New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced its 2023–2024 season last February, and there is much to be excited about. There will be four Met premieres of provocative contemporary works: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (on opening night, September 26), Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (the company’s first opera in Spanish in almost a century), and John Adams’s El Niño. Two others—the 2021 production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (the Met’s first opera by a black composer) and last season’s production of Kevin Puts’s The Hours—are returning. There will also be new productions of Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, plus revivals of works by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Gounod, Mozart, and Gluck.
While the number of performances and works performed is down slightly, the profusion of contemporary operas—six of eighteen—marks a distinct shift in the Met’s programming. General Manager Peter Gelb said in presenting the new season:
The future of opera relies on a rebalance between the classics and relatable new work. With this lineup for 2023–24, we are addressing the needs of core opera lovers, who think of the Met as the home of the greatest operatic voices, while also embracing the younger and more diverse audiences that increasingly are responding to new musical and theatrical experiences.
Noticeably missing from these new experiences, however, is the work of women composers. The Met has not presented an opera written by a woman since Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in 2016. More astonishing still, in the 140 years since its founding in 1883, the Met has produced only one other work by a female composer: Ethel M. Smyth’s Der Wald (The Forest) in 1903. Given the remarkable advances in equality made by women in America and Europe in the past fifty years, including entry into professional music circles, that is a jaw-dropping statistic.
Addressing this issue is Quartet, an engaging multiple biography of female composers by Leah Broad, a junior research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford. Broad draws the reader deep into the lives of four British women who encountered misogyny while attempting to forge careers in the male-dominated field of music composition. As Broad notes, they were working in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, when a female composer who dared to write “manly” and “powerful” music risked being labeled “a monster who excites disgust and repulsion” by male critics.
The first in Broad’s quartet is Smyth, a redoubtable composer, conductor, and author who became a leading force in the revival of British music at the turn of the twentieth century. Smyth cut an unconventional figure. She dressed in tweed skirt suits with blouse and tie and smoked cigars to gain entry into male circles. She reveled in horseback riding, hunting, and outdoor sports, especially golf. (She built her house, Coign, next to the Woking Golf Course near London.) Engaged for three weeks to William Wilde, Oscar’s older brother, and then romantically linked to her librettist Henry Brewster, Smyth also had passionate affairs with a number of prominent women: Virginia Woolf, the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, the Irish writer Edith Somerville, the heiress Winnaretta Singer Polignac, and others. Aggressive, determined to gain recognition, and unfazed by tradition, she was described by Woolf as an “uncastrated cat.”
Broad paints a rich portrait of this exhilarating yet sometimes exasperating figure. Born in 1858 into an upper-middle-class military family in Bexley, outside of London, Smyth showed remarkable musical gifts at an early age but was dissuaded from pursuing a career in music by her father, who viewed the profession as inappropriate for women. Rightly concerned about the poor state of the arts in Britain, Smyth left her family and country at age nineteen to enroll in the Leipzig Conservatory, one of the most prestigious music schools in Europe. There she studied piano, which she thought would be useful for selling her compositions in the future. (She was later known for her rousing renditions of them at the piano, singing the vocal parts as well.) She was soon taken under the wing of Carl Reinecke, one of Germany’s foremost composition teachers.
Smyth found this training stifling, however, and left the conservatory after a few months. But she remained in Germany for the next decade, studying counterpoint with Heinrich von Herzogenberg (and, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, falling in love with his wife, Lisl) and building friendships with eminent Romantic composers—Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Clara Schumann. Her first publication, the String Quintet in E Major, op. 1, was well received in 1883, and her Violin Sonata in A Minor, op. 7, written four years later, was performed in the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, an honor tainted by reviews that deemed it “devoid of feminine charm and therefore unworthy of a woman.”
Undeterred, Smyth returned to England, where she managed to have two of her new compositions, the Serenade and Overture to Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” performed at the Crystal Palace in 1890. Critics were impressed with the Serenade, while expressing surprise at “the skill, the finish, and the resource shown in the orchestration,” qualities “less expected” from a female composer.
Broad illustrates how Smyth used her connections with other women to get her pieces performed. Her next major composition, the Mass in D Major, inspired by her attraction to the painter and devout Catholic Pauline Trevelyan, received a premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in 1893, but only after the Empress Eugénie of France, who had taken Smyth on a tour of the Adriatic on her yacht, interceded with financial support and a private performance at Balmoral before Queen Victoria, whose imprimatur was necessary for the performance.
