Odaline de la Martínez on Dame Ethel Smyth

Image: Malcolm Crowther

26th January 2023

Since the 1990s, Odaline de la Martínez has enjoyed a demanding conducting schedule, working with some of the world’s elite orchestras and ensembles. She was the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 1984, and has returned to conduct several concerts there since – most notably in 1994, with a special BBC Proms performance of Dame Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, which was recorded by Conifer Records in the UK and released by BMI records in the United States.

Martínez first learnt to conduct under the guidance of Jan Harrington at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1976, whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Martínez went on to found her own ensemble, Lontano (lontano.co.uk), with whom she has performed and broadcast all over the world, whilst also working as resident conductor of the London Chamber Symphony and the European Women’s Orchestra.

Martínez is also much in demand as a guest conductor, appearing frequently with leading orchestras worldwide and throughout Great Britain, including all the BBC orchestras and ensembles (BBC Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, BBC NOW, BBC Scottish, BBC Belfast, BBC Concert Orchestra, and the BBC Singers). She has also conducted, amongst many others: the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Youth Orchestra, the Natal Philharmonic (South Africa), the Aarhus Symphony (Denmark), the Orquesta Filarmonica de Cali (Colombia), the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Radio-Television Orchestra of Brazil, the Kansas City Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, the Kitchner-Waterloo Symphony (Canada), the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM, Mexico City, the Britten Sinfonia and the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra.

In addition to frequent broadcasts for the BBC TV and radio, Martínez has recorded over 40 CDs for her own record label, Lorelt (Lontano Records), which she founded in 1992, as well as appearing on other major labels such as Summit, BMI, and Albany Records in the United States; Chandos, Metier, Retrospect Opera, SOMM, NMC and Conifer Classics in the UK; and Da Capo in Denmark.

Martínez is a Trustee of the Mornington Trust, which has been responsible for community and educational work in London boroughs since 2000. The charity was involved in a eight-year project working with Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities in the East of London.

It’s great to be speaking with the pioneering Smyth interpreter. I understand that you came across Ethel Smyth’s music via the musicologist Sophie Fuller…

Yes, Sophie is brilliant. There was a festival called the Chard Festival for Women in Music [held in Somerset between 1990 and 2003], and they asked me to put together an orchestra of women. I didn’t know that many female composers at the time, so I talked to Sophie about it and she recommended Smyth, in particular her Serenade in D. I went to Universal and got the score. They only had the string parts – we got a grant to create the wind parts. Years later I did an edition, which you can buy today from Lontana records (www.lorelt.com). It’s an edition that I sell really cheaply because I want people to get it.

What pieces by Ethel Smyth have you recorded?

I’ve recorded The Wreckers, as well as conducting it at the Proms (that is her third opera of six). Then there was the Violin and Horn Concerto, Serenade in D, The Boatswain’s Mate (the fourth opera), and Fêtes Galante (her last one). I also recorded one piece – 4 Songs – for the CD Songs and Ballads. In this particular version they were sung in English, but I’ve also conducted the French version a few times.

You also want to conduct The Prison. Is there any news on that?

I’m working hard! I wish there were news on that. It has a lot of gravitas, but I think it’s a brilliant piece. Chandos has already released it on CD, and won a Grammy, but I’ll keep trying to get it performed at the Proms. Maybe it’s been avoided because people think she wrote it while she was in prison.[1] But there was a lot of Smyth performed last year at the Proms [2022], so that’s nice.

Conductors often talk about certain characteristics that are tricky or challenging about a specific composer’s music (e.g. Sir Roger Norrington on Schumann in the last issue). When you’re preparing Smyth’s music, does it present quite specific challenges?

Gosh. No, I just study the score in the same way I always would. I look at the principal parts, the accompaniment parts, the orchestration, and I look at the material to see what is repeated. The way I study a score depends on the style of the music. I look at Smyth’s music in the same way that I’d look at any other late Romantic (late nineteenth or early twentieth-century) music – it’s very different to how I would look at a more contemporary score. I like to think that I understand her style and choices of orchestration – she was a brilliant orchestrator. Most of all I look for things that may prove tricky in rehearsal.

The overture to The Boatswain’s Mate doesn’t quote anything from the opera, instead it quotes two tunes, one being The March of the Women that she wrote for the suffragettes as they marched into the Royal Albert Hall. It uses them again and again. That’s quite original – during the Haydn/Mozart period into the early Romantics, composers would usually quote melodies from the opera in their overtures. OK, once you get to the Twentieth Century people don’t always follow that idea, but in general when people write overtures to an opera they use melodies from the opera itself.

