Smyth Recording Project

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About the project

Experiential orchestra is proud to be named a 2021 Grammy® Winner for our world premiere recording of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Prison (1930)

The recording itself took place in February, 2019, and was released 31 July in the UK, and 7 August 2020 in the US. This release date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, in recognition of Smyth’s role in the suffragette movement in England.

About Dame Ethel Smyth

British composer Dame Ethel Smyth was famous for breaking gender barriers through her music and her effective activism in the suffrage movement, for which she went to jail in 1912. Until 2016, she was the only woman in history to have had an opera performed at the Met.

Determined to become a composer despite discrimination based on her gender, she defied her father, studying music in Leipzig. In short order, she met and became close with Dvorak, Grieg, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, among others; Tchaikovsky once wrote: "Miss Smyth is one of the comparatively few women composers who may be seriously reckoned among the workers in this sphere of music."

Critics of her music could often only hear her music in terms of her gender. One review said of her opera The Wreckers that it was "a remarkable achievement - for a woman." Others saw her as one of the great English composers, and treated her music as such. But even favorable reviews tended to make some derogatory comment about either her gender (finding the music "too feminine") or her femininity (finding the music "too masculine").

In 1934, on a festival of her music organized on her 75th birthday, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted a gala concert in the presence of the Queen. By that time, however, her deafness had advanced to such a degree that she could not hear the rapturous applause.


Composed in 1930, The Prison is Smyth's last large-scale work, scored for two soloists (portraying The Prisoner and his Soul), chorus, and orchestra. Sometimes called an oratorio or a cantata, it is similar in scale and scope to the vocal symphonies of Mahler.

Due to her advancing deafness, shortly after composing this piece, she ceased to compose at all. It is her culminating work in several regards, both in content, textual significance, and musical language; the libretto is by Henry Bennet Brewster, who was her lover and one of her closest and life-long friends, with whom she exchanged more than 1,000 letters between 1884 and his tragic death in 1908. After he died, she wrote "I felt then like a rudderless ship aimlessly drifting hither and thither." Shortly before the premiere of The Prison, she personally undertook to have the full text published as a book.

The depth of her intention may be understood from the quote she chose to place on the title page from Plotinus: "I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine."

Until this release, there have been no commercial recordings of the work, and it has been performed very rarely since the premiere in 1931, which was conducted by Smyth herself.

As EXO Music Director James Blachly says, "we believe that the world is finally ready for her music."


The world-première recording of “The Prison,” a choral symphony written in 1930 by the English composer Ethel Smyth, arrives as demands for a more representative, equitable canon are mounting. For too long, Smyth has been relegated to footnote status: an ardent suffragist who was jailed for her efforts and a prominent lesbian, she wrote what was, until 2016, the only work by a female composer to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera (“Der Wald,” in 1903). “The Prison” exerts a metaphysical gravity, not just because of the text by Henry Brewster but also because Smyth’s music calls to mind Brahms, Elgar, and even Mahler at their most visionary and searching. The conductor James Blachly elicits splendid work from the vocal soloists, Sarah Brailey and Dashon Burton, and from the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus.

Steve Smith, The New Yorker