Smyth: Overture to The Wreckers
At some point--particularly recently, with the discussion of the programming at a certain A-list cultural institution--those of us with an ear to the ground have heard the name of Dame Ethel Smyth and her 1902 grand opera, The Wreckers. It helps that Leon Botstein and the American Symphony gave the American premiere of the work in 2007 (which is just past the centennial of its world premiere of 1906), so even ten years later the notes are fading in the air. As I am a big fan of working on opera, I decided this would be a good place to start.
Unfortunately, I was unable to access the orchestral score of the full work (anybody have a copy? :) ), but thanks to IMSLP two important--and potentially more useful--orchestral excerpts are available: the Overture and the Prelude to Act II, "On the Cliffs of Cornwall." For this first entry, we'll be taking a look purely at the Overture, although we'll return to the other number as well. Bear in mind as we proceed that this Overture, prepared by Smyth herself, is a concert version of the one heard in the opera, and therefore will have some differences, particularly in the realm of form.
Dame Ethel Smyth
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) is one of those composers who has almost certainly been read and talked about more than she has been listened to. There's a bleak irony to be observed that the actual sounds made by such an outspoken voice for women’s rights would be almost completely forgotten in favor of a discussion as to whether or not those sounds have merit in the concert hall. That’s not to say that she has been totally ignored; several of her works (including this overture) have appeared more than once on record, and the full Wreckers has been mounted a handful of times since her death. As of this writing, her Mass in D Major has been programmed to be performed on the 2018-19 season of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. But it seems a little hypocritical to speak so often of her music without studying it (and her) more carefully.
By any accounts, Smyth was a force of nature. While her work as a composer is of principal interest to our study, that’s not to overshadow or ignore her prolific career as a writer, activist, and leader. Unashamedly loving women, she fought for equal representation and rights at a time when even the mention of such activities would have made her a pariah. According to the Grove dictionary, many of her earlier works had explicit connections to her life and relationships, while the strong heroines presented in some of her operas (particularly The Boatswain’s Mate) allowed her to express dramatically her beliefs.Her music education and early career took place mostly in Germany, and at risk of repeating what has been repeated many repetitions before, her music to a large part sounds, well, German. I’m not sure why this has ever been levied against her as a criticism; Elgar sounds pretty German too, and so did Dvorak a lot of times. According to the Grove dictionary, she was involved “in musical circles which included Brahms, Grieg, Joachim, and Clara Schumann.” Indeed, a perusal of YouTube turns up a recording of her discussing her thoughts on Brahms (I'm not sure the original source of this material; anybody know?):
Despite the fact that the Wreckers is Smyth’s most famous opera (or perhaps it is because of that fact), is was not her first project. The previous decade had seen her Fantasio (completed 1892; premiered 1898) which had left her “dissatisfied;” this was followed by Der Wald (1899-1901), which until just recently had been the only opera the Metropolitan Opera in New York had mounted by a female composer (the streak was finally broken by Kaija Saariaho’s ecstatic L’amour de Loin). Each of these works, and The Wreckers which followed, shared the same librettist in Henry Brewster. Despite being Smyth’s countryman, Brewster seemed keen (or perhaps swayed by precedent) to write in languages other than English. This leads to the rather odd situation with The Wreckers: that the libretto was written and set in French as Les naufrageurs (for an unrealized premiere); translated by Brewster to German for the Leipzig premiere as Standrecht; then translated by Smyth herself to English for the London premiere as The Wreckers. While this has little effect on the voiceless overture, it is always fascinating to note the link between a composers musical voice and their native language, or in the case of opera, the language of the text.
Let’s turn now to the overture, as that is the focus of this entry. What follows is not meant to be a blow-by-blow analysis, nor is it any sort of manual for performing the work. However, with the following analysis, hopefully a good picture can be drawn up of what makes the overture tick.
(for those playing at home, you can follow along using the Boosey and Hawkes score on IMSLP. N.B. – The Wreckers is now published under Music Sales Classical, not B+H).
3(picc).3(ehn).3(bs).3(cbsn) – 220.127.116.11 – timp.perc – hp.org – strings
While Smyth’s training may have been German and her nationality English, her approach here is distinctly Italian. This overture is essentially a collection of themes performed in succession, nested within a sort of ABCA’Coda form. This bombastic coda is of interesting note; looking at the score and listening to a recording, one would feel that the opera is ending, not beginning, and in fact upon consulting the piano/vocal score to the complete work the “Andante maestoso” before figure 26 is the entry of the chorus. The rest of the music comes from later on in the drama.
