The English composer, Ethel (Mary) Smyth, overcame the constraints of her middle-class English background by open rebellion. She was brought up in Frimley near Aldershot, in the south of England. She was one of eight children. Her mother was French and her father was a general. 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. When she was 12 she heard a new governess who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory playing L.v. Beethoven and she decided that she wanted to be a composer. 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 Ethel Smyth gave in, and in 1877 she went to Leipzig. She met there Brahms who did not take her music seriously, and she met Pyotr Tchaikovsky who encouraged her to find her own style. She also met Clara Schumann. Her larger-than-life personality found an aesthetic outlet in the development of a Brahmsian idiom. In 1882 she met Henry 'Harry' Brewster, a philosopher and writer, in Florence. They became best friends and collaborators, and he wrote some of her librettos. In 1890 she made her debut in England with her Seranade in D at the Crystal Palace. She gained some recognition in England with the performance of her Mass in D for chorus and orchestra in 1893 at the Albert Hall, and struggled to get her operas performed.. In 1903 her Der Wald became the first and only opera by a woman to be performed in New York's Metropolitan Opera.
A woman of boisterous vitality who fell prey to inconvenient passions for persons of both sexes, Smyth was affectionaltely caricatured in E.F. Benson's Dodo novels and mocked by Virginia Woolf. In 1910 she went to a meeting of the Women's Social and Political Union which was being addressed by Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the British women's suffrage movement and head of the militant and extremely well organized Women's Social and Political Union. Struck by Pankhurst's mesmerizing public speeches, Smyth pledged to give up music for two years and devote herself to the cause of votes for women. Laggard Dawn and The March of the Women were written in 1911 and premiered by a chorus of Suffragettes at a fundraising rally at the Albert Hall in London on March 23, 1911. The latter tune became the battle cry of the suffrage movement, and was published in arrangements for mixed voices and unison singing.
The most famous, though least public perfomance of The March of the Women occured in Holloway prison in London in 1912: over 100 suffragists, including Emmaline Pnkhurst and Ethel Smyth, who in March 1912 had smashed windows of suffrage opponents' homes in well-coordinated simultaneous incidents all over London, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two months' imprisonment. Ethel Smyth found her time in prison an exalting experience of communal determination and sacrifice by women of all ages and classes. One day, while the prisoners were taking their outdoor exercise, Ethel Smyth appeared at a window overlooking the prison yard, and conducted their singing of the suffrage battle anthem by waving her toothbrush.
In 1922 Ethel Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1930 she conducted the police band in a rendition of The March of Women at an unveiling of a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the Victoria Tower Gardens. In later life she was forced to give up her musical career because of increasing deafness.
Ethel Smyth described her relationships with women in several published volumes of memoirs. She had fallen in love with Pauline Trevelyan, the Empress Eugénie, Winnaretta Singer, Lady Mary Ponsonby, Edith Somerville, and Virginia Woolf. She was a mountaineer, bicyclist, and golfer. She made radio broadcasts including Two Meetings with the Kaiser Before the War in 1937, and My Eightieth Birthday in 1938.
In 1958 the BBC radio programme Woman's Hour broadcast 'Dame Ethel Smyth Remembered' with contributors including Vita Sackville-West. The character Edith Staines in E. F. Benson's Dodo, (1893), represents Ethel Smyth. In 1974 she was portrayed by Maureen Pryor in the television programme Shoulder to Shoulder. She was portrayed by Jean Trend in Maureen Duffy's BBC radio play Only Goodnight, (1981), about Edith Somerville and Violet Martin.