Thursday, November 14, 2019

A brief look into Ethel Smyth's Leipzig

John David and I will be performing this viola transcription of Ethel Smyth's Opus 5 Cello Sonata in March. I made the transcription this past summer, and John David and I played it for the first time yesterday. It is just too good a piece to keep to myself until March, so I just put it in the IMSLP. You can find it here. You can also find free digital copies of Ethel Smyth's various memoirs on these pages in the Internet Archive.

I was deeply impressed by Smyth's descriptions of life in Leipzig when I read her memoirs some twenty-five years ago, but I did not know many of the "players" at that time (aside from Brahms, of course, and Reinecke). Now that I have encountered many of those people through their music, re-visiting Smyth's writing (and playing her music) gives me a clearer and deeper picture of Leipzig during the last decades of the 19th-century.

Smyth grew up in England arrived at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1877 to study composition with Carl Reinecke. She found the Conservatory disappointing.
At the time I signed on as a pupil of the Conservatorium, that institution was merely trading on its Mendelssohnian reputation, though of course we in England did not know that. . . . The lessons with Reinecke were rather a farce; he was one of those composers who turn out music by the yard without effort or inspiration, the only emotion connected with them being the ever-boiling fury of his third wife--a tall, thin woman with a mop of frizzy black hair--at the world's preferring Brahms's music to that of her adored husband.

Like most of her contemporaries, Smyth admired Brahms. She had a letter of introduction to Brahms from the singer and conductor George Henschel from December 28, 1877:
The bearer of this [letter] is a jolly English girl, Miss Smyth, as talented as she is amusing. She wrote some quite charming little songs, even before she had had any lessons, and she is burning with longing to say just one word to you, or better still to hear you say it. Grant her that word, even if it were only, "Get out of here!"

Besides all this she jumps over chairs, back and all, rides, hunts, fishes, swims, etc., etc. The Härtels, through whom she hoped to see you, are in Leipzig momentarily, and therefore I have taken the liberty of sending these lines of introduction, whose purpose would be fulfilled, I am told, by one word from you.
With devoted greetings, always your


Along with getting to know Brahms, Smyth became very close with Heinrich von Herzogenberg (who became her teacher when she left the Conservatory) and his wife Elizabeth, with whom Smyth fell head-over-heels in love. Brahms also adored "Frau Lisl." Smyth's feelings about Brahms were mixed.
[Brahms] was extraordinarily kind and fatherly to me; yet I cannot say I really liked or felt happy with him, though if ever he was to be seen at his best it was in that house. A salient trait of his was the greediness I consider one of the hallmarks of the true artist . . . I think what chiefly angered me was his views on women.

Brahms, as artist and bachelor, was free to adopt what may be called the poetical variant of the Kinder, Kirche, Küche axiom, namely that women are playthings. He made one or two exceptions, as such men will, and chief among these was Lisl, to whom his attitude was perfect . . . reverential, admiring and affectionate, without a tinge of amorousness. It specially melted him that she was such a spendid Hausfrau, and during his visits she was never happier than when concocting some exquisite dish to set before the king; like a glorified Frau Röntgen she would come in, flushed with stooping over the range, her golden hair wavier than ever from the heat, and cry, "Begin that movement again; that much you owe me!" and Brahms's worship would flame up in unison with the blaze in the kitchen. In short he was adorable with Lisl.

Brahms also tried to charm Lili Wach (1845-1910), the youngest daughter of Felix Mendelssohn, but Wach was not impressed with Brahms's manner. Smyth's recollections of Wach are the only recollections I have been able to find.

Smyth's Cello Sonata was published in 1887 as Opus 5. She had been steeped in the personal/musical culture of Leipzig for a decade, and you can hear the clear influence of Johannes Brahms and both Clara and Robert Schumann in this early work. It is also not dissimilar in organization and quality to the music of Amanda Maier, who was part of the Brahms/
Herzogenberg circle of friends. Maier was married to the pianist and composer Julius Röntgen, who was the cousin of Julius Klengel, who spent a lot of time, along with his violist-violinist brother Paul, playing chamber music at "papa" Engelbert Röntgen's home. Smyth studied violin with Engelbert Röntgen, who had had also been Amanda Maier's violin teacher. Cousin Julius Klengel was the dedicatee of Smyth's Opus 5 Sonata.

I kind of have an inkling that Smyth, who was not a cellist, might have worked some of this Opus 5 Sonata out on the viola. It just seems so nicely at home on the instrument.

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