Woking and Surrey Heath

Dame Ethel Smyth
by Christopher Wiley

image of Smyth statue by Anthony Gurr, 8 March 2022
Photo by Anthony Gurr, 8 March 2022

Less than half a mile east of Woking’s Victoria Place Shopping Centre lies the recently rejuvenated Dukes Court. There, in the centre of the newly pedestrianised Dukes Plaza, proudly stands a larger than life statue of a larger than life person: Dame Ethel Smyth.

Composer, author, and onetime suffragette Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) lived in Surrey for most of her life. In 1867, her family settled in Frimley Green, in a seventeenth-century house called Frimhurst now home to the charity ATD Fourth World, which works with families experiencing extreme poverty and discrimination. As a young adult, Smyth relocated to Germany (where she was to come into contact with the likes of Brahms, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky) for just over a decade from 1877 to pursue her musical aspirations, but throughout that time, Surrey remained her family home, which she visited periodically. 

After her permanent return to her home country, in 1894, following the death of her parents, Frimhurst was sold and Smyth moved to neighbouring Frimley a couple of miles north, renting a sixteenth-century cottage she christened One Oak, which was subsequently converted into a public house and has now become Toby Carvery Frimley

In 1910, a year that saw much change in her life, Smyth moved out of the area now known as Surrey Heath, taking up residence instead in Hook Heath, near Woking, a few miles further east. A wealthy patron had given her the funds to buy a plot of land and build a house, which she named Coign (it has since been renamed, but remains a private residence). She chose Woking partly for its superior transport links to London, but also because her new home would lay adjacent to Woking Golf Club, of which she was already a member, given her long-standing passion for the sport. As of 2018, all three of her former houses are adorned with blue plaques acknowledging their famous resident. 

The nature of that fame is multi-faceted. As a composer, Smyth’s output includes no fewer than six operas (Fantasio, Der Wald, The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate, Fête Galante, and Entente Cordiale), as well as her Mass in D, a double concerto for violin and horn, an hour-long oratorio called The Prison (the debut recording of which won a Grammy in 2021), and a range of other orchestral, vocal, chamber, and keyboard works. 

In later years, Smyth struggled with increasing difficulties with her hearing, which ultimately spelled the end for her musical activity. Never one to be defeated, she developed a secondary career as a writer of memoirs, biographical sketches, and polemical essays on the music profession (and on the status of women in the field), publishing a total of ten books in the last 25 years of her life. 

She also pledged two years’ service to the women’s suffrage cause in the early 1910s, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union, becoming a close friend of Emmeline Pankhurst—just one of the rich tapestry of household names whose lives crossed with her own (others include the writer Virginia Woolf)—and even earning herself a brief jail sentence in Holloway Prison for active participation in an orchestrated window-smashing campaign. She put her musical gifts to good use in the national campaign for the vote, writing the suffragette anthem, ‘The March of the Women’ (1910), which subsequently made a surprise appearance in the Overture of her next opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (listen here). 

Smyth was awarded the DBE for services to music in 1922, becoming the first composer in history to receive the Damehood—although her friend, the writer Vera Brittain, recounted that she once said she would have preferred the title ‘Duchess of Woking’! Surrey was clearly a great source of inspiration to Smyth, who wrote of her operas that ‘my object is to set life to music as I myself have seen and overheard it, in trains, in buses, in my own village, on my own golf course’. An enthusiastic conductor (principally of her own works), as her statue depicts, she wielded the baton for Woking Musical Society’s choir and orchestra as well as Guildford Symphony Orchestra. 

Smyth’s music has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence of interest in recent years, partly owing to the commemoration of the centenary of many women receiving the parliamentary vote in the UK in 2018 as well as worldwide endeavours to embrace more fully the richness of cultural diversity (Smyth being not only female but also lesbian). Revivals of her music include major productions of her most ambitious opera, The Wreckers, by both Glyndebourne and Houston Grand Opera in 2022 and, the following year, a high-profile performance of the opera that immediately preceded it, Der Wald, by The Opera Makers at the National Musicians’ Church, London. 

Recent professional recordings of her works include three of her operas: Retrospect Opera recorded and released The Boatswain’s Mate in 2016 and Fête Galante in 2019 (listen to these complete operas at the links below), as well as, in 2018, re-releasing the existing commercial recording of a BBC Proms performance of The Wreckers. All three are conducted by internationally leading Smyth interpreter Odaline de la Martinez, a Music graduate and current Honorary Visiting Professor of the University of Surrey who was awarded the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and the honorary doctorate three years later. 

But of all the many celebrations of Smyth’s legacy, the statue in Woking, by sculptor Christine Charlesworth, is in some respects the most distinctive. While the current dearth of statues of historical women is well known, those depicting female composers are much rarer—there are only a couple of other examples in the entire world. I’m therefore delighted that a quarter-size maquette of Mrs Charlesworth’s statue is shortly to be installed in the Department of Music and Media at the University of Surrey, in acknowledgement of the University’s continued commitment to championing diversity and inclusion as well as its vibrant relationship with Smyth’s home county. 

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