The first A section is in 6/8 and D-minor, and presents in unison right from the get-go what will become the principal theme of the overture. Of interesting note here is the phrase construction: not only does Smyth seem to work mostly in 9 bar phrases, but her subgroupings are often irregular and against the meter. The principal theme, for instance, is notated in 6/8 but sounds like 9/8; from the 5th until the 7th bar there is a feeling of 12/8 starting on the wrong beat; the music again returns feeling like 9/8 to finish out the phrase. Throughout the overture, Smyth seems to prefer odd-numbered phrases and phrase-groupings. The traditional “classical” model of AAB/1+1+2/stollen-stollen-abgesang still being employed by Brahms and occasionally Wagner only barely rears its head, and even then unevenly (as before figure 7, where the phrase is constructed 3+3+9).
After the sturm und drang opening, the middle section of the overture is a gentler, folksy rocking of triplets in 3/4 and a Moderato 6/8. The Moderato mosso after figure 15 is particularly vocal in its homophonic string texture, doubled gently by horns, in a sound that while certainly informed by Tchaikovsky comes across as distinctly English.
The third section, an Allegro molto in cut time, presents a loose variation on the thematic material, with interjections of the main theme returning as triplets across the prevailing duple pulse. After a glorious quasi-recapitulatory ascent that would make Elgar blush, the music opens into the afore-mentioned chorale Andante maestoso before figure 26. Clearly modelled on both Bach chorales and the tradition of English choral-singing, this passage takes the place of the choral entry from the opera. As this is an late romantic opera overture adapted as a concert piece from here to the end, there is some formal ambiguity at this point—while in effect we feel as though we have arrived at a Coda, this passage is followed structurally by a return of the introductory material at the Allegro con brio after figure 28.
An undeniable coda materializes as a D-major allegro before figure 37. This waltz-like material is still a variation upon the 6/8 principal theme, and confirms by its ¾ construction a reading of the main theme as 9/8. This grows into a piu allegro before figure 33 (the most dissonant and agitato of the movement) before exploding into a final cut time piu mosso that closes out the overture.
Again, everything after the chorale has been added to the overture from later points in the opera. As a full study of the drama is beyond our purposes today, I will not be hunting down those passages. Suffice to say that any formal irregularities in the later half of the work can be pinned down to this issue, which again is common amongst opera overtures adapted as concert pieces (think of the awkward recapitulation tacked on to the concert version of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries).
Smyth was trained in Germany in the late 19th century, and certainly remained firmly planted in a late romantic idiom as the decades progressed. While some claims have arisen that she was too conservative for her time, she also was nearly 50 by the time The Wreckers premiered, less than a decade after the premiere of Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma.” Schoenberg’s 5 Pieces for Orchestra may have exploded onto the scene in 1909, but he was almost twenty-years younger and with an entirely different set of aesthetic priorities.
This overture is certainly within the parameters of what would be expected for music at the time, mixing the English folksiness of the middle, soft section, with a quasi-Wagnerian bombast at the opening and close. Some commentators have mentioned an impressionistic side to her music; this is certainly true of the Prelude to Act 2 from this opera, but in this overture that assessment is not quite applicable.
Like most of common practice western music, Smyth’s use of rhythm is subordinate to her harmonic, melodic, and formal objectives. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit our inspection; however, it does mean that it doesn’t hold as much structural importance at this point as it will to later composers (particularly those post-Stravinsky).
As mentioned in the discussion of form, the prevailing written meter of the overture is 6/8 (be it fast or slow) but often composes against it to create a perception of 9/8. She reserves mixing duple and triple feels until the C-section mentioned above (the cut-time passage), when the trombones interject the primary thematic material. As with many such overtures, the formal sections map onto certain numbers within the opera, and as such these carry their own independent rhythmic and/or metric contexts. While one could easily state that the rhythm/meter is therefore a marker of form, it is clear by precedent and practice that Smyth’s use is determined because of form. In other words, her opening passage is in 6/8 and her C-section in cut-time with triplet interjections not because of a planned rhythmic/metric transformation, but because the structure demands the principal and tertiary materials conjoin.
