By Ian Graham-Jones

Alice Mary SmithIt was nearly thirty years ago that a collection of manuscripts, together with a few printed editions, of the music of Alice Mary Smith (1837–84) came into my possession following the death of the composer’s grandson. They were in a haphazard state—some had been kept in an old garage, others, more damaged, in a leaking garden shed. Besides a number of full scores, there were bundles of complete sets of orchestral parts, miscellaneous drafts and scraps of manuscript, and even harmony and species counterpoint exercises almost certainly given to Smith by her first teacher, William Sterndale Bennett. I spent some time sorting these out and later produced a catalog of the collection before presenting it to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM).

It was not until after my retirement that I was able to spend time assessing the worth of the collection and realizing that Smith was the first British woman composer to have any success in writing in larger-scale forms and, moreover, in having her works performed—thanks in part to the support of her subsequent teacher and lifelong friend, George Alexander Macfarren.

While examining the papers of Smith’s grandson in the West Sussex Record Office, I discovered a wealth of information on Smith’s life, including photographs, letters (from Gounod, George Grove, Macfarren, and Ebenezer Prout, among others) as well as press cuttings of performances, kept after her death by her supportive husband Frederick Meadows White, a barrister and high court judge.

I first tackled Smith’s two symphonies, which were complete in full score (published in 2003 as Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, vol. 38). The London Mozart Players were due to record some music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel with Chandos Records, but, with the orchestra and venue booked, the parts were not available in time. The A-R edition happened to be with Chandos. Were the parts available? Yes, I had them, and so the recording of Smith’s symphonies of 1863 and 1876 (the first written at the age of 24), together with the Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra of 1872*, appeared in 2005 (CHAN 10283). In 2007 I published my second edition of Smith’s music with A-R, featuring the last of her six concert overtures, The Masque of Pandora (1878), and Jason, or The Argonauts and the Sirens (1879; Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, vol. 45).

Smith: Ode to the Passions (N076)Ode to the Passions, a setting of William Collins’s poem “The Passions: An Ode for Music”—the most substantial of her large-scale choral works, comprised of ten movements with SATB choir, five soloists and orchestra—proved to be the most problematic. Although the vocal score was published by Novello for its first performance as a commission for the Hereford Festival in 1882 (I had Smith’s own copy that she gave to her husband, marked with one or two corrections), the collection of scores housed at the RAM library had only a small part of the full score, copied neatly in Smith’s own hand. The library of the Royal College of Music, however, held another complete score, part of which was in the hand of a copyist, and the remainder being a rough full score in Smith’s hand. Which should be considered the primary source? It became evident that the RAM excerpts were part of the final full score given to the copyist, but the RCM copy, judging from the conductor’s markings, was the one used for subsequent performances. The missing sections of the RAM score, together with the orchestral parts, must be considered lost, probably destroyed.

Ode to the Passions was at the time considered to be one of Smith’s best works. There were three further performances in her lifetime—she died just two years after the Hereford performance. In a discussion on women composers at a meeting of the Musical Association (later the Royal Musical Association) in the following year, it was referred to as being “near to greatness.” Whether it would be considered thus today is doubtful. There is nothing innovative in Smith’s writing, but its effectiveness, its competence and musicality, cannot be denied. At a time when women were not normally allowed to play in orchestras, their skill in orchestration had to be learned from textbooks and listening. Some weaknesses can be discerned, and contemporary critics mentioned the thinness of texture at the opening of the orchestral introduction and possibly some over-heavy accompanying passages. But one of this work’s strengths is the way Smith planned its structure, in terms of linking together groups of movements, its tonalities, and its use of recurring thematic material. The opening motif of the orchestral introduction (which has its roots in the Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra, to be published by A-R Editions in Spring 2020, together with two intermezzi from The Masque of Pandora) is transformed in the second movement, “Fear, Anger, Despair,” and pervades the orchestral accompaniment of the final movement, “O Music!” Interspersed are the dramatic “Revenge, Pity” for baritone solo, the sentimental soprano solo “Hope” with oboe obbligato, the Mendelssohnian choruses “Jealousy” and “Melancholy,” and, by contrast, the delicately scored solo and duet “Joy” and “Love and Mirth,” before the well-crafted, driven final chorus.

As one critic said in a review of its second performance in London: “Her music is fresh, spontaneous, and completely devoid of affectation . . . A negative feature to be commended in Mrs. White is an entire avoidance of claptrap effect. It is all downright, honest good work, with good stuff to work upon.” Her life was one of constant creative activity, and she was the first British woman composer to lead the field in emerging from the safe haven of the Victorian drawing room. According to her obituary in the New York Times of December 1884, “she was the forerunner in the race, and such an able one that her example should lead her followers on to the highest attainments.”

Ian Graham-JonesIan Graham-Jones received his musical education at the Royal Academy of Music, where he won prizes for musicology and aural training, obtaining his B. Mus. degree. Here he took a keen interest in research and early music, joining the English Consort of Viols for a number of years. As Director of the Cornwall Rural Music School he conducted the Cornwall Symphony Orchestra and was subsequently made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd for services to music in that county. He was later Head of Music at Chichester College in West Sussex, where he established A-Level and post A-Level courses while continuing to undertake examining work and as an Associate Lecturer for the Open University’s music courses. Besides the Alice Mary Smith publications with Hildegard Publishing (the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and String Quartet no. 3 in A Major) and A-R Editions, his other publications include harmony textbooks, duets, and suites for bass viol by Benjamin Hely, as well as music for lyra viol in tablature.