Dame Ethel Smyth, Sonata for Violin & Piano in a minor, Op.7

Ethel Smyth Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) overcame the constraints of her middle-class English background by open rebellion. 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. 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 Mr. Smyth gave in, and Ethel went to Leipzig where she studied with Heinrich von Herzogenberg and got to know Brahms, whom she admired greatly, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Reinecke and many other important musicians. Back in England, she obtained recognition mostly for her public works such as her Mass in D and her opera The Wreckers. Eventually she was raised to the rank of Dame, not only for her musical work but also for her political activities; she was one of Britain's leading suffragettes during the first part of the 20th century.

Her Violin Sonata dates from 1887 and was dedicated to Elizabeth Lili Wach, Mendelssohn's daughter. Under the influence of Brahms and Herzogenberg, Smyth eschewed writing a work to show off the performer's technique. Instead she produced a profound work which is about tonal color. It is in four movements. Of particular interest is the third movement Romanze which makes reference to Francesca di Rimini who in Dante's Divine Comedy was consigned to the second circle of hell for lustfulness. This is a very worthwhile sonata which is a valuable addition to the Brahms sonatas and should have entered the repertoire. But no doubt, because it was written by an Englishwoman, it was unjustly ignored. Violinists should certainly avail themselves of the chance to play this sonata.

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