Smyth makes use of the orchestra quite well and efficiently within the practice of late-19th century orchestration. Not quite as motivically dense as Wagner or Strauss, nor as pianistic as Brahms or Liszt, her writing for the orchestra resembles to my mind most clearly her countryman Elgar. While not perhaps groundbreaking, it is more than competent. Certainly, compared to the stuffy-nosed late-Robert Schumann and ill-balanced Chopin piano concerti, her orchestration is lucid, effective, and skilled.
Amongst her many interests and skills, Smyth was also a conductor (once more bucking the gender biases of her time). Thanks to this, we have a recording of her conducting her own overture with the British Symphony Orchestra in 1930 (re-released on the CD Holst, Bridge, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Harty & Smyth, Symposium SYMPCD1202, 4 Jan 2011). While subject to all the usual caveats of older recordings—poor audio capture quality, lower standard of orchestra performance than today—it is useful for providing important information about the tempo Smyth envisioned and, more importantly, the tempo relationships between sections.
A brief word about composer-conducted recordings—while always useful to listen to, one can never be sure that every event and interpretive decision that takes place on a recording is to the liking of the composer (the same is true of any conductor). This is especially true of older recordings, where numerous takes and splices were not yet common practice. It is also entirely up to hearsay how competent a composer was at communicating with an orchestra. By all accounts, Holst and Elgar were middling at best, and so we must listen to their recordings from the same time period with critical ear. While Smyth’s recording is quite good, we shouldn’t take every note on the record as her final say on the matter. We must always go to the score first, the audio second.
This being said, there are at least two other professional recordings from more recent years, and while the level of orchestra playing and recording quality are undeniably higher, neither really capture the piece as well as Smyth’s own. Odaline de la Martinez has a recording with the BBC Philharmonic (she has also recorded the complete opera) which is good if not quite as spirited. Alexander Gibson also recorded the piece with the Scottish National Orchestra, and while potentially the best quality of the three is also certainly the weakest interpretively. I would encourage listeners to take a chance to hear all three (available streaming on YouTube and Spotify at the time of this writing, as well as for purchase on Amazon and other retailers). Studying the score, I am not quite convinced the piece has yet been given its full due.
Dame Ethyl Smyth was an important figure in music, feminism, and English history. This alone merits our investigation and discussion of her work. Is this overture one of the top-10 greatest pieces of orchestral music? No, but then again, there can only be ten top-10 pieces. Is it worth programming, performing, and hearing? Certainly. It is a well-written piece, exciting to hear and study, that has real merit both for it’s historic and present ramifications. While it sometimes seems to be a tough sell to get audiences (and administrations) to give unknown composers and pieces their due, often times the biggest barrier is precedent. An orchestra that performs no music by female composers will always be perceived as taking a hug risk when they program a piece like this; an orchestra that is already doing so is merely acting within the context they have already established.
While programming is a difficult and multi-faceted venture, there are a few pairings that would suit this overture quite well. As obvious as they may be, Elgar and Britten each mix quite well with her style. Certainly, this overture could sit comfortably on the same program as the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. While influenced by Wagner and Brahms, I can’t imagine her music playing nicely with either of theirs. As odd as it may seem, part of me feels this piece might be suited to a program featuring one of the Bartok ballets (Miraculous Mandarin or The Wooden Prince) or even on a concert performance of Bluebeard’s Castle. But these might be trickier sells depending on the orchestra and audiences familiarity with both composers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed digging into this piece as much as I have! We’ll take a break from The Wreckers for now; we’ll return to the Act 2 prelude at some point in the future. Join me next time as we take a look at Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3. In the meantime, please comment, question, and share—I’d love to hear your thoughts about the piece, this analysis, and the project!
Banfield, Stephen. "Wreckers, The." Grove Music Online. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000002276
Fuller, Sophie. "Smyth, Dame Ethel." Grove Music Online. 8 Apr. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000026038
Holland, Bernard. “An Opera Shivers it’s Timbers.” The New York Times. 2 Oct. 2007. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/02/arts/music/02wrec.html
Oliver, Michael. “Smyth, The Wreckers.” Gramophone. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/review/smyth-the-wreckers
De la Martinez, Owens, Lavender, et al. Smyth: The Wreckers. Conifer 51250, 13 Aug 1998, CD.
London Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra, members, Aeolian Orchestra, The, Halle Orchestra, British Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hamilton Harty, Ethel Smyth. Holst, Bridge, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Harty & Smyth. Sympoisum 1202, 4 Jan 2011, CD.
Sir Alexander Gibson, Scottish National Orchestra. Music of the Four Countries. EMI Classics 4635, 1 Feb 1994, CD.