When a work the scope and magnitude of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers is brought back into the public arena (in America for the first time) over a hundred years after its first performance, inevitable questions come to mind. Why this long neglect? Is there some sort of flaw or inferiority that justifies its obscurity? Furthermore, even if the work possesses powerful qualities, will a revival in an entirely different historical context bring it back to life in a current sense, so that it might receive future performances?
All such cases are complex. Often, “masterpieces” survive the ages not only because of elements of excellence, but because historical circumstances favor their endurance. Perhaps they evoke the consummate achievement of a figure such as Wagner who seems to lend a sense of coherence and comprehensibility to the time in which he lived, or perhaps they succinctly exemplify a nation or sensibility, such as Elgar’s Cello Concerto (helped too by the advocacy of a famous artist). Conversely, if they do not fit the scheme properly, they can be set aside to be discovered at a later time, as was the case with late Beethoven.
Or, if they can claim none of the advantages that have traditionally marked success, such as, for instance, deriving from a culture with a dominant musical legacy, or even being composed by a white European man, they may never even come in for consideration as masterpieces. The neglect of The Wreckers has multiple sources. Before Benjamin Britten’s success as an opera composer, English opera was an object of disregard even inside England. The most famous composer of the English musical Renaissance, Edward Elgar, never wrote an opera, despite the enormous impression Wagner had made on him. Although many non-comic English operas were written, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century, (notably by Delius and Vaughn Williams), they never seemed to have taken hold. The public’s taste was clearly weighted towards the German, Italian, and French operatic repertoire. Ironically, the best known of English opera composers, Frederick Delius, experienced, like Ethel Smyth, whatever success he had in Germany and his stage works received their greatest response in productions in the German language.
The English lack of support for native opera was difficult enough, but added to that in Smyth’s case are the realities of being a Victorian woman. The often brutally restricted lifestyle of British women at that time is so well-known as to be a cliché, though it is just as certain that Victorian women of a certain class resembled the ladies of Upstairs, Downstairs about as much as twentieth-century American women resemble the idealized housewives of 1950s television. It was, after all, an age of repression but also the age of the suffragettes, women who risked social and physical danger for the sake of human rights. Of these Smyth was a notable member; indeed she was imprisoned for her activities along with her friend Emmeline Pankhurst. Even among the extraordinary women of the time, however, Smyth in her lifestyle and achievements stands out. Born to wealth, she lived a complicated and varied life. Among her remarkable circle of friends (some of whom were also her lovers), were Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, the wife of her teacher and one of Brahms’s closest friends and pupils and herself a musician of considerable talent. Smyth was also close friends with the wife of the archbishop of Canterbury, the wife of Queen Victoria’s private secretary, the former Empress of France Eugenie, the millionaire Mary Dodge, and most famously, Virginia Woolf. She was an accomplished sports enthusiast. She held her own in the company of the great English composers whom she befriended in her lifetime, and among the admirers of her music were Sir Thomas Beecham, Artur Nikisch, and Bruno Walter. Besides The Wreckers, there were the operas The Boatswain’s Mate, as well as the earlier Fantasio and Der Wald, both of which received their first performances in Germany (Der Wald was the first opera composed by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera). On her seventy-fifth birthday in 1934, under Beecham’s direction, her work was celebrated in a festival, the final event of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Heartbreakingly, at this moment of long-overdue recognition, the composer was already completely deaf and could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.
The greatest appeal of The Wreckers is not an overwhelming lyrical or melodic element, but the drama as manifested in the interaction of voices, orchestral sound, and storyline. The Wreckers’s libretto, unlike that of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907), is not based on the work of a great author such as Gottfried Keller; the text itself, by Smyth’s sometime lover Henry Brewster, possesses little in the way of redeeming poetry, especially in its somewhat awkward English-language version (it was originally to be produced in French). But the story is compelling in its personal and moral dimensions. It is the sonic canvas Smyth produces primarily through the use of orchestra and chorus that gives the opera its memorable moments. To contemporary audiences this was, as George Bernard Shaw observed, a matter of some irony. When many artists, including Elgar, called for a vigorous, muscular music indicative of the British character, these are precisely the qualities to be found in abundance in Smyth’s music, both in The Wreckers and throughout the corpus of her work.
The Wreckers, though not perfect, is perhaps the finest opera written in modern history by a woman before World War II. But it is not through a legitimate desire to rectify a long standing prejudice against female composers that one needs to take a second look at this opera. The story Smyth chose to set presents a tale that should be of intense interest to contemporary audiences. It concerns an isolated community in Cornwall that possesses a religiously based fanatical self-regard that leads it to justify theft and murder as God-given rights and virtues. Led by its own pastor who invokes Christianity, violence becomes the instrument of realizing God’s will. The opera depicts the consequences of mass hysteria and populist justice, Draconian in its nature against those who resist the imposition of a moral code based solely on perceived divine, not human, justice. The toxic roots of this fanaticism are ignorance, poverty, and economic despair.
Though the story is fictitious, the existence of wreckers on the British coast was a historical fact. In small, desperately poor villages, bands of villagers formed secret cadres that at critical moments extinguished the beacons established on the coast to guide ships, thus forcing them onto the rocks and then plundering the cargo and murdering the crews. The time period in which Smyth chooses to set the opera suggests that she knew of the great Methodist minister John Wesley’s unsuccessful attempt to stop the practice of wrecking. But Smyth’s minister, Pascoe, uses religious enthusiasm for a very different end. The potentially dangerous power of unquestioned religious faith and the twisting of a moral system to justify violence will resonate with audiences today even more than with the audiences of Smyth’s era, and yet, her prescient subject matter suggests the omnipresent shadow of religious extremism throughout history, and not only among societies different from our own.
The Wreckers is a work of many strengths and some flaws, but what it has to say is more than enough reason to warrant its return to the stage. The style, as many have observed, is both distinctive and eclectic. There are ballads and ensemble pieces of an affecting simplicity, and dramatic touches vaguely reminiscent of both German and Italian practices. There are moments, particularly in the prelude to the second act, when one can hear the influence of French modernism, notably Debussy. The entire opera is framed by a powerful display of orchestral writing, memorable motivic recurrence, and a brilliant use of chorus; the final scenes of Acts I and III are particularly on a par with the finest moments in the operatic repertory. Smyth’s treatment of the recitative-like moments that advance the storyline and link the larger musical moments are not always handled with the same assurance one might expect from an experienced opera composer, and that puts a burden on the protagonists to sustain the drama. But there is little point to asking whether this work stands up to the often arbitrary and inconsistent standards that have come to define the greatest operas of the repertoire. Regardless of the many evaluations it should and will provoke, The Wreckers stands as a significant achievement in the fin de siècle, and is distinguished for its casting of the perennial twin subjects of opera, love and death, into a commentary about community, social change, and the heavy weight of inherited tradition—especially religious—that is passively accepted. This is an opera that Smyth, in her political engagement, wanted to speak not only to her musical colleagues, but to the society at large in which she thrived, fought, and sought to improve.
One final curious note. If the subject matter (not the story) of The Wreckers seems vaguely familiar, perhaps it is because the topic was visited again more recently in an even more popular medium than opera: film. Alfred Hitchcock chose the subject (based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel) for Jamaica Inn, his last film made in Britain. Whether Hitchcock was aware of The Wreckers is unknown, but his choice suggests that Smyth’s subject is one of enduring interest, and a compelling vehicle for what can legitimately be considered her masterpiece.