The First Recording of Ethel Smyth’s The Prison

The First Recording of Ethel Smyth’s <em>The Prison</em>

         We welcome our Featured Guest Blogger  Dr. Amy Zigler back to share her recent experience!

The Recording of Ethel Smyth’s The Prison by James Blachly and the Experiential Orchestra, with Sarah Brailey, soprano, Dashon Burton, bass-baritone, Steven Fox and the Clarion Choir, and Blanton Alspaugh and Brandon Johnson of Soundmirror. 14-15 February 2019.

“…I wanna be in the room where it happens…” 
- Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda

As a historical musicologist, I don’t often have the opportunity to be “in the room where it happens”. But that is the line that popped in my head last week. Few people have heard Ethel Smyth’s The Prison, a choral symphony she composed in 1930. It has had 2 performances in the US in 2018, 1 in Berlin in 2008, and 2 in the UK in 1934 and 1931. 5 performances in 90 years. It has never been commercially recorded, until now. And I was in the room where it happened.

Ethel Smyth

Under the direction of James Blachly, the Experiential Orchestra has created a powerful work of art. The Prison is a two-part symphony for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Joining Blachly and the orchestra are Sarah Brailey, soprano; 2-time Grammy-award winner Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; and the Clarion Choir led by Grammy-nominated conductor Steven Fox. With Grammy-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh and recording engineer Brandon Johnson in the sound booth, Smyth’s last major work has been granted the attention it deserves.

In many ways, this work is a culmination of Smyth’s compositional style. Often self-referential, the work has hints of her 1891 Mass in D, rhythms from her String Quartet in E minor, echoes of The Wreckers, and allusions to The Boatswain’s Mate. Not quite direct quotations, these reminiscences are evidence of Smyth’s distinctive voice. With The Prison, she is no longer ‘Brahmsian’ or ‘Wagnerian’ or ‘Vaughan Williams-ian’ but has instead transcended mere derivation. What we hear is Smyth, in all her eclectic glory.

The work opens in an ominous and ambiguous manner with a low C in the bass clarinet and strings, followed by Dashon Burton’s first utterances as The Prisoner. The text for Smyth’s work is drawn from Henry Brewster’s 1891 philosophical text of the same name. The ‘prison’ is a metaphor for the self or the ego. The prisoner, facing death, is grappling with his place in the world or his role in humanity’s existence, both atoning for his sins and accepting that they are part of him and that he is valid, that “no man lives in vain,” no matter how small or inconsequential their contribution may seem. Burton’s warm, rich voice captured the quiet anxiety of The Prisoner, while also conveying the gradual yet dramatic shift to a feeling of triumph at the end. In essence, the Prisoner learns, through dialogue with the Soul (sung by Brailey), that he is enough. That we all are enough.

Musically, there is a fascinating passage of text-painting, that I, having only heard it a few times, am still trying to understand. In the second half, after the opening – a haunting, almost Barber-like Andante for orchestra – The Soul speaks to The Prisoner but sings the entire verse on a single E-flat, intoned as a cantor in a mass. She sings:

The time has come, your choice is made;
Abandon to destruction the unity of which you are conscious;
Take refuge in the lastingness of the elements;
Bid farewell forever to the transient meeting of eternal guests who had gathered here for an hour;
They are taking leave of one another, perhaps never through the course of ages to meet again, all of them and none but they, under the same roof;
The guests are departing.

The effect of this passage is meditative and spiritual. Brailey’s calm, soaring, pure voice reminds one of a Medieval mass, in which the priest intones the liturgy on a single, repetitive pitch. This likening to the old, to the authentic, to the timeless, gives weight to the work.

With a lesser orchestra and singers, The Prison may have been disjunct or trite. It is in two parts with multiple internal sections, but the musicians created one continuous narrative, more akin to a Greek tragedy than a classical symphony. I find myself struggling to describe the level of performance over these two days – to call them ‘talented’ feels like an understatement. Every performer played their part at the highest level.

Moments stay with me even after the sessions are over. In one section, Smyth quotes the now-famous Epitaph of Seikilos. But it is not buried or fragmented or otherwise obscured as another composer might have done. She in fact highlights it by placing it in the sopranos and altos with parallel melodies played by flute, English horn, and clarinet. Aside from the octave displacement between the voices, it is in unison. The effect is eerie and beautiful and sounds similar to modern-day recreations of this musical fragment. But the text is not the original Greek; it is …mostly Brewster’s – Smyth changes the pronouns from ‘I’ and ‘mine’ to ‘we’ and ‘ours’: “The laughter we have laughed rose in the bulrushes of yore and mingled with the sound of the syrinx; the kisses that have wandered to our lips will never grow cold.”

In a conversation with Maestro Blachly, we agreed that the work is both massive and yet intimate. This choral symphony is over an hour in length, and Blachly gathered over 90 musicians for the recording. Yet at its core, the piece feels like a final love letter from Smyth to Brewster, with whom she had had a relationship for 25 years. It is at once her last musical offering, her final celebration of him, and an acceptance of their love which was unconventional and often unaccepted.

The recording now enters the post-production stage and many months will follow before it is released. Renowned Smyth scholar Elizabeth Wood has graciously agreed to write the notes for the piece, and I have been asked to provide a biographical sketch of Smyth. Most of the funds for the project have been raised, but donations are still needed and can be given here. When the time comes, we humbly ask that you give it a listen or two … or three.

© Amy Elizabeth Zigler 2019