21 Feb. 2014. Musical Inversions: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

Ethel Smyth and her Old English Sheepdog, Pan: http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html

The queer past has an extraordinary sensory presence in the twenty-first century.  Last Wednesday, I went to an excellent event dedicated to the life and music of Ethel Smyth (1854-1944). Organised by the University of Surrey as part of LGBT History Month, the evening paid particular attention to the musical career of Smyth, a composer, writer, suffragette and dog lover whose ‘The March of the Women‘, written for the Women’s Social and Political Union, became the anthem of the British suffragette movement.

The event started off with an informative and entertaining talk by Dr Christopher Wiley on the relationship between Smyth’s music and her lesbianism – her most today best known relationship was with the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. With the help of violinists Sophie Langdon, pianist Maureen Galea and members of the University of Surrey Chamber Choir, Wiley brought to life Smyth’s music. He demonstrated the breadth of Smyth’s oeuvre, which included, for example, operas, orchestral works and chamber music; and he also explained how the music reflected developments in Smyth’s own life such as her love for Elisabeth ‘Lisl’ von Herzogenberg, the wife of Smyth’s teacher, the composer and conductor Heinrich von Herzogenberg.

I was particularly interested to learn that one of Smyth’s early pieces, which was composed during her time with the von Herzogenbergs in Germany, makes use of a technique of ‘inversion’, here meaning that the closing notes appear in reverse order of the opening notes. While I have written a book on ‘inversion’, this is the first time that I have come across the use of the concept in a musical context.

‘Inversion’ emerged as a concept associated with what we would now call sexual identity in 1860s, in the affirmative writings on same-sex love by the Hanoverian lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs argued that men who desire men have ‘a female soul’ within their male body. Women who desire other women in turn were seen to have a ‘male soul’ inside their female body (it tells us something about the gendered contexts of these debates that Ulrichs felt prompted to note that he assumed that female same-sex love existed but did not personally know any women who love women).

While the terminology of the ‘invert’ would eventually give way in the early twentieth-century to the ‘lesbian’ and the ‘homosexual’, inversion itself has become one of the most pervasive concepts in modern debates about sexuality. Indeed, ideas about ‘mannish lesbians’ and ‘effeminate gay men’ continue to circulate quite widely in twenty-first century debates about sexuality.

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Virginia Woolf and Dame Ethel Smyth. New York Public Library IMAGE ID: 484383

Today, ‘inversion’ is often invoked as part of negative stereotyping. In the late 1870s and 1880s, however, when Ethel Smyth was falling in love with a woman in Germany while honing her skills as a composer, many women and men whose desires ran against the heterosexual grain happily self-identified as inverts. Most famously, perhaps, the rebellion against gender and sexual norms was expressed through dress – Virginia Woolf, Smyth’s unrequited love when the latter was in her early 70s, once described the composer’s dress affectionately as ‘tweeds and spats [with] a little cock’s feather in your felt, and a general look of angry energy’.

Chris Wiley’s talk has alerted me to the existence of a whole new dimension to modern sexual
Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 16.31.03politics. For Ethel Smyth’s composition suggests that sexuality and gender were reshaped in and through music as well as literature, art and politics. From now on, then, I will be listening out for Smyth’s musical inversions and the queer echoes that follow them across time.

 

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One thought on “21 Feb. 2014. Musical Inversions: Ethel Smyth

  1. Pingback: Ethel Smyth Symposium at the University of Surrey features Dr Christopher Wiley as speaker and performer | Dr Christopher Wiley

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