Decadence in the Forest: Smyth's Der Wald in its Critical Context

Aidan J. Thomson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Ethel Smyth’s opera, Der Wald, met with mixed reactions at its premiere in Berlin in 1902. Many factors contributed to this, not least, as Smyth herself observed, anti-British sentiment in Germany following the second Boer War. One might have expected that the reception of the opera at its British premiere on 18 July at Covent Garden might have been more positive, but even here critical opinion was divided. Even positive reviews were not free from gender discrimination, and other reviews condemned the opera for being too German or Wagnerian. What was meant by ‘Wagnerian’? This article answers the question in three ways. Firstly, I argue that ‘Wagnerian’ meant not a leitmotif-filled, through-composed work (as distinct from a number opera), but simply a lyrical drama; for British audiences the model for this was Tannhäuser or Lohengrin, not the Ring or Tristan. Secondly, taking this definition on board, I analyse the musical language of the opera, in particular the key structure. The central duet sung by the doomed lovers, Heinrich and Röschen, is in F major, almost the furthest possible distance from the home key of the opera (E major), which characterizes the forest and ‘nature’ in general; by contrast, the next scene, where the Kundry-like Iolanthe attempts to seduce Heinrich (a crucial reversal of the more conventional power relations of the love duet), sees a return to the home key. Thirdly, I set the hermeneutical implications of this reversal in the context of the decadent movement, with which late nineteenth-century Wagnerism was associated, and which, following the conviction of Oscar Wilde in 1895, was discredited. Der Wald thus failed because of its ‘guilt by association’ with an aesthetic that had fallen into disrepute.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFelsensprengerin, Brückenbauerin, Wegbereiterin. Die Komponistin Ethel Smyth
EditorsCornelia Bartsch, Rebecca Grotjahn, Melanie Unseld
PublisherAllitera Verlag
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9783869060682
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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