Matthew Whiteside


Today’s concert shines a light on four remarkable female composers who overcame considerable odds – and social pressure – to make their mark in a man’s world. Presenting their music is a trio of equally remarkable women: Fenella Humphreys, Nicola Eimer and Leah Broad.

Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) ‘Allegro moderato’ and ‘Finale’ from Violin Sonata, Op 7

As Ethel Smyth tells it in her (many) memoirs, she had to fight tooth and nail to study at Leipzig Conservatory. Coming from the upper middle-class, her father was strongly opposed to her having any kind of career, and composition was considered especially improper for women to pursue. Ultimately Smyth did get her way – after refusing to eat, leave her room or participate in any family activities. In Leipzig she met many figures who would shape her music and her career, chief among them Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, who thought she ‘gave promise in the future of a serious and talented career’.

Smyth’s Violin Sonata dates from 1887 and was dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn’s daughter, Lili, who was one of Smyth’s closest friends alongside the musician Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. Much influenced by Brahms, it is a serious and profound work, full of intense motivic development and rich harmonic colour.

Doreen Carwithen (1922–2003) ‘Allegro con moto’ and ‘Vivace’ from Violin Sonata

Doreen Carwithen’s Violin Sonata did not have the most auspicious of starts. When the BBC Music Panel considered it for broadcast in 1952, they rejected it as ‘poverty-stricken’, one reader lamenting condescendingly that ‘it is rather sad to observe that this young composer … is just not good enough’. It fell into obscurity in the later 20th century, but since being recorded has fared rather better – when Fenella Humphreys and Nathan Williamson recorded the piece in 2017, BBC Music Magazine’s review thought it revealed a ‘striking creative personality’.

Carwithen had a real flair for the dramatic. The opening of the tumultuous first movement is remarkably restrained but blossoms into passionate climaxes, with the violin soaring above the piano’s chords, eventually concluding serenely. The second-movement ‘Vivace’ is a virtuoso showcase for both players. It is driven by a ferocious repeated-note motif, mellowing into a melodic central section that demands great expressivity from the string player. Carwithen returns to the first theme to propel the movement to its close, concluding with a playful flourish.

Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) Midsummer Moon; Sonata Movement in G major

Although the British-American Rebecca Clarke was best-known as a viola player, she started out playing the violin. Chamber music was her natural home; she grew up playing it with her family, and later toured Britain, Europe, America and Asia as a much sought-after chamber musician. It’s obvious from her compositions that she knows the violin intimately. She writes idiomatically, and always give the performer a chance to shine.

The Sonata Movement is one of her early works, written when she was studying with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London. Even so, it bears many of Clarke’s hallmarks – such as a bold opening passage for the soloist – if not the rhythmic and harmonic innovation that characterises much of her mature music, such as Midsummer Moon. This was written in 1924, by which point Clarke was an established composer and performer with multiple high-profile successes behind her. It is a much more modernist piece than the sonata, and is dedicated to the violinist Adila Fachiri, who both commissioned and premiered the work.

Dorothy Howell (1898–1982) The MooringsAndante’ from Violin Sonata

Dorothy Howell wrote extensively for the violin, being both a violinist and pianist herself (indeed, alongside her composition she had a burgeoning career as both a concert pianist and piano teacher). Her style is extremely evocative, and many of her instrumental works have illustrative titles, such as The Moorings (1924). Here, she conjures up the water in calm mood, the rocking piano part perhaps suggesting the lapping of ripples against the tethered boats.

The Violin Sonata is a much later work, penned at a difficult time in Howell’s life. Composition was interrupted by the Second World War – and by the deaths of Howell’s mother, with whom she was extremely close, and her best friend Elsie Owen, who was murdered by her husband in 1941. Owen was a violinist, and when Howell finally completed her sonata in the late 1940s, she dedicated the score to her. The ‘Andante’ is one of Howell’s most heartfelt movements, shifting between hope and wistfulness before closing in a mood of profound melancholy: perhaps it was in some ways an elegy for Owen.

Programme and performers

Ethel Smyth ‘Allegro moderato’ from Violin Sonata
Doreen Carwithen ‘Allegro con moto’ and ‘Vivace’ from Violin Sonata
Rebecca Clarke Midsummer Moon

Rebecca Clarke Sonata Movement in G major
Dorothy Howell The Moorings
‘Andante’ from Violin Sonata
Ethel Smyth ‘Finale’ from Violin Sonata

Fenella Humphreys violin
Nicola Eimer piano
Leah Broad narrator

Artist biographies

Fenella Humphreys, winner of the 2023 BBC Music Magazine Premiere Recording Award, is one of the UK’s most versatile violinists, with a career combining chamber music, concerto performances and solo work.

Over the past decade she has captured international attention in a wide range of repertoire, with an award-winning discography including her Bach 2 the Future series, which combines newly commissioned works with two of Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas and other landmark repertoire, Caprices and, most recently, Prism, which combines her arrangement of J S Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, BWV565 with works by Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery and George Walker. Other releases include Christopher Wright’s Violin Concerto, Four Seasons RecomposedSo Many Stars and a disc of Sibelius’s music for violin and piano.

She has given the first performances of music by a wide range of composers, including Peter Maxwell Davies, Sally Beamish, Gordon Crosse, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Freya Waley-Cohen; earlier this year she premiered Adrian Sutton’s new Violin Concerto, dedicated to her, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

She is concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerakademie, as well as guest leading and directing various ensembles in Europe.

As a chamber musician she performs with the Roscoe Piano Trio, Perpetuo and Counterpoise, as well as collaborating with artists including Nicholas Daniel, Martin Roscoe and Peter Donohoe. She is regularly invited by Steven Isserlis to the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove.

A new collaboration with the writer and broadcaster Leah Broad and pianist Nicola Eimer has seen the creation of the Lost Voices project, which explores unknown and under-performed repertoire by female composers.

Fenella Humphreys plays a G B Guadagnini violin, kindly on loan from Jonathan Sparey.

British pianist Nicola Eimer has performed as a soloist and chamber musician across Europe, America and Asia. She was a prize-winner at the Dudley, John Lill and Royal Over-Seas League competitions, as well as being a featured performer on the Tillett Trust Young Artists’ Platform, leading to recitals and concerto performances across the UK.

She has performed at St Martin-in-the Fields, St John’s Smith Square, the Barbican, Wigmore Hall and the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room. She has regular appeared for the London Chopin Society since first performing at its gala at Wigmore Hall in 1997.

As a chamber musician she was a founding member of the Eimer Piano Trio, with which she performed for more than a decade. She now regularly collaborates with Adolfo Gutiérrez Arenas, Richard Harwood, Ziyu He, Ariel Horowitz, Fenella Humphreys, Christoph Richter and Maria Włoszczowska.

She works as a regular class pianist for the masterclasses at the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove, has also been a class pianist for Ralph Kirshbaum and an official accompanist for the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition and the Menuhin International Violin Competition.

She studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where she won many of the piano and chamber music prizes; in 2000 she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study on the Master’s programme at the Juilliard School in New York with Joseph Kalichstein.

She is an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, and she teaches piano and chamber music at both their Junior and Senior Departments. She was recently appointed specialist piano tutor on the Academy’s LRAM course.

Leah Broad is an award-winning music writer and historian. She is the author of the critically Quartet, a group biography of Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen. Currently a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, she was the winner of the 2015 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and was selected as a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker in 2016. She regularly works with performers and institutions to reach out to new audiences, and has spoken at leading musical and literary festivals throughout the UK.