Odaline de la Martinez in Conversation


‘Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.’

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

Odaline de la Martinez
Dame Ethel Smyth

From blatant sexual exploitation in videos and marketing, to a lack of women in top and/or creative positions, there are many contentious issues surrounding women in music today. High profile figures from Charlotte Church to Kaija Saariaho have given voice to serious concerns about the music industry at all levels and across genres, as many hard-won gains for women have either plateaued or, more worrying still, eroded in recent years. It was only in 1984 that Odaline de la Martinez made history as the first woman ever to conduct at the BBC Proms.¹ Since then, progress in representation for women conductors and composers at the Proms and elsewhere has been extremely slow, and it was not until this year – nearly 30 years later – that Marin Alsop finally made the landmark step of conducting the iconic last night of the festival. So it seemed doubly shocking that Alsop’s historic concert should happen to coincide with a storm of controversy which somehow – almost unthinkably in 2013 – re-erupted around questions of whether women can and should conduct at all, thanks to some unguarded remarks by Vasily Petrenko and others, such as Bruno Mantovani, Director of the Paris Conservatoire.

Beneath the subsequent bickering in the media regarding who said exactly what, how, why and in what context, the basic issue remains: in classical music as elsewhere in music and in society at large, women have yet to achieve equal access, representation and status with men – or anywhere near that goal in many areas. It is just the tip of the iceberg that there are far fewer female than there are male conductors,² composers, arrangers, producers, broadcasters, critics and academics (and you can read my essay about finance and economics elsewhere in this issue of Wales Arts Review to get a picture of the lack of parity in pay and the dangers of dualistic thinking) – a situation about which one can argue back and forth forever, but which will, ultimately, only improve with a transformation in cultural attitudes and behaviour towards women amongst men and women alike.

In the meanwhile, I wonder what the composer and militant suffragette Ethel Smyth would make of the progress thus far in equal rights and status for women were she alive today. For the most recent controversies in the world(s) of music have lent a certain irony to the commemoration in 2013 of a number of important centenaries around the women’s suffrage movement, including the trampling to death of Emily Wilding by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, and the passing of the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse’ or Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913.³

De la Martinez is an expert on the music of Ethel Smyth, and has performed and recorded her extensively. In 1994, she conducted the BBC Proms premiere of Smyth’s acknowledged greatest work, the opera The Wreckers, written between 1902-04 (and premiered in Leipzig, 1906), several years before Smyth eventually joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1910. I spoke with de la Martinez about Smyth and about the current situation for women in classical music. But first, a brief look at Smyth herself and her background provides food for thought in terms of how deeply the iniquities are ingrained from not-so-distant social history.


In the Victorian England into which Smyth was born, it was unheard of for a woman to want to be taken seriously as a composer – let alone expect to be given equal consideration alongside prospective male colleagues. Women were just about acceptable as performer-teachers, and might perhaps compose parlour music for domestic use. But, for women of the aristocracy, music was generally seen as no more than a genteel, ladylike pastime; a situation which was replicated for women who, like Smyth, were born into the military upper classes – except that, here, there was usually a complete absence of understanding or sympathy for artistic pursuits beyond childhood fancy.

Imagine the reaction, then, of Major-General J.H. Smyth C.B. when, having encountered the music of Beethoven, one of his six daughters (he also had two sons) informed him that she wanted to become a composer – and to study composing at the Leipzig Conservatory, no less, where her governess had learned to play the piano sonatas that she found so inspiring.

When her father predictably forbade the idea and insisted that she rather marry, Smyth embarked on a prolonged campaign of wilful rebellion which seems to have prefigured her entire life; adopting ‘direct action’ tactics which included refusing to eat, refusing to go to church and locking herself in her room for hours. Eventually, in 1877, at the age of 19, she won through and was able to enrol at the Leipzig Conservatory as a pupil of Carl Reinecke. It was the beginning of a long and colourful musical career during which Smyth composed many substantial and accomplished works, including six operas, several large-scale orchestral pieces and a Mass in D alongside considerable other vocal and chamber music; a career during which she met Brahms, Grieg, Clara Schumann and Dvořák,⁴ was encouraged by Tchaikovsky, supported by some prominent artistic patrons and championed in England by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham – but which nonetheless saw her continually having to battle for professional recognition.

