Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers Overture


Composed and premiered in 1906, The Wreckers is one of Dame Ethel Smyth’s most intriguing operas. The original libretto was in French and was written by Henry Brewster. Smyth tried hard to get a French performance of the opera, however the first performance was actually in a German translation by John Bernhoff, under the title Strandrecht. The opera tried to breakthrough in the United Kingdom, but it wasn’t until 1909 that Thomas Beecham heard part of the opera and wanted to stage it with financial support from Mary Dodge.

It has been noted that “Its greatest strength is in its dramatic strategy, strikingly prophetic of Britten’s Peter Grimes in details such as the offstage church service set against the foreground confrontation in Act I.” The opera has been considered by some British critics that “it is the most important English opera composed between Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.”

The theme for The Wreckers came from some walking trips that Smyth took across Cornwall, where she visited places where shipwrecks have happened. These dramatic scenes spurred Smyth on to use this idea and morph it into both a dramatic, but romantic opera. Smyth’s memoir comments on this:


“Ever since those days I had been haunted by impressions of that strange world of more than a hundred years ago; the plundering of ships lured on to the rocks by the falsification or extinction of the coast lights; the relentless murder of their crews; and with it all the ingrained religiosity of the Celtic population of that barren promontory.” 


Smyth and Brewster agreed that the libretto should be in French, purely because they thought it would be more likely to be staged in countries such as France or Belgium, rather than England. Smyth had difficulty getting the opera staged anywhere, largely because she was both an unknown quantity in Europe and she was a woman. It was noted at the time that:


“For five years Ethel Smyth, wearing mannish tweeds and an assertively cocked felt hat, had been striding about Europe, cigar in mouth, trying to sell her opera The Wreckers to timorous or stubborn impresarios.”


The Music

The Overture to The Wreckers has been taken from the opera and has been performed as a stand-alone concert piece by orchestras. The Overture is packed full of musical imagery and Smyth’s quintessential style of composition. From romantic string interludes to thrilling wind writing, The Wreckers Overture perfectly encapsulates the story of this opera.

Opening with a stately opening theme led by the strings, the brass soon join in as the orchestra part ways to create a counterpoint effect. The bold heavy brass accentuate the jaunty winds and swirling strings as they fly through their melodies. Smyth’s use of light and shade in this Overture is incredible, with short light interludes being interrupted by loud and boisterous brass calls. 

The changes in texture add to the intensity and drama of the piece, with the tutti section exploiting the rich tones of the orchestra, and the sparser sections showing solo virtuosity from the winds in particular. 

As the music comes down a pair of clarinets state the next theme, which is then echoed by other pairs in the orchestras. Here there is a sense of lilting, which perhaps represents the sea. The flutes and a lone cor anglais lead the strings into the next theme. This new nautical theme is one of the stand out melodies of the overture. It’s delicate touch is accentuated by its petite end. 

A warm lower string theme ensues, which shows off Smyth’s rich and romantic style of writing. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, with a short wind interlude adding to this style. A solo violin takes over the theme, which is then passed to a solo oboe and horn. The ring of a tam-tam and the piercing of a muted trumpet marks the next section of the overture.

A pizzicato bassline leaves the upper strings to play the fast bouncy melody. The melody ascends and becomes richer in texture as the orchestra begins to join in. The shrieking winds against the strings creates tension and this section is certainly representative of the troubles at sea.

The intensity stays, but the atmosphere morphs into a more positive one as the orchestra unite for an epic section of rich orchestral writing. The music explodes in colour here and is perhaps one of the most lavish parts of the overture. After a brief pause the orchestra unite to play block chords in unison.

A scatter of general pauses breaks up the hymn-like section towards the end of the overture. Elgarian in its orchestration, this highly patriotic section shows the orchestra working as a firm unit before the exciting end. A small change in tempo sees the orchestra break free and play a selection of counter-melodies before the time signature turns into one in a bar.

This bouncy dance-like section is out of the blue, but it adds a sense of jollity to the music.The celebratory percussion emphasises this. A solo trumpet leads on the melody before a swirling string melody brings the orchestra to another general pause. The Overture comes to a thrilling end as the orchestra layer in to create an epically loud and triumphant ending on repeated chords.


Final Thoughts

Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers Overture is full of exciting twists and turns, with this particular work taking you on a wild journey. Smyth’s style is lavish, clever and most enjoyable. A new recording of this overture has been quite recently released, which will hopefully help with getting this fantastic overture performed in concert halls much more often.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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