Ethel Smyth: Serenade in D


Dame Ethel Smyth is one of the most important British composers that bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. She composed a number of orchestral works, chamber music, songs and six operas. Also a talented writer, Smyth also penned 9 books (in 10 volumes) which spanned both her life and the musical life in the Britain she lived in. Smyth is also remembered for her association with the Women Suffragettes between 1910-1912, where she wrote The March of the Women. At age 19, Smyth travelled to Leipzig where she studied at the conservatory, but she left after a year as “she wasn’t being taught properly.” She remained in the cultural hub of a city whilst privately studying composition with Heinrich Herzegenberg. 

In 1889, Smyth composed her first large orchestral work, Serenade in D. It wasn’t until 1893 that work premiered back in her homeland of London. Serenade in D came from a commission by the Crystal Palace Concerts and was also premiered as part of their series with Augustus Mann holding the baton. The ambitious work was largely well-received by critics, with many commenting on Smyth’s powerful style of writing. 


The Music

The unusual structure of Serenade in D makes it stand apart from other symphonic works. Consisting of four movements, only the outer two movements are written for full orchestral forces. The two inner movements are stripped back, with only a chamber ensemble to perform the music. 


Movement I – Allegro non troppo

The longest movement of the four, the warm and nostalgic introduction sets the scene for the next fifteen minutes of music. Smyth’s rich textures and use of tutti and unison sections bolster the music, creating rich ripples of music swaying over the orchestra. Between these warm and melodic sections sit dramatic interjections that take you on a very different path, before reverting back to the glorious opening theme. Romantic in style, the broad melodies are expertly developed, whilst also explored in a really creative way. 

The interjections, often led by the brass, add a powerful twist onto this movement. There is a power struggle between the fanfaring trumpets and the strings in the central section of the movement, which is soon resolved. Overall, the opening movement is joyful and showcases Smyth’s creative edge and solid fundamental compositional skills.


Movement II – Scherzo

The canonic opening of the peppy second movement is light-hearted and jam-packed of memorable melodies. This playful movement focuses on the strings and their quick movements fizzy excitement. The light trio complements the highly energetic scherzo, which then jumps into the coda section. The music begins to pick up speed and get louder in the coda, which creates a real buzz around this movement. Always playful and lightheaded, the chamber-orchestrated second movement takes you on quite the adventure.


Movement III – Allegretto 

The woodwind lead the introduction for the third movement. Opening with clarinets, the theme for this movement is set out right away. Other woodwinds join the clarinets and the section plays with the strings, who fluctuate between accompanying and leading. The interaction between these two sections creates the basis of this whole movement, with the themes being developed through different instruments to create an array of textures and timbres.


Movement IV – Finale

The high-energy finale switches between graceful string-led sections and virile full orchestration sections. Back to using the full orchestra again, Smyth utilises all the instruments she has, and this movement culminates all of her talents into one block of music. The powerful structure of the movement paired with Smyth’s undeniable skill and technique for creating truly vivacious music allows her voice to shine through in this finale. Her gentle pen versus the powerful and passionate full-scale pen paints this finale canvas in such an illuminating manner. As the texture builds back up towards the end of the movement, Serenade in D comes to an explosive finish. 


Final Thoughts

Although it was her first full-scale orchestral work, you wouldn’t know that Ethel Smyth’s Serenade in D was composed so early in her career. From the broad, Romantically-influenced melodies, to the playful and cheeky scherzo and the epic finale, this work is a fine representation of what was to come for Smyth. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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