Today, despite a number of highly successful performances during her lifetime and since her death – not to mention her 1922 elevation to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her services to music – Smyth remains shamefully neglected and undervalued. In de la Martinez’ words,

‘I don’t know what it is – people don’t give her her due credit. But some of her works still have not been heard in London! There’s a lot of brilliant music by Ethel Smyth and I thought we were opening the door with The Wreckers. But it opened and then shut, and people don’t remember Smyth so much. It’s a very sad case, it’s heart-breaking really.’

Indeed, with Smyth, as with her later, fellow (so-called) ‘woman composer’ Elizabeth Lutyens, it is her boisterous, ‘eccentric’ behaviour rather than her music which continues to attract most attention.⁵ In Lutyens’ case, it is her alcoholism and notoriously acid tongue which seem to give added frisson, but with Smyth, it is her upper-crust country-bumpkinisms, ‘mannish’ appearance and many lesbian attachments – if only for the latter to be skated over with embarrassment or passing voyeuristic relish. Tellingly, Smyth’s very commitment to women’s suffrage is often painted as a direct result of her having fallen in love with Emmeline Pankhurst – which she may well have done, but which should not trivialise what became a commitment to the campaign so fervent that Smyth gave up composing for two years upon joining the WSPU (and fought for other issues of women’s equality later in life – such as equal pay for women orchestral musicians). Moreover, she was willing to go to jail for women’s suffrage, spending two months in Holloway Prison in 1912 after smashing the window of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lewis Harcourt.

Smyth’s major contribution to the WSPU was nonetheless a musical one. In 1911 she wrote The March of the Women to words by Cicely Hamilton, which became the organisation’s iconic anthem.


Beecham famously described visiting Smyth in Holloway in his autobiography and, here, in an article for the Musical Times in 1958:

on this particular occasion when I arrived, the warden of the prison, who was a very amiable fellow, was bubbling with laughter. He said, ‘Come into the quadrangle.’ There were the ladies, a dozen ladies, marching up and down, singing hard. He pointed up to a window where Ethel appeared; she was leaning out, conducting with a tooth- brush, also with immense vigour, and joining in the chorus of her own song.

It is not hard to see how this tale – and it is often true of its re-telling, however affectionately meant – manages to ridicule both Smyth and the other suffragette prisoners, and to entirely gloss over the harsh, often brutal reality of life in jail for those determined to win votes for women. In de la Martinez’ opinion,

‘I don’t have any problem with the story of Smyth conducting with a toothbrush. I think that’s all wonderful – they were singing her song, her choir piece. But I have a problem with the way that, during her lifetime, she was characterised as a really strange and unusual person, which with a man seems to be ok because it leads to the idea that they are geniuses – look at history and see how Beethoven has been talked about! But with women it’s something to laugh at, it’s something to ridicule with humour.’

For those contemporaries who did give Smyth and her music serious consideration, there often emerged another problem; one captured perfectly by a critic’s response to her Violin Sonata Op. 7 (1887), which was found to be ‘deficient in the feminine charm that might have been expected of a woman composer.’ In effect, Smyth was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, to paraphrase Eugene Gates (from the title of a paper on Smyth for the Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1997); if she wrote light, delicate music it was criticised for being ‘weak’ and ‘feminine’, but, on the other hand, her trade-mark assertive, muscular music was often held to be too ‘masculine’ and therefore ‘unnatural’ – which last was how the violinist Joseph Joachim described her sonata.

