Ethel Smyth: Fȇte Galante Overture
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.
The fifth of six opera that Smyth wrote in her lifetime, Fȇte Galante marked a significant return to opera for Smyth after a seven year gap. This gap came from repercussions from the war and Smyth beginning to concentrate her efforts on the women’s suffrage movement. In 1919, Smyth approached her friend Maurice Baring to seek permission to set his short story Fȇte Galante to music. After some convincing, Baring agreed, but Smyth’s love for composition began to wane. It wasn’t until 1921, after the British National Opera Company commissioned Smyth to compose a short opera. Fȇte Galante remains the composer’s only commissioned opera.
The comic opera premiered in June 1923 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
The Overture to Fȇte Galante is based on a traditional Baroque sarabande dance. The stately opening is led by the strings, with Smyth experimenting with texture and counterpoint between the strings. The clean bowing and crisp melody go hand in hand as the melody is developed and explored further. The sparks of dissonance that pass through quickly add colour to the harmony, as well as creating an interesting effect with the decoration and ornaments used on the top line. The strings unite for the final chord, aptly resolving this short and traditional overture.
Ⓒ Alex Burns