Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alice Mary Smith - Symphony In C Minor

In the 19th century, the only types of music considered suitable by the musical establishment (a male-exclusive entity) for women to write were short piano pieces and songs for the drawing room. Larger scale chamber music and orchestral music was considered un-lady like and were rarely performed. But with the help and encouragement of her teachers William Sterndale Bennett and George McFarren (both devoted to Felix Mendelssohn's music), Alice Mary Smith went on to write not only piano pieces and songs, but chamber music and large scale works for orchestra.

Born in London in 1839 to a well to do family, Smith showed a talent for music early on. Her family was financially able to have her study music privately with the above mentioned teachers. Her first work to be published was a song titled Weep No More!, and her first large composition was a Piano Quartet performed in 1861.  She continued to compose and was elected Female Professional Associate of the Philharmonic Society. She was married to Frederick Meadows White in 1867 and did not compose any major works for a few years as she concentrated on her two daughters. Her husband was an amateur musician that encouraged her to begin composing again, which she did in 1869.

Smith joined the Musical Society of London in 1861, an organization of contemporary composers who as members gained the opportunity of hearing their works in performance. The Symphony In C Minor, written when she was 24, was played at one of these concerts in 1863. A review of the concert appeared in the Illustrated London News:
On the same evening, at the Hanover-square Rooms, the Musical society of London had a trial-performance of new orchestral compositions by members of the society. Several symphonies and overtures were performed by a full and excellent orchestra, which did them every justice. Amongst the most remarkable was a symphony in C minor by Miss Alice Mary Smith and a symphony in A minor by Mr. John Francis Barnett, both admirable compositions, which did honour to the talents of their authors.  Miss Smith's symphony especially, coming from the pen of a young lady, was striking proof of the sound studies and high attainments of the female votaries of the art in this country. We trust that these symphonies will be brought before the public in the course of the ensuing season. 
Symphony In C Minor is scored for woodwinds in pairs, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. It is in four movements:

I. Grave - Allegro ma non troppo - With Smith having been taught by two advocates of Mendelssohn's music, Smith used Mendelssohn's symphonies as models  The movement begins with a melancholy introduction that is followed by a tempo increase and a 4-bar lead in to the first theme played by the violas.
This short motive in C minor is passed up through the strings before it is expanded. Other instruments take it up until a section of transition brings forth the second theme in E-flat major played in the 1st violins.

This motive is repeated and expanded before it leads directly to yet another theme, a motive played by the horns and answered by the woodwinds:
This theme is also expanded and repeated until it leads directly to the first theme appearing briefly in the major until the opening lead-in of the movement heralds the repeat of the exposition.  The development section begins with the first theme and Smith goes through many key changes as certain fragments of the theme are emphasized. The second theme also goes through a working out that is invaded by segments of the first theme.  A section of transition brings the recapitulation of the themes. The first theme returns in the coda and leads to a tempo increase and the emphatic end of the movement.

II. Allegretto amorevole -  The second movement does away with trumpets and timpani, in music similar to the piano works of the genteel Victorian salon. Smith uses the tempo modifier amorevole, a term Mendelssohn used for music of a similar sentiment.

III. Allegro ma non troppo - Poco meno mosso -  Smith uses no repeats in this short scherzo-like movement. The quality of the writing for woodwinds in this movement as well as the other three show that Smith had a good feel for orchestra color.

IV.  Allegro maestoso - A rondo with the main theme in C major. There are fleeting moments of drama, and about in the middle of the movement a solo for oboe that returns to a theme in the first movement. The strings enter and play a pizzicato accompaniment to the cadenza-like section, there is a partial close and the main theme returns. A coda wraps up the movement in good Mendelssohnian tradition.

Smith was went on to compose many other works for orchestra, including another Symphony In A Minor. In 1883 she was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Academy Of Music, an award that was only bestowed on the most distinguished and accomplished composers.  She went on to compose the most orchestral works of any English female composer in the 19th century.

She was not only known in England, as her fame was such that in the United States the the New York Times ran a lengthy obituary when she died in 1884 of typhoid fever at the age of 45.






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