She’s clearly a fantastic orchestrator, she includes such beautiful touches… and I particularly love the unusual combination of violin and horn in her concerto.

It’s one of the last works she wrote.

Yes, it sounds far more modern, and I don’t think there is another violin and horn concerto out there – an amazing combination.

Is that at all tricky to balance?

No, it’s not tricky, but I actually suspect there was a rewrite. I have the original Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra score and the first two movements are very clearly in Smyth’s typical handwriting. But if you look at the third movement it looks like it has been re-copied – it’s the same instrumentation, but in completely different handwriting. I don’t know if it that’s because she made changes, or because nobody could read her handwriting (although I doubt that because it was very clear). That’s something to research into in the future: whether she rewrote the third movement of the Violin and Horn Concerto. The first and second movement are very much what I know to be Smyth. The third movement, with the original material always returning, sounds a lot more like she was drawing on the horn concertos of composers like Mozart (he wrote four) and other composers of the period before her.

I found a 1958 Home Service Radio Documentary for Ethel Smyth’s centenary online. It featured Sir Thomas Beecham,[2] and he spoke very highly of Smyth.[3]

But he also said that she was very difficult, and ‘a perfectionist. She demanded an inordinate amount of time for preparation and rehearsals, and didn’t always succeed in getting them, because she was not exactly the soul of tact in securing the desired results… she generally succeeded in alienating the sympathy, if not the respect, of most people around her’ (13m45s-14m15s).

Yes. After the first performance of The Wreckers in Leipzig, she was really unhappy because the Musical Director [Richard Hagel] had taken chunks out of the score, including a big section of Act III. She was so angry that she didn’t want them to do it again, even though the audience loved it and she’d had a standing ovation. The next performance was going to be in Prague, so late one morning she took all the parts and the score, and went off to Prague with them, making any further performances in Leipzig impossible. Some people (including Smyth) believed that was the reason why it didn’t get performed at the Royal Opera House for a long time. She got a very bad reputation.

Are there still inconsistencies in those parts?

Oh no. Before I conducted The Wreckers for the BBC Proms, the Director, Sir John Drummond, was very generous. I told him there were lots of inaccuracies in the score and lots of parts that couldn’t be read. So he actually assigned an editor to work on it. First of all this editor edited my full score, and then the parts – I would say the parts are now accurate. A student also worked with me to copy the English – she used white tape to copy it all under the singing part. So I was actually able to read what they were singing – a lot of it was illegible beforehand.

White tape – far more common back in the 1990s!

Yes, and it was white tape I could remove, so it was very easy for her to write the English underneath. But Act 3 of the orchestral score is still very hard to read (and I suspect remains so), and because of that I had to use the vocal score a lot when I was rehearsing.

Did the score you work from have any cuts?

The score I used was a copy of the original score used for performances of the opera in Germany – the one that Smyth approved of. The only difference is that the editor provided by the BBC Proms corrected mistakes in consultation with me and used these corrections to make the parts in 1992. I wanted to keep it so I bought it from Universal for £300, in those days that was a lot of money. So the BBC library had one score that had been corrected and I had a copy. That’s the score that I conducted from.

Did you use the original French libretto?

No, it was the German one – there are some issues with the French libretto. She originally wrote the opera in French – the librettist, even though he was American, was born in Paris and spoke French before he spoke English. At the time they thought that André Messager was going to be running the Royal Opera House. As it turned out he didn’t, and so she decided to write it in German, which then also became the English version. The original French is not complete, it has quite a few pages taken out and there are some major differences.

I went to see the Glyndebourne production of the French version of The Wreckers in 2022. One of the characters in the German version was called Avis (the two main characters are Thirza and Mark). Avis had a very small role – it’s just clear that she’s in love with the fisherman, Thirza’s lover, and is jealous. That was it. However, if you listen to the French version, Avis’s role becomes so huge that it’s larger than Thirza’s (and Thirza’s role is made a lot smaller). This takes away from the fact that it’s an opera about two lovers (as well as the sea, outsiders, and all the subject matters that Britten used later on, which were originally found in Smyth). It doesn’t make sense, it’s like night and day! As a result the whole thing is lopsided, and I think that’s why Smyth dropped the French version and went back to work on the German one.

There were parts of the opera that were missing. There were sections where all that was available was a tune, perhaps with a piano part – so it was rescored. I didn’t have a score, but sitting in the audience I recognised parts that had Smyth tunes but were not orchestrated in her style.

