Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: Dame Ethel Smyth on the Conductor’s Rostrum

Sir Henry Wood has given these two splendid unattributed anecdotes about the quixotic composer Dame Ethel Smyth. It needs no commentary to understand the humour of the situation; however I have given a couple of footnotes to explain the details.

‘I think I must have played practically everything Dame Ethel Smyth has written-certainly everything that can be performed in a concert-hall. I remember her conducting one of her own works at Queen's Hall one night at a Promenade concert. She went up to my rostrum, took up my baton and surveyed its length critically. Deciding that it was more than she could manage, she calmly snapped it in two, threw away one half and conducted with the other.

Dame Ethel is law unto herself and given, like many composers, to making last-minute suggestions. Sometimes Dame Ethel goes further than last-minute suggestions: she makes last-minute alterations. I remember going with Lady Speyer and Lady Maud Warrender [1] to hear The Wreckers [2] at Her Majesty's. We arrived at 2.15 for the 2.30 matinee. I said: "Where's Ethel Smyth? I don't see her anywhere. It's a wonder she hasn't been down into the orchestral pit by now to make a few alterations in the band pacts."
"She would never do that as late as this", said Lady Speyer. "It is nearly twenty-past two."
"I don't care", I said. "She will be there with her little slips to pin on."
"I don't believe it."
“All right. I'll bet you a pound she does."
We waited.
Sure enough, at 2.25 the composer appeared, stealing in through the iron door, and proceeded to affix alterations over certain brass parts. I was jubilant.
"I don't suppose she has told the conductor, either", I said. "He will wonder what on earth is happening when he comes to the passage. Now what about that pound you owe me?”
Lady Speyer paid up.’

[1] Lady Speyer, Leonora Speyer (née von Stosch) (1872-1976) was an American poet and violinist. Lady Maud Warrender (1870-1945) daughter of the Eight Earl of Shaftsbury was born Ethel Maud Ashley-Cooper. She was married to naval officer Sir George John Scott Warrender. After his death in 1917, she took singing lessons and became a celebrated amateur contralto. She was intimate with the composers Rebecca Clarke, Ethel Smyth and Maude Valérie-White. (Elgar & His World, ed. Byron Adams)

[2] The Wreckers is a three act opera composed by Dame Ethel Smyth to a libretto by Henry Brewster. The first sketches for this opera were made in 1886, however the British premiere was not until June 23 1909 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting.

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