The world premiere recording of composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1930 masterwork, The Prison, released on Chandos Records, has won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. The recording features soprano and doctoral student Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton as soloists, and is conducted by James Blachly with his Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. The producer is Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror.
Appropriately given Smyth’s role in the Suffragette movement in England, the August 2020 release date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. This is the first-ever Grammy Award for music by the English composer, who lived from 1858-1944, and struggled her entire career to have her music judged on its merits rather than on the basis of her gender.
Brailey, who has been hailed by The New York Times for her “radiant, liquid tone,” “exquisitely phrased,” and “sweetly dazzling singing,” sings the role of “The Soul” on this recording.
“Smyth is an inspiration as a composer, an activist, and a woman,” Brailey said. “It has been such an honor to help bring this incredible piece to the world. I hope listeners enjoy discovering it as much as we have.”
Brailey enjoys a career filled with projects as diverse as soloing in Handel’s Messiah with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing with Kanye West and Roomful of Teeth at the Hollywood Bowl, and recording cello and vocal soundscapes for the 2018 Fog x FLO Fujiko Nakaya public art installation in Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system.
Conductor James Blachly’s work on The Prison began in 2015. He is the editor for the new Wise Music Group critical edition of The Prison that not only made this recording possible, but paves the way for a resurrection of the work.
“Dame Ethel Smyth’s music has been undervalued for too long, and this Grammy win is the recognition that she has deserved for decades,” Blachly said. “I’m honored to have been a part of this recording and project, and 90 years after its premiere, I’m excited for this career-culminating masterpiece to finally be heard throughout the world’s great concert halls.”
Ethel Smyth left home at age 19 (against the wishes of her military father) in order to compose music in Leipzig. In the company of Clara Schumann and her teacher Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she met and won the admiration of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak, and Grieg, and became the first woman to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1903. (The second was not until Kaaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin in 2016).
Her work The Prison is a 64-minute symphony in two parts, “Close on Freedom” and “The Deliverance.” Sometimes called an oratorio or a cantata, it is similar in scale and scope to the vocal symphonies of Mahler. On the title page, Smyth quotes the last words of Greek philosopher Plotinus, “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and merge it in the universally divine.” The text for the work, drawn from a philosophical work by Henry Bennet Brewster, describes the writing of a man in a solitary cell and his reflections on his past life and his preparations for death.
But the text is poetic and reflective, with layers of meaning and metaphor. Thus the “prison” is both an actual jail, and a philosophical representation of the “shackles of self,” as Brewster describes them. This was Smyth’s last work and her only symphony–she was 72 when she completed it in 1930. She stopped composing shortly after, due to advancing deafness.
“This piece is an immortal dedication to those who fight for freedom,” Burton, who sings the role of “The Prisoner,” said. “Working with James, Sarah, and all the amazing musicians on this album has been a dream, and I hope it awakens all our spirits as much as it has awakened mine.”