Dame Ethel Smyth
Sonata for Cello & Piano in a minor, Op.5
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) overcame the constraints of her middle-class English background by open rebellion. Taught piano and theory as ladylike accomplishments, she became so concentrated in her studies that her family deemed them unsuitably intense, and stopped her lessons. The teenaged Ethel went on a protracted and progressively more severe strike, finally confining herself to her room and refusing to attend meals, church, or social functions unless her father would send her to Leipzig to study composition. After two years the embattled Mr. Smyth gave in, and Ethel went to Leipzig where she studied with Heinrich von Herzogenberg and got to know Brahms, whom she admired greatly, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Reinecke and many other important musicians.
Back in England, she obtained recognition mostly for her public works such as her Mass in D and her opera The Wreckers. Eventually she was raised to the rank of Dame, not only for her musical work but also for her political activities; she was one of Britain's leading suffragettes during the first part of the 20th century.
Her Cello Sonata dates from 1887 and was dedicated to the famous German cellist, Julius Klengel. It is, however, in no way a virtuoso work and can comfortably be played by any competent amateur. Under the influence of Brahms and Herzogenberg, Smyth eschewed writing a work to show off the performer's technique. Instead she produced a profound work which is about tonal color. The big opening movement, Allegro moderato, is tonally dark but not brooding. There is much exploring of the cello's various registers. The main theme has a Brahmsian cast. The middle movement, Adagio non troppo, begins quietly in a somber mood. The cello melody is sad and reflective. The finale, Allegro vivace, begins as a tarantella but Smyth cleverly plays with the rhythm. The second theme is lyrical and slower.
Here is a fine work which would make a handsome addition to the Brahms sonatas and should have entered the repertoire. But no doubt, because it was written by an Englishwoman, it was unjustly ignored. Cellists should certainly avail themselves of the chance to play this sonata. Out of print for a nearly a century, we have reprinted the first edition, which while perfectly acceptable for performance is not the equal in quality of a modern edition. The price, less than our generally very low prices, reflects this fact. .