Quite what the exact supposed difference is between music written by men and music written by women remains a mystery. But the idea that there is a difference became one of the most damaging and pernicious beliefs of 20th century music in gender terms, as the music of women composers from Smyth onwards was evaluated against some perceived masculine ideal. Such ‘gendered aesthetics’ can be found at the root of idiotic and offensive statements like ‘women can’t compose’; said by many, alas, but here, a direct quote from the then Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta, Michael Vyner, in a late ‘80s radio interview which I myself heard, broadcast live.⁶

I quizzed de la Martinez about gendered aesthetics, and she admitted to having been initially swayed by those ideas herself, as many people were – including some feminists from the ‘80s on who argued that a more ‘democratic’, less ‘hierarchical’ ethos that women supposedly brought to the profession of composing extended to their actual music. I personally – as a composer and erstwhile performer – have always considered gendered aesthetics to be not just bizarre but objectionable; not least because the ideas ultimately appear to rely on stereotypes or over-simplified definitions of gender, often ignoring issues of transgender and, indeed, sexuality. For de la Martinez:

‘It’s ridiculous, I agree – I thought I could hear the difference and I can’t. I’ve now been on too many competition juries where I don’t know the names of the composers and I’m sure “that person is a woman” and then, after the people have been chosen, when you see who the names are, those people who I thought were women were not, they were men. So, from my point of view, you can’t tell if a composer is a man or a woman. [Regarding Vyner’s comment], it’s terrible. But he was revered – so it’s hard to believe with people. It also happened with Louise Badger – do you remember the  woman who once ran the BBC Symphony Orchestra as general manager? – who said on the radio that women were not good conductors.’ ⁷


Obviously, de la Martinez is a composer as well as a conductor and she is currently working on an opera trilogy about the beginnings of slavery, based on Aphra Behn’s famous story Oroonoco: or the Royal Slave – but which, unlike the original (published in 1688), will be told from a woman’s point of view.⁸ I asked de la Martinez whether she agreed with Saariaho and others, that the awareness and status of women in music has plateaued or dropped off in recent years, or whether she felt improvements were still being made. Her response makes for sobering reading:

Odaline de la Martinez

‘Oh I don’t think there’s many improvements being made – I think it all has to do with novelty. When gay people started coming out, women conductors were coming out conducting – it’s the same story. Did you ever see that fabled film Antonio: Portrait of a Woman about the Dutch conductor? [Antonia Brico 1902 – 1989] It’s the same old story still. When women conductors are something of a novelty, they get hired, and no matter they’re as good as men. The people hiring don’t think about the women conductors, they think about the men. It’s something that’s been happening all along – I don’t think it’s gotten any better.

‘I think we fought some strong fights in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, we fought some strong fights in the ‘80s and so on. There’s been some profit from it, but I think very little. In general the situation with the majority of women has not improved – no matter what you see in the media – and they’re still earning a lot less than men. As far as women conductors are concerned, yes you can get on, but you don’t get the same chances as men because the people hiring don’t think of you. And a lot of women conductors won’t say that because they’re afraid.’

Returning to Ethel Smyth, de la Martinez has long been determined to stage her later, suffragette-inspired opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14). I put it to her that the success of The Wreckers in the ‘90s – both in concert and subsequently on CD – would surely indicate that such a project would generate a great deal of audience interest, particularly at a time when greater attention is being given to lesser-known or otherwise neglected composers of the early 20th century:

‘I agree. I’ve been trying to find somebody to help me put on The Boatswain’s Mate and I’d love to offer it to the Proms. There’s one problem but it’s easily remedied, and it’s not in the music. The words are really 1914 – that period just after Smyth’s years as a suffragette – so it just sounds old-fashioned nowadays. But it’s really easy to take the spirit of what it means – it’s just dialogue – and to rewrite it in modern language, the same way people translate Mozart’s The Magic Flute because the old-fashioned German doesn’t necessarily stand!

‘Then The Boatswain’s Mate would be a fabulous opera. It has a real feminist flavour but it’s done with a smile. It isn’t hitting you in the head but it gives you this flavour of a strong woman – very different from the strong woman of The Wreckers. And instead of the chromatic lines she used sometimes in The Wreckers, it’s almost folky. It’s very tonal, very approachable and is very beautiful music. Lilian Baylis put it on at Sadlers Wells [in 1922] and it ran – it was popular. So it would be a hit now, I know it would.’