Smyth’s next large project, started in 1892, was Fantasio, a comic opera with a libretto cowritten with Brewster. Through heroic efforts she managed to have it produced not in England but rather in music-friendly Weimar. When the writer Maurice Baring suggested that the music, however beautiful, didn’t fit the text, Smyth burned the performance parts and returned to London. Opera clearly suited her ambitions and oversize personality, however, and in 1902 she completed Der Wald, a dark symbolist work whose tragic love story allowed her to unleash her full powers as an orchestrator and composer of grand, dramatic scores. Despite being assailed as a “composing amazon” after its first performance, she declared that she had “a duty to all womankind in persevering in this field.”
Four more operas followed, all very different: The Wreckers (1904), a tale of two lovers defying villagers seeking to destroy ships; The Boatswain’s Mate (1914), a comedy with feminist overtones; Fête galante (1922), a neoclassical work in a commedia dell’arte vein; and Entente cordiale (1924), a singspiel-like military farce about British soldiers in France. Der Wald and The Wreckers both premiered in Germany. The others had their first performances in England.
In 1910 Smyth joined Pankhurst in the women’s suffrage movement. Viewing the dynamic feminist as “an even more astounding figure than Joan of Arc,” she contributed Songs of Sunrise to the cause, a work that concludes with her best-known piece, “The March of the Women,” which officially premiered at Queen’s Hall in 1911 with Smyth conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. When British prime minister H.H. Asquith attempted to derail the women’s-vote issue by introducing the Manhood Suffrage Bill in 1911, Smyth took to the streets with Pankhurst and other suffragettes and was arrested for taking part in an organized window-smashing campaign. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in Holloway Prison and found her conducting her fellow suffragette inmates in a defiant performance of “The March of the Women,” using a toothbrush as a baton. Beecham later remarked that Smyth “neither reflected nor repented.” Broad views Songs of Sunrise as a rewriting of the male-hero narrative expressed in works such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Whether or not this is the case, the stirring march became the theme song of the suffrage movement in Britain and the United States.
World War I marked a turning point for Smyth. She joined in the war effort, serving as a hospital aide in Vichy. While The Boatswain’s Mate and other pieces prospered in England from a wave of British nationalism, her music was no longer welcome in Germany, and two important opera performances scheduled there for 1915 were canceled. Even worse, the period marked the beginning of her struggle with hearing loss, which plagued her for the rest of her life. She responded by launching a second career as the author of a successful series of lively autobiographical and polemical books that were warmly embraced by British readers. Woolf encouraged her to write openly about her sex life, but Smyth, staunchly Victorian if unconventional, demurred.
Unlike the other members of Broad’s quartet, Smyth received significant recognition during her lifetime: she was given an entry in the second edition of the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 1910, was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1922, and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1926. The Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orchestra (1927) and The Prison (1930) were her last compositions. In true form, The Prison, which Smyth viewed as a belated requiem for Henry Brewster, was savaged by the press. She died in 1944; as she requested, her ashes were scattered over the golf course opposite her home.
Smyth’s works are readily available in recordings and online. Her true masterpiece is not Der Wald or the frequently produced The Boatswain’s Mate, but rather The Wreckers, whose majestic score, intense plot with love triangle and village intrigue, and sweeping seascape sounds make it a worthy rival of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. This was demonstrated a few years ago by Leon Botstein’s production of the work at the Bard SummerScape Opera. (The full performance is available on YouTube.) If the Met is looking for a way to atone for its past programming sins, producing The Wreckers would be a good start.
Of the other women in Broad’s quartet, the composer and violist Rebecca Clarke is the most significant. Born in 1886 and raised in a middle-class family outside London, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music at seventeen. Strikingly attractive, she was pulled from the program by her father two years later when her harmony teacher proposed marriage. She fared better at the Royal College of Music, where she was accepted as the first female composition student by the legendary Charles Villiers Stanford. But her father intervened once again, halting her tuition payments and throwing her out of the family house during her last year. Forced to leave the college and earn a living, Clarke turned to performance, pairing up with the cellist May Mukle to tour the United States and Europe and making a successful career as a violist.
Clarke was among the first women admitted to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra by the conductor Sir Henry Wood (one of the few male heroes in Broad’s book), and she performed for years in the Nora Clench Quartet and the English Ensemble, both female groups. Clarke was very different from Smyth: she loved fashionable dress and was an ardent partygoer. At the outset of World War II she moved to the United States, married a Juilliard piano teacher, James Friskin, and settled into an apartment on the Upper West Side in New York, where she died in 1979 at the age of ninety-three.