I get it. It’s strange, sometimes it seems as if academics/performers etc. dig further into the previous versions or editions of a piece, thinking they’re getting closer to the composer’s original intention. But actually they might have abandoned them for a reason and didn’t want that to be the definitive version at all.

Correct. She had a chance to look at it again and see that Avis’s role was far too large, which would have tilted everything the wrong way. In the German/English version Thirza had a major role and that gives it the right balance. It’s about the two lovers, not about Avis who was in love with the fisherman but had nothing to do with him.

Sir Adrian Boult also featured on the Home Service centenary tribute I mentioned earlier.[4] He conducted her Mass in D in Birmingham in 1924, and said ‘I think probably in the last two months before the performance I had a postcard every day, dealing with some detail that she’s thought of, or some new idea’ (59m08s-59m18s).

She did that with all her scores. I have a score of the Serenade in D that I got from Universal Edition. It was a photocopy of a score that was used by her. She changed things – she made little additions in French, German and English. Yes, she was always making alterations.

Boult went to say that in the final orchestral rehearsal, Ethel sat in the gallery and he shouted up to her, ‘“how fast do you want this movement to go today, Dame Ethel?” She was a bit changeable’ (59m18s-59m31s). Can her music be quite tricky or changeable with regard to tempo?

There would have only been slight changes, but not a massive amount – not like the difference between running and walking. In the Serenade in D there was no tempo marking, so when I made my own edition of the piece I suggested a tempo marking that I thought suited it best, having performed it many times. Smyth would just write something like Allegro or Allegro molto – she would always include a musical tempo but not a metronome mark. It was the same in the score for the Mass in D – there would have been a musical term. If you look up the word Allegro, it will give you a few little metronome notches that fit within that – so it wouldn’t have been tremendously changeable.

Also, being a Mass, voices are very easily affected by the building they’re in. She stated that it’s a concert mass rather than a church mass, but if it were performed in a church it would affect the tempo. You have to consider how the tempo feels in the venue. I think she was easily changeable, but only within a few metronomic notches, there wouldn’t have been huge changes.

Boult also felt that Smyth didn’t excel with large-scale form and that she worked better with text or a libretto mapping out the structure for her (59m49s-1h00m00s). Do you agree with that?

Well, the Serenade in D has no words but has a beautiful shape – the form is excellent. The first movement shows that she knows how to use sonata form. The second movement has a trio, and she knew how to use that. So she was very well versed in how to write symphonic works – I think she just felt more at home writing music that involved the voice. So I don’t know what Boult would have meant by that. He probably meant that she wrote a lot of music with text, and as a result she felt comfortable with it – but that’s just the nature of the composer. Some composers are better with symphonic works, and some are better with works that include the voice. I speak for myself – I write operas, and music for choir and songs. It doesn’t mean that I cannot write works that are instrumental.

It would have made more sense for him to say that she was much more at home using the voice. I think she wrote opera because she could sing and because she had a really good sense of drama on stage. If you listen to her Mass it’s also extremely dramatic. Anyone who read or heard the score knew right away that she should be writing opera. Hermann Levi encouraged her and she did.

Yes. Well, the full opening statement was ‘she hadn’t got, of course, a tremendous power of organisation of a big structure. I think it’s true to say that that quality is rare in the female sex’ (59m32s-59m45s).

Oh, please.

(laughs) There is also a great recording of her reading her own memoir on Brahms (called I Knew Johannes Brahms – broadcast in 1925).[5]

Yes, she wrote about Brahms. Some people say she studied with him, but she didn’t, she was a ‘friend’. But he wasn’t very nice to her. Well, he didn’t like women did he? He never got to know women in a deep, personal sense.

That’s right. Ethel was a conductor herself.

She was. To my knowledge so far, she mostly conducted her own music, she didn’t conduct a lot else. A lot of composers do that. I’ve got programme notes for concerts she conducted, but she would only conduct her own piece and then another conductor would conduct everything else.

Are there any recordings of her conducting her own work?

I think there are recordings available, but I don’t know from whom – you can check with the BBC. I think the Retrospect Opera recording of The Wreckers might have included something of her conducting.

I’ve got pdf copies of some of the British Symphony Orchestra programmes, for concerts when she was conducting her own music with them. I’ve even got a photograph of her in front of the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra in London – you can get more information from the University of Leicester library. I’ve also found an article (from the Sunday Times dated March 26th 1933) where Smyth was quoted giving her response to a concert of theirs conducted by Grace Burrows.

Fantastic! What have been the most challenging moments or aspects of conducting Smyth’s music?