Next year, 1914, will see the 70th anniversary of the death of Ethel Smyth and the centenary of her completion of The Boatswain’s Mate. Of course, 1914 will also be the centenary of the outbreak of World War I – at which point many suffragettes put their agitation on hold so as to to join the war effort and concentrate on the immediate crisis gripping the nation. There would seem to me no better occasion than to mount Smyth’s opera – in which overture she uses the melody of The March of the Women – in honour of the many suffragettes who sacrificed so much to ensure that women eventually won the right to vote, paving the way to gender equality in law, if not yet in practice in society at large. Today, the fight for equality for women across the board goes on, in music as in other aspects of life. For de la Martinez, that fight involves both pragmatism and a continued chipping away:

‘I don’t know how much change there will be in my lifetime and that’s why I think I decided a long time ago I would concentrate on the things I think I can do and try and make a difference and I think that’s the only way. I don’t think you can change the world but you might be able to change a tiny little bit of the world, and if you fight at it long enough you might actually be able to do it.’

No doubt Ethel Smyth would have lent her wholehearted support.



¹   Odaline de la Martinez was born in Cuba in 1949 and raised in the USA. She settled in the UK after winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Surrey founding the ensemble Lontano in 1976. She has conducted, and her music been performed, by many ensembles and orchestras all over the world, and she has won many prestigious awards and accolades. A full biography and discography can be found here.

²  Jessica Duchen has compiled an exhaustive list of women conductors, with links to biographies and websites on her blog

³  This was a law which allowed for the discharge of suffragette hunger-strikers from prison when they became ill, only to re-imprison them as soon as they were sufficiently recovered, leading to further savage ill-treatment at the hands of the authorities through force-feeding.

⁴  You can hear choral music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn alongside Dvořák’s own Mass in D in a concert with the BBC National Chorus of Wales on Dec 6th at BBC Hoddinott Hall.

⁵  Rhiannon Mathias has noted that ‘Smyth’s musical accomplishments and involvement in the most acrimonious years of the campaign for women’s suffrage did not, however, prepare the ground for the young women who reached student age in the first decades of the twentieth century’ (Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music, Ashgate, 2012).

⁶  Indeed, that comment, together with various sexist encounters I myself had and observed as a then student composer, performer and chair of York University’s ANeMonE (‘A New Music Ensemble’) led me to accept the job when the pressure group Women in Music asked me to briefly run the organisation after I graduated. The committee then included composers Nicola LeFanu and Errollyn Wallen, Enid Williams of the rock band Girlschool, Gemini’s Ian Mitchell and Gillian Moore (now South Bank Centre Head of Classical Music) together with support from de la Martinez, broadcaster Natalie Wheen, soprano Jane Manning and Icebreaker’s James Poke among many others.

⁷  ‘Women can’t conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men’s music.’ So said Helen Thompson in the 1970s, then manager of the New York Philharmonic.

⁸  Part 2 was first performed in the USA in April this year and will premiere in the UK at Martinez’ biennial American Festival in London, October 2014.

Here are some links to further websites offering statistics and opinions regarding the status of women in (mainly classical) music today:

Some statistics released by Female Pressure for International Women’s Day 2013

Ellen McSweeney’s post for the New Music Box.

Some American Statistics (posted August 2013) by the Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women.

Some Austrailian statistics (posted October 2013) from Women’s Agenda.

The UK Performing Right Society’s ‘Women Make Music’ initiative 2011.

Concert pianist and Bangor University academic, Dr Xenia Pestova’s ‘Quick and Dirty Survey of Man/Woman Ratios in UK Academic Music Departments’ August 2013.

A June 2013 blog for The Huffington Post by Lara Baker, organiser of the AIM Independent Music Awards.

Helienne Lindvall’s blog for The Guardian 2010.

Illustration by Dean Lewis