About this Recording
8.572291 - Violin Recital: Howick, Clare - SMYTH, E. / MACONCHY, E. / POLDOWSKI / TATE, P. / BARNS, E. (British Women Composers)

Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) • Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994) • Irène Regina Wieniawska (Poldowski) (1879–1932) • Phyllis Tate (1911–1987) • Ethel Barns (1874–1948)


Ethel Smyth is frequently caricatured as a somewhat unsympathetic figure—as a militant, cigar-smoking, tweed-clad suffragette in ‘an assertively cocked felt hat’. Undeniably determined, persistent and strong-willed, this reputation has too often overshadowed her musical gifts and her considerable contribution to turn of the century British music.

Born in London on 22 April 1858 to a wealthy family, Smyth left England at the age of nineteen. She was admitted to the Leipzig Conservatory, where she studied composition with Carl Reinecke and met the composers Edvard Grieg, Antonín Dvořák and Pyotr Ily’ich Tchaikovsky. Although she left the conservatory the following year, she remained in Europe for more than a decade. Upon her return to England, she became increasingly involved with the women’s suffrage movement, meeting Emmeline Pankhurst and composing The March of the Women. In 1922 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, and her celebrity continued to flourish until her death on 8 May 1944.

It was during her stay in Europe that Ethel Smyth composed her Violin Sonata, Op. 7, which was given its première at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1887. The piece was not well received—one critic described it as ‘deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer’, while the famous violinist Joseph Joachim refused to play it, calling it ‘unnatural, far-fetched, overwrought’. It is hard to reconcile Joachim’s dismissal with this urgently beautiful work—as well as moments of austerity, the sonata also possesses an extraordinary lyricism and dramatic sensitivity. At the head of the wistful Romanze, Smyth inscribed simply ‘Dante Inf. V, 121’, a reference to Dante’s Inferno: ‘there is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery.’

Born in Hertfordshire on 19 March 1907, Elizabeth Maconchy benefited from many of the strides that Smyth had taken on behalf of women composers. Studying at the Royal College of Music from 1923 to 1929, she was encouraged in her aspirations by her teachers Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1930 her orchestral suite The Land was performed at the Proms, launching a hugely successful career that eventually saw her reputation spread across Europe, America and Australia. She was made chair of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain in 1959 and of the Society for the Promotion of New Music in 1976. In 1987 she followed in Smyth’s footsteps when she was awarded a DBE. She died in Norwich on 11 November 1994.

The first of Maconchy’s Three Preludes (1970), inscribed Tempo libero senza misura, is an intensely focused, dissonant work, marked by insistent repeated notes and delicate figuration. The following Andantino quieto opens with a melancholy, meandering solo violin passage, which is soon joined in counterpoint by the piano. The piece is made up of short, circular motifs linked together into long chains, and gradually woven into an intricate musical fabric. The brief Con allegrezza concludes the Three Preludes with skittish vitality and energy.

Irène Regina Wieniawska, later Lady Irène Dean Paul, published her compositions under the pseudonym of ‘Poldowski’. She was born in Brussels on 16 May 1879, the daughter of the Polish violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. She entered the Brussels Conservatoire when she was just twelve years old, studying composition with François-Auguste Gevaert. Upon her marriage to Sir Aubrey Dean Paul in 1901, she became a British national, but continued to study abroad. In 1907 she was briefly taught by Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. Her care flourished, and her works were soon being performed across Europe and in New York.

Dedicated to the art critic and writer Octave Maus, the Sonata in D minor was probably given its first performance in Brussels on 12 March 1912. It received mostly good reviews, especially the Finale, which was described by one contemporary commentator as possessing ‘a passion that has nothing feminine about it’. The opening Andante Languido begins in a pensive mood, grows increasingly impassioned, then fades again into silence. It is followed by a fiery Scherzo, in which moments of melancholy lyricism alternate with tempestuous, almost violent passages. The Finale maintains the intensity of the preceding movement, eventually drawing to a dramatic climax that whirls the Sonata to its close.

Phyllis Tate was born in the village of Gerrards Cross on 6 April 1911. In 1928 she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied composition with Harry Farjeon. Although she wrote a number of early works during this period, she destroyed nearly all of them, and it was only with the Saxophone Concerto of 1944, which has since become one of her most popular pieces, that she began to acknowledge her music. Throughout the 1940s her reputation continued to grow, and her work became increasingly well-known. She remained self-deprecating about her abilities, however, writing in 1979, ‘I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear.’ She died in London on 29 May 1987.

Tate’s Triptych, which dates from 1954, consists of three movements. The first of these is a mysterious, troubled Prelude. It is followed by a brief, mercurial Scherzo that conjures up an altogether different sound world before the music rushes to an agitated, unsettling close. In the enigmatic final movement—a Soliloquy—the chorale-like opening for solo piano sets the tone, before the violin enters with a pensively lyrical melody. Very gradually, the music intensifies as the two instruments interweave, before ushering in a puckish, effervescent middle section. The movement returns once more to the opening texture and mood, eventually concluding in the same cryptic vein in which it began.

Born in 1874, Ethel Barns entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1887, at the young age of thirteen. A gifted violinist, she frequently performed her own works, soon establishing a reputation for herself in London. She founded her own successful series of concerts with her singer husband Charles Phillips, calling them the Barns-Phillips Chamber Concerts. Gradually she came to greater public attention, and by the early twentieth century her music was being played by some of the most renowned musicians of the day, including the famous violinists Émile Sauret and Joseph Joachim. Like Ethel Smyth, Barns also sought to further the cause of women in music, and she was an active member of the newly-founded Society of Women Musicians. She died in Maidenhead on New Year’s Eve, 1948. La Chasse was published in London in 1928, a humorous work in which delicate violin and piano figurations dance mischievously around each other.

Each work discussed here possesses its own special beauty, and together they begin to illuminate a crucial but under-explored aspect of musical life in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. When the Society of Women Musicians held its first public concert on 25 January 1912, one critic proclaimed that ‘creative talent among women musicians is becoming a power in the land’. Certainly the voices on this disc reveal an abundance of both creativity and power, though still too often they go unheard.

Caroline Waight

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