As Broad makes clear, Clarke’s career as a composer was cut short by the difficulties she faced trying to get her works performed and published and her need to make a living as a performer. When writing for ensemble, she focused on chamber music, the most receptive instrumental medium for women. Her first important piece, Morpheus, for viola and piano, was presented in 1918 at Aeolian Hall in New York under the pseudonym Anthony Trent. Three remarkable compositions followed: the Viola Sonata, which placed second in the 1919 Coolidge Competition (it was rumored that the judges initially believed it to be by Ravel); the Piano Trio, an intense, darkly dissonant work completed two years later; and the Rhapsody for Cello and Piano (1923), the only piece by a woman commissioned by the music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Although the Rhapsody is a wonderfully dramatic work, it was attacked by critics, causing Clarke to withhold the score. It was not published until 2020.
While Smyth’s works are written in a late-nineteenth-century German Romantic style, Clarke’s compositions are unmistakably modern, with elements of French impressionism, Eastern exoticism, and American jazz. Her distinctive idiom is especially evident in her songs “June Twilight”; “The Seal Man,” dedicated to John Goss, the eight-years-younger married baritone with whom she had a long affair; and “Tiger, Tiger,” based on William Blake’s poem, with a demonic piano part and hushed, expressive writing for the voice. Fortunately her works are being championed by the recently formed Rebecca Clarke Society at Brandeis.
The third member of Broad’s ensemble, the talented pianist and composer Dorothy Howell, was born in 1898 and raised a humble, conservative Catholic. Unlike Smyth and Clarke, she received strong support from her close-knit family (her father published her first works when she was just thirteen), but later she was ill-equipped to wage the battles required to see her music performed and brought into print. After the great success of her symphonic poem Lamia in 1919 and Piano Concerto in 1923, she was hailed as one of Britain’s most promising composers. Both works feature broad, soaring melodies and colorful, intricate orchestrations—so much so that for a time she was nicknamed the English Strauss, a comparison to Richard Strauss and his meticulously scored symphonic poems.
Howell was unable to obtain a fully staged production of her ambitious ballet Koong Shee, however, and when the ever-supportive Henry Wood came to the rescue in 1921 and presented it in a concert version at Queen’s Hall, it was skewered by critics, one of whom claimed that it contained not a single “note of originality” and that her talent was “merely an imitative feminine gift.” Howell was uninterested in the new musical styles sweeping through Europe (she laughed when she first heard Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pieces), and by the 1930s her works had become outdated and largely disappeared from concert programs. Broad notes her precipitous decline by citing ships’ logs from her travels: in 1924 she was listed as “composer,” in 1932, “spinster.”
The final member of the quartet, Doreen Carwithen, was born in 1922 and trained at the Royal Academy of Music, like Clarke and Howell. She was a remarkably productive composer, writing a wide array of successful chamber and orchestral works. Shortly after its premiere in 1947, her fiery overture ODTAA, inspired by John Masefield’s novel One Damned Thing After Another, was performed by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Covent Garden. At the encouragement of her teacher William Alwyn (who left his wife and married her after a twenty-year affair), she began writing film scores and became the first woman to be employed in the industry full-time. Carwithen’s imagistic, episodic style worked well in movies. Based at Denham Film Studios, she proved to be a remarkably deft composer, once scoring a documentary on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in three days. She wrote the soundtracks for more than thirty movies, including Mantrap (1953), The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), and Three Cases of Murder (1955).
Broad’s reconstructions of the lives of Smyth, Clarke, Howell, and Carwithen draw heavily on letters, diaries, and contemporary accounts. Animated and highly personalized, they read more like a Victorian novel by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot than a modern music biography. She offers panoramic descriptions of events that shaped the times in which the women lived, including the suffrage movement, World Wars I and II, the creation of the BBC, the Roaring Twenties, and the Depression. Broad also underscores the role of class in determining careers. Smyth moved in aristocratic circles, with entitled patronage that allowed her to focus solely on composition, performance opportunities, and connections that led to publication, while Clarke, Howell, and Carwithen were middle-class professionals who struggled to balance freelance work with the time-consuming demands of composition. Worthy works by these three remained unpublished for want of connections and financial support.
Broad’s florid style even suffuses her analyses of the composers’ scores. Of Carwithen’s Piano Concerto she writes:
Doreen managed to marry melody with the spiky, angular harmonies associated with modern music, creating something that both sounded progressive and had widespread appeal.
There’s something almost industrial about the Concerto’s opening movement: the orchestra hammers out chords that are melted down into a smooth, fluid theme that spreads from the piano to the strings. This is music that suggests images, scenes—it’s obvious that Doreen was a born film composer. The jewel of the Concerto, though, is the slow movement. There’s very little accompaniment—it’s practically a duet between the piano and a solo violin, communicating something raw and desperate, the two instruments seeming to cry out pleadingly to one another.
