Through The Looking-Glass: Alice Mary Smith, And What The Victorians Did For Us

Alice Mary Smith
Alice Mary Smith
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

News that 17-year old student Jessy McCabe has started a petition for the examination board Edexcel to include women composers on its syllabus has led to me tweeting quite a lot about the women composers issue recently. Regular readers will know it’s a topic I feel strongly about.

The twitter response to the petition shows, yet again, that there’s a lot of support for hearing more classical music by women. One tweeter correctly noted the gap between BBC Radio 3’s ambitious programming for International Women’s Day and the still-lamentable dominance of men at this year’s BBC Proms. I don’t know how much dialogue exists between the management at Radio 3 and the Proms, but it seems to me that this is an issue that cannot simply be ignored any more.

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Regular readers will also know that I have a particular interest in British music, so it was serendipitous to discover the Victorian composer Alice Mary Smith (1839-84) in my continuing exploration of classical music by women. Taught by two other neglected Victorians – George MacFarren and William Sterndale Bennett (whose name sounds so perfectly Victorian it must surely be made up) – she composed music which, like theirs, is indebted to the Austro-German Classical tradition. Indeed, after her death from Typhoid fever at the age of just 45, an obituary described her music as ‘marked by elegance and grace…her forms were always clear and her ideas free from eccentricity; her sympathies were evidently with the Classic rather than with the Romantic school’.

It is absurd that, as a music graduate with an interest in British music, I should discover Alice Smith through the algorithmic prompts of the YouTube related videos sidebar – as absurd, in fact, as an all-male music syllabus. But I was very pleased to stumble upon this, her symphony in C minor, which was written at the age of 24. It is a charming, well-crafted work with memorable melodic themes.

Aside from being a woman, Smith – like Sterndale Bennett, MacFarren, and even Parry and Stanford – suffers from a widespread neglect of British Victorian music in the concert hall. While the perennial Gilbert and Sullivan have an emblematic status in our understanding of Victorian Britain, concert schedules still give the impression that our symphonic music began in 1899 with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. (The cloistered world of Anglican choral music is rather different, where ‘Stanford in B Flat’ and ‘Stainer’s Crucifixion’ are whispered among choristers like the pupils at Hogwarts discussing spells.)

Why such neglect? These composers were eclipsed by the flowering of a more distinctive and varied school of composition in Britain in the twentieth century. But I have never believed that we should hold the date of composition against a piece of music – Smith’s symphonies were not breaking new stylistic ground, but that shouldn’t matter if they have musical merits. What certainly should be celebrated is the fact that she succeeded as a woman to write accomplished music against a prevailing patriarchal culture. Britain should show some pride in her and give these works the respect of being performed.

Even Smith’s male counterparts, writing music in a similarly conservative style, nonetheless form part of our musical heritage, and illustrate a time when Britain was developing real civic pride as a musical nation: founding the music colleges, orchestras, and festivals which in many cases still define our musical landscape today (the Proms itself was founded in 1895). The stories of composers like MacFarren and Sterndale Bennett need to be told in Britain, and their contributions acknowledged, alongside the Romantics from abroad. That is not to say they are only of historical interest – their music contains much to enjoy, and indeed Sterndale Bennett’s music was admired by Schumann.

The opposing attitude, which sees music history as a succession of Geniuses Of Great Men to be revered, is one of the reasons our concert repertoire is so narrow. This was demonstrated by a lecturer at my university dismissing Parry and Stanford as ‘dead wood composers’: i.e. hopelessly derivative. Naturally I beg to differ: for example, I particularly love Parry’s music for its heart-warming charity of spirit and prevailing optimism – it’s also often simply very beautiful. Furthermore, in his ‘Cambridge’ symphony I can detect an emerging musical Englishness, a mellifluous lyricism that pre-echoes the later writing of his pupil Vaughan Williams. If Parry is dead wood, then remember that a dead tree supports more species of life than a living one.

Before a recent Proms concert, I went to hear the ‘Proms Extra’ talk in the nearby Royal College of Music. It turned out to be a discussion with two writers about Alice In Wonderland on its 150th anniversary. It was fascinating, but having nothing to do with that evening’s music I wondered why it had been held here, and not in one of the BBC’s many outlets for literary programming. Moreover, it was a baffling missed opportunity to shed light on the music we were about to hear, including the long overdue Proms premiere of Vaughan Williams’ rarely-performed Sancta Civitas.

I still love the Proms for their many virtues, so I don’t want to be overly negative about the festival. But how long will it be before I hear a Proms Extra discussion about the Alice who was not the figment of a male imagination, but a real human being with considerable musical achievements? When that happens, and performances of her music follow, it might also be the time to stop petitioning exam boards. Because everyone doing a Music A-Level will be learning about inspiring, accomplished women composers – as she was. We might even hear about some of our other distinguished Victorians too.

I live in hope.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea’: Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus.

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