A dedication in a book, reading "To Ethyl Smyth: thanking, and begging, her for music"
'Thanking, and begging, her for music': Ethel Smyth, Vernon Lee, and queer musical community in the British Music Collection

In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, we invited writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. This article exploring queer links in the British musical history is by writer and researcher Frankie Dytor.

And ever, as the music smote the air, 
Mine eyes from far held fast your body fair. 
And I knew 
Not which was sound, and which, O Love, was you. 

- Amy Levy, Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia) 

The speaker of Amy Levy's poem goes to a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. Across a crowded room, she catches sight of a strikingly beautiful woman, who turns in profile. Tipping her head back and lifting her throat, it seems as if her whole body is responding to the swell of the music. The speaker experiences a dizzying, erotic rush, where the sight of the woman and the sound of the music seem to blur indistinguishably together. Sinfonia Eroica, a poem written by a queer middle-class Jewish woman at the end of the nineteenth century, opens a world in which the act of listening to music becomes a potential space of lesbian desire. Possibly based on an actual performance of the symphony at the Cambridge Guildhall in 1880, the poem has often been used to demonstrate the musical homoeroticism explored by many queer writers at the end of the nineteenth century. A dip into the musical archives from this time shows a fascinating network of women who spent their creative and romantic lives enmeshed in queer musical communities. 

Levy wrote one of her most poignant poems, 'New Love, New Life', for the author Vernon Lee, who Levy had stayed with, and apparently fallen in love with, in Florence in 1885. Lee wrote about music and musical response throughout her prolific career as a fiction writer, critic, and essayist. For Lee, music was unique amongst all other arts in being able to directly reproduce emotion, claiming that 'musical aesthetics... ought to be the clue to the study of all other branches of art'. She was nevertheless pessimistic about the value of music criticism, noting that whilst writing about art could enhance and enliven it, music writing was often nothing better than a 'vexatious hoax'. Lee instead turned to fiction to bring to life the music of the past, especially that of the eighteenth century, a period then deeply out of fashion. Absorbed above all in reviving the lost voices of the eighteenth-century castrati, Lee's fantastic tales like A Wicked Voice revel in the weird and uncanny sounds of the past, exploring themes of sexual dissidence and gender-nonconformity that are otherwise often conspicuously absent from her essays. Despite her hesitation about music writing, however, Lee turned back to theories of musical response for her final major publication, Music and its Lovers. The culmination of twenty years research into the emotional responses of listeners to music, the work was based on the answers of a questionnaire given out to 150 respondents. Lee admitted that the book was 'very dull'. Worse still, she noted that it was the 'kind [of book] which Ethel... used to open grand eyes of indignation at'.  

Lee's anxiety was directed towards the response of Ethel Smyth, the composer and lifelong friend of Lee. Long neglected in the British musical canon, Smyth has recently received renewed attention thanks to the 2022 performance of her work The Wreckers at Glyndebourne Opera House. The piece, an imaginary tale of a Cornish fishing community, was possibly partly inspired by Lee's own tale of eighteenth-century wrecking in Wales, Penelope Brandling. Lee stayed with Smyth when working on the book, just before Smyth set forth for Cornwall to do her own research for The Wreckers. Lee and Smyth had met in 1893 and recognised each other from the outset, as Smyth recounted in her memoirs, in 'fellowship' as 'female labourer[s] in the field of art'. Smyth was then suffering from the insurmountable critique of being a woman composer; at her orchestral debut, the critic George Bernard Shaw pithily noted that the work was mere 'filigree work' and out of place in a great setting. Smyth would nevertheless go on to be the first woman ever to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (unmatched until 2016 with Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin) and became a major figure of British public life through her involvement with the suffrage movement. Following her arrest in 1912 for throwing a rock through the window of the colonial secretary's house, Smyth was known to conduct impromptu choruses of her rousing The March of the Women with a toothbrush in Holloway Prison.  

Both Lee and Smyth had relationships with women throughout their lives. Smyth wondered to her great friend Harry Brewster 'why it is much easier for me, and I believe for a great many English women, to love my own sex passionately rather than yours'. Smyth and Lee were close to each other for decades, but Smyth was never one of Lee's 'cultes', the name Smyth used to describe the succession of women surrounding Lee. In fact, she appears to have been baffled by Lee's attitude to her cultes: the 'tragedy of her life', Smyth reflected, was that Lee 'refused to face the fact' that she passionately loved them, 'preferring to create a fiction that these friends were merely intellectual necessities'. Smyth, by contrast, was comparatively more open about her relationships, enjoying heady flings with women including the proudly lesbian patron of music, Winnaretta Singer. 

In 1903, Lee dedicated her play Ariadne in Mantua to Smyth, 'thanking, and begging, her for music'. Smyth was evidently touched by the dedication, and lent her copy to various friends, including the actress Lillah McCarthy, who wrote to Lee offering to stage the work. McCarthy requested the music (then unwritten) for the work, suggesting that with some judicious cutting she could stage the work with the help of Charles Ricketts, a queer aesthete who was then one of the leading stage designers in London. Lee smartly returned that she wouldn't alter a single word of the script. Smyth, however, remained persistent and tapped into her queer musical community to get the work performed. Sometime around 1911, Smyth attempted to convince Edith Craig, the daughter of Ellen Terry, to produce the play with her radical society, the Pioneer Players. Smyth took no half-measures. Craig's partner, the gender-nonconforming music critic and future biographer of Smyth, Christopher St John, remembered that Smyth burst into her and Craig's flat in Covent Garden, 'making a racket' about the production of Ariadne' and 'shouting down Edy's (Craig) refusal' not to prioritise it above other works. The play was eventually staged in 1916 at the Gaiety Theatre for an event in aid of the Red Cross Hospital in London, with music composed and arranged by Eugene Goossens. It was not, however, a great success. Newspapers that covered the event suggested it was an unhappily shambolic performance, with its actors either barely remembering their lines or reading them directly off a script.  

The work was nevertheless destined to have one more run, this time in a garden in Florence shortly before Lee's death in 1935. By then, Lee was almost entirely deaf, and obliged to read, rather than listen to, the play. As the work was being performed, accompanied by 'old Italian music', Smyth was hit by a sudden revelation. Whilst she had thought that the dedication, 'thanking, and begging, her for her music' had simply been praise from Lee, she realised that it had really been an invitation to write the music for Ariadne. Smyth never got the chance to write any music for the work and died nine years later, deaf like Lee by the end of her life.  

Lee reflected on her relationship with Smyth in a letter to Augustine Bulteau, the journalist and salonnière Lee was then involved with (and who would receive the dedication for Penelope Brandling): 'Of course she is my friend. For ten years, she has shown me loyalty, faithfulness, and even tenderness'. But, as she continued to note, 'it is certain that the very great friendships between women correspond to nothing that the male spirit can conceive of without the worst suspicions '. These 'great friendships', passing from Levy to Lee to Smyth to Craig, show the mutually productive bonds of queer community by the beginning of the twentieth century. Entwined across love, collaboration, desire, and companionship, the lives of these women are testament to the rich and sprawling stories of music's queer history, many of which are still yet to be told.  

About Frankie Dytor

Frankie is a writer and researcher who has just completed an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Cambridge. Their work explores the queer and trans histories of aestheticism and decadence, with writing appearing in the Journal of Victorian Culture, Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, and Review 31. Follow Frankie on Twitter and Instagram.