Her effervescent prose, however, sometimes overflows the glass. This is especially true of her rhapsodic descriptions of nature, such as her introduction to Clarke’s hometown:
A comfortable stillness falls over Harrow on the Hill, basking in the warm glow of the August sun. Geese patter along the roads, weaving in and out of the dappled shadows cast by the thick red and white blossoms on the chestnut trees reaching their protecting arms over tired travellers.
Elsewhere, in the candid discussions of the composers’ sex lives, Broad’s writing nearly assumes the tone of a Victorian bodice ripper, as in her description of Smyth watching a volcano eruption with Edith Somerville during a stay in Sicily: “Ethel, burning with desire for Edith, saw the volcano’s bubbling energy and unpredictable eruptions as a sexual metaphor for her feelings towards her.”
One also wonders if the reader really needs to know so much about Smyth’s eight dogs (one Marco and seven Pans), Clarke’s clothing purchases (department store sales), or Howell’s train schedule (she took the 10:56 AM from Monks Risborough to London). But Broad is attempting to create a new kind of music biography, one embellished with intimate detail and nuance not found in the hagiographies of male composers written by men. The result may be digressive at times, but it makes for captivating reading.
A more serious issue is that Broad has the right cause but the wrong women. The subtitle of Quartet, “How Four Women Changed the Musical World,” does not ring true. Smyth left an indelible mark on classical music, to be sure, but the other three did not. After composing three extraordinary chamber works, Clarke retreated into performance, eventually settling into a quiet domestic life with her husband. Howell, too, stopped composing early on and ended up living in seclusion with her childhood nanny, Sarah Ward (“Pookie”), and tending the grave of her lifelong hero, Edward Elgar. Carwithen, after breaking ground in the film-scoring industry, became the amanuensis and then the dutiful wife of her teacher William Alwyn, focused on furthering his career and setting up a foundation after his death to preserve his legacy.
Choosing these four women allows Broad to weave a rich tapestry from their interconnected, London-centered lives. But other than Smyth, who also largely stepped back from composing after 1920 to write books, they did not change the world of music. That task fell to a later generation of women composers who weathered opposition and demanded change—figures such as Grażyna Bacewicz, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Joan Tower, and Madonna (who more than any other seized control of the business aspects of her career). These women truly created a new landscape in which female composers could thrive.
The Metropolitan Opera is aware of this landscape. It has engaged several female conductors, including Nathalie Stutzmann, Speranza Scappucci, and Oksana Lyniv, and it has commissioned two operas by women: one by Missy Mazzoli based on George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and another by Jeanine Tesori based on George Brant’s play Grounded. Tesori’s work will open the 2024–2025 season; Mazzoli’s is slated for a 2025 production. The Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, said, “This is a very strong message that I want to send: about how opera is actually for everyone.”
Across the plaza at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 has commissioned works from nineteen female composers to celebrate the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. While this is a laudable undertaking, involving established figures such as Tower, Tania León, and Melinda Wagner along with newer voices such as Nina C. Young, Ellen Reid, and Caroline Shaw, thus far the premieres of the new works—which are around ten minutes long—are mostly presented at the beginning of programs, followed by an hour and a half or so of music by the usual male suspects.
As long as the culture of classical music remains fixated on men of the past, the door to the future will remain open no more than a crack for women, and the much-discussed issue of repertoire fatigue will not be solved. Oxford’s Master Musicians Series (recently renamed Composers Across Cultures), like the Met, has been around a long time—one hundred years—yet all of the thirty-four volumes available are devoted to men. And according to Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, of the 1,344 individual performances of works programmed by the top twenty-one orchestras in the United States for the 2022–2023 concert season, only 145 performances were works by women—10.7 percent. The cause is not helped by the recent film Tár. Despite Cate Blanchett’s magnificent acting and Todd Field’s clever direction, the film casts the fictional conductor Lydia Tár in the predictable mold of an arrogant, abusive maestro rather than one who might provide an appealing new role model for aspiring women musicians.
As Broad suggests in the epilogue of Quartet, it’s time for a new way of thinking. When Nadia Boulanger was asked in 1938 how it felt to be the first female conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she replied: “I’ve been a woman for a little more than fifty years, and I’ve gotten over my original astonishment.” Broad’s book makes the case that it is long past time for the classical music establishment to get over its astonishment and embrace the work of women composers as a natural way of doing things.