There are not many composers who can write about prison from personal experience. The redoubtable Ethel Smyth was an exception, having been imprisoned in 1912 during the campaign for votes for women after breaking the windows of the Colonial Secretary's house.
It may be the memory of that period that led her to write her last major work, The Prison. Smyth was 72 by the time of its first performance in 1931 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, which she conducted herself.
She called The Prison a symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra, though precedents of other kinds lurk in the background. One is Beethoven's Fidelio, Smyth's favourite opera. Another is Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which similarly focuses on a man at the point of death.
The text of The Prison is not religious, more a homespun mix of philosophical theories. Reading it through, one would be hard-pressed to imagine it being the stimulus to interesting music, but Smyth's score far exceeds expectations.
From its opening, pregnant with foreboding, the music embarks on a journey of exploration, each emotional state leading to a new sphere of musical interest. The excellent Dashon Burton as the prisoner, Sarah Brailey as the soul, and the New York-based Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by James Blachly, give The Prison a wholly recommendable first recording. How typical of Smyth to make such an individual contribution to the English oratorio tradition.
‘Ethel Smyth: The Prison’ is released by Chandos
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