Well, at first I was trying to understand why her music had been so neglected. I discovered that Smyth had an Austrian publisher: Universal Edition, founded in Vienna. In 1938, when the Nazis moved into Austria, Ethel was so against it that she travelled all the way to Vienna and removed the scores from Universal. They were no longer her publishers, they were her agents. So when her music was performed, Universal couldn’t charge publisher fees, only agent fees and as a result no money was invested in keeping her parts in good condition. That’s why the parts of The Wreckers (and a lot of her other music) were in terrible shape.

I have the only score of the Overture to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra that has been found – the only one! I’m creating a new edition, but somebody actually found a set of parts of another version of the overture for military band. They sent me the parts; I compared them and they’re different to my score, it’s a new version. Now I’m getting the original score copied, and I’m going to have a second version copied, based on the additional parts.

You have done such amazing work with this, what an excavation project…

Well, that’s very kind, thank you.

In an interview you gave with Presto Music in 2020 you made an interesting comment regarding the promotion of female composers moving in cycles.[6] You explain how their profile increased a lot in the UK after women got the vote, and then again alongside the changes in the 1960s. There is also a resurgence now.

Yes, there is a surge now in the Twenty-First Century. Women have stood up for themselves and people are now trying to find women composers, conductors etc. How long this will last I don’t know.

Do you have any sense of where Ethel Smyth’s music will be situated once this new phase settles down?

I’m actually writing a chapter about Smyth’s legacy and all of the pieces I’ve done for the Cambridge Companion to Ethel Smyth… The fact that we’ve now got recordings makes all the difference. That’s the key. People are able to go back and listen to it, and once they listen they can make their judgement. In my opinion, we are not able to give contemporary music written today a good judgement because we’re affected by everything around us. In two hundred years time people will look back at the things that affected the repertoire of this period and have a better sense of what is strong. But I think people today looking back a hundred years to Smyth’s music are now accepting and agreeing that she was a great composer.

Bibliography/Recommended Reading

Collis, L. Impetuous Heart: The Story of Ethel Smyth (William Kimber & Co. Ltd. 1984)

St. John, C. Ethel Smyth: A Biography (Longmans, Green & Co. 1959)

Smyth, E. Impressions that Remained: Memoirs of Ethel Smyth (Brousson Press 2008)

Smyth, E. The Memoirs of Ethyl Smyth (Faber and Faber 2009)

Ethel Smyth: I Knew Johannes Brahms broadcast on the National Programme at 10pm on 27th December 1935

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zbCRjA9wJ8&t=483s (accessed 19th January 2023)

Ethel Smyth, A Centenary Tribute First broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 20 April 1958 at 10pm, two days before the actual centenary. Narrated by Dennis Quilley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP_qrXdKdq8&t=3585s (accessed 20th January 2023)

[1] Smyth was one of the 109 suffragettes who responded to Emeline Pankhurst’s call to throw stones at the windows of the homes of any cabinet ministers who opposed votes for women. She was arrested and served two months in Holloway Prison.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP_qrXdKdq8&t=3585s (Sir Thomas Beecham is featured 0m24s-16m38s).

[3] ‘Ethel was a composer, in a certain way, of originality. Not only of originality, but she was a composer of spirit, vigour, with a talent for emphasis, accent or what you might vulgarly call ‘guts’ – qualities or merits that were not shared by many composers at the in England. Our composers for the most part have been a placid, contemplative and dreamy lot… Well, everything Ethel did was quite otherwise’ (9m15s-10m06s).

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP_qrXdKdq8&t=3585s between 53m49s-54m09s, 57m07s-57m54s, and 58m12s-1h00m42s.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zbCRjA9wJ8&t=483s

[6] ‘While it’s fashionable, everyone is very keen to promote women and jump on the bandwagon, and then it subsides and we’re back to Square One. Throughout history there have been periods, for instance immediately after when women gained suffrage in the 1920s, when women were heavily featured: you see that in what was commissioned and performed at the Proms. But then that dissipated, and the interest in women composers – and conductors such as Ethel Leginska, born ‘Ethel Liggins’ in Hull – died out. It happened again in the late ‘60s after the big advances in women’s rights, and we’re seeing it now as we celebrate a hundred years of suffrage. I wish I were wrong about this – so many people argue with me about it! – but the historical record is very clear. It’s a sine curve that goes up and down where you see women flourishing for a period and then disappearing, and I think we’re at the top of that curve now’. https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/articles/3166–interview-odaline-de-la-martinez-on-ethel-smyth