to hear again.” A listen to the piece will prove just how wrong the reviewers were!
Both the 1887 and 1923 published editions include the dedication “Frau Lili Wach geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in alter Freundschaft gewidmet” “Mrs Lily Wach, née Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, dedicated in old friendship” Elisabeth Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Wach (Lili), was the daughter of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud. Ethel and Lili first met in 1877 at a musical gathering at the house of Frau Livia Frege, a soprano living in Leipzig. Their friendship can be observed through their letters. For example, Lili concludes a June 21st, 1891 letter to Ethel with “So farewell, my dearest, and remember now and again that no one is fonder of thee than – Thy Old Lili.”
Smyth, Ethel. Impressions That Remained: Memoirs. 3rd ed. New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1923, p. 170, 290.
“Music in Leipzig (From Our Special Correspondent. Leipzig, December 1887)” The Monthly Musical Record XVIII, no. 205 (January 1, 1888): 9–10.
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