CLASSICAL MUSIC / It's still an unsuitable job for a woman: Ethel Smyth was once a Victorian oddity. Nick Kimberley met the conductor who plans to put her music back on the map

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WOMEN HAVE always had a place in classical music - at the bottom. And there have always been plenty of men willing to help keep them there. It may come as no surprise to learn that the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler constructed an elaborate musical metaphor to depict women's lowly status: 'If Man is the tonic, and God the dominant, the Devil is certainly the subdominant and Woman the relative minor.' It is somewhat more shocking to find Zubin Mehta, a leading conductor, complaining as recently as 1970: 'I just don't think women should be in an orchestra . . . Men treat them as equals; they even change their pants in front of them. I think it's terrible.'

Things may be changing, if only to the extent that anyone subscribing to such views would make sure no journalist overheard them; and women continue to play in orchestras, despite having to put up with the sight of men changing their pants. One way of avoiding that unsavoury spectacle, of course, is to form an all-women orchestra; but even in pop music, such ensembles are far from commonplace.

Still, they do exist, or at least one does: the European Women's Orchestra (EWO), which claims to be 'the only fully professional women's orchestra in Britain'. Tonight, as the culmination of a series of concerts entitled Vote for Women] (marking the centenary of women's suffrage in New Zealand), the EWO performs a programme of works by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), composer of the Suffragettes' battle hymn 'The March of the Women'. Assembling an all-Smyth programme marks the fulfilment of an ambition long cherished by the orchestra's conductor, Odaline de la Martinez.

The EWO was formed in 1990 as the resident ensemble for the first Chard Festival of Women in Music. As Martinez puts it: 'The work was good and we decided we wanted to stay together. There is something about an orchestra of women that is very different from a mixed orchestra - the whole sense of authority. I had never felt it before. This is not a gesture against men - you go to a concert and see an orchestra of mostly men and you don't think twice. You see an orchestra full of women and you think it's a gesture against men. The orchestra promotes the work of women because there are so many pieces by women that have not been heard, and we give them a chance. There is such a thing as a women's aesthetic in music, and a lot of men don't understand that.'

That 'women's aesthetic' will be one of the strands running through Mendelssohn's Sister, Martinez's book on women composers to be published next year. The title refers obliquely to Virginia Woolf's assertion that if Shakespeare had had a sister who wrote as well as he did, her work would be unknown; it refers more directly to Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, sister of Felix Mendelssohn. She was a talented musician and composer, but lived in her brother's shadow (Felix even published some of her works under his own name, in order to get them into print). Fanny is one of a legion of women whose musical lives were stunted - among them Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler.

It is a happy coincidence that Mendelssohn's Sister will be published during the 50th anniversary year of Ethel Smyth's death. Given our obsession with anniversaries, 1994 will no doubt see a small flood of Smyth performances - a small flood only, for she is still regarded as an engaging oddity, an archetypal English eccentric, rather than a serious composer. It is certainly true that she was a character. Born into a military family, she always had funds to support herself, and moved in the highest society. In one of her many volumes of autobiography, she tells how she gave a solo performance of her Mass for Queen Victoria at Balmoral, 'singing the chorus as well as the solo parts, and trumpeting forth orchestral effects . . . At a certain drum effect a foot, even, came into play, and I fancy that as regards volume of sound at least, the presence of a real chorus was scarcely missed.' Yet Smyth was no mere socialite. She campaigned tirelessly for women's suffrage and spent a few weeks in Holloway Prison for throwing a brick through the Colonial Secretary's window. Beecham recalled seeing her there, conducting fellow prisoners in a performance of The March of the Women: Smyth was using a toothbrush as a baton. She was a dedicated and skilled composer, as Martinez will set out to prove with the EWO's performance on the South Bank this evening. Smyth's status has fluctuated in the years since her death. The 1976 edition of the opera buff's bible, Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, included synopses of her operas The Wreckers and The Boatswain's Mate; the 1987 (post-feminist?) edition omits her altogether. In 1991 a Virgin Classics recording of her Mass in D by Philip Brunelle seemed to herald a change in her fortunes, but there have been no further recordings and precious few performances. Yet during her life her opera Der Wald (Smyth wrote her own librettos in German, French or English) was performed in Berlin, London and New York; and she was personally acquainted with Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Clara Schumann.

Brahms was perhaps the decisive influence. He called her 'the Oboe', and she, 'piqued by his low estimate of my sex', wrote a poem about him in German, providing a translation in her autobiography: 'As the great Brahms recently proclaimed, / 'A clever woman is a thing of naught]' / So let us diligently cultivate stupidity, / That being the only quality demanded / Of a female Brahms admirer]' 'Beethoven in bloomers' was another frequent put-down. Only in England would an openness to what were at the time the most progressive forces in European music be held against a composer. But she did have her supporters: Donald Tovey, writing in 1927, favourably compared her Mass to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis; and Bernard Shaw, impressed by the first performance in 1893, wrote that 'the whole work, though externally highly decorous, has an underlying profanity' - perhaps recalling the requiems of Mozart and Verdi.

For Odaline de la Martinez, Smyth 'was probably the first woman composer who had no doubt that women could compose. She believed she was capable of anything a man could do, and she just did it. She has a strong voice, she is a muscular composer: everything we have been taught that a woman is not. Her work has to be performed with a real sense of her style. People say: 'I hear Brahms, I hear Dvorak'. Well, the first time I heard Elgar I thought he was like Brahms - now Elgar is Elgar. Her music has to be played larger than life. If we play it in a measured, held-back way, it doesn't work. The Mass is a great, strong work. It's not liturgical in my opinion. It's in the spirit of the Brahms Requiem, and it's very operatic.'

Perhaps that operatic quality has contributed to Smyth's neglect, for the British are still rather suspicious of opera. Ethel Smyth composed half a dozen, none of which is staged nowadays. But if we mistrust opera composers, we positively recoil from political composers, although it must be said that politics and a prison sentence have not done any harm to Michael Tippett's reputation.

Smyth herself would have understood why her work is so rarely performed. In her book Female Pipings in Eden, she wrote: 'One afternoon while Adam was asleep, Eve, anticipating the Great God Pan, bored some holes in a hollow reed and began to do what is called 'pick out a tune'. Thereupon Adam spoke: 'Stop that horrible noise,' he roared, adding, after a pause, 'besides, if anyone's going to make it, it's not you but me]' '

Odaline de la Martinez conducts the European Women's Orchestra in a performance of Ethel Smyth's 'Overture to Antony & Cleopatra' and the Mass in D at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (071-928 8800) at 7.45pm, tonight.

(Photographs omitted)