Lesbian Musicology and the Music of Dame Ethel Smyth
I have always believed that a musician writes music to express his/her emotions, thoughts, and beliefs in a way that can be both hidden and quite apparent to their listeners at the same time. It can be viewed as a release or a medium through which to share an experience. These artists attempt to relate to their listeners and even hope to provide the listener with the words to express their own feelings. Music has proven to be a very important part of society, both past and present, for just this reason: expression. This medium of expression becomes even more important when the feelings being expressed are those which are not easily accepted by society.
For as long as humans have inhabited the earth, homosexuality has existed. Years ago, it was considered a disease, a genetic defect. Today, people relate to this sexual preference with mixed emotions - some are very accepting, while others continue to hold prejudice against those who are open about their attraction to those of the same sex. Homosexual musicians, both male and female, have also pervaded society from before the days of Tchaikovsky to the present day with artists such as Melissa Etheridge. One difference is apparent in that homosexuality is much more accepted today than it was in the past and individuals are less afraid to "come out of the closet." I believe, however, that some things have not changed. Music is still a major way for these artists to express their sexual desires.
I will attempt to examine the expression of homosexual desire and emotion in music, particularly that by lesbian artists, referring especially to analyses that have been conducted regarding the life and music of the composer Ethel Smyth. This extraordinary woman has a very colorful life that by no doubt affected her many and various compositions. She is perhaps one of the most influential women in music and an inspiration to aspiring young women composers who followed after her. Although relatively open about her sexual desires towards women, it is through analyses of her autobiographies, letters, and compositions that the extent of these desires are exposed. In her essay, Lesbian Fugue: Ethel Smyth's Contrapuntal Arts, Elizabeth Wood explores the parallels between Smyth's life and her compositions.
Unlike most female composers of her day, Ethyl Smyth, born in England in 1858, was a member of a middle-class Victorian family with little artistic background. Her non- conforming ways were apparent very early in her life. Despite objection from her father, and after a number of hunger strikes and arguments at home, Ethyl attended the Leipzig Conservatory in 1877 at age nineteen. She left after one year, feeling that she was not being taught properly and began private study with Heinrich Herzogenberg. During the time after leaving the conservatory, she decided to concentrate on opera composition, an area of composition unheard of for a woman....