Celebrating pride: Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman - Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Celebrating pride: Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman

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Celebrating pride: Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman Posted Fri 28 June 2024

Celebrating pride: Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman

Caption: RSNO Still I Rise © Martin Shields

(4 minute read)

This LGBT+ Pride month, we’re celebrating some of the composers who were featured in our latest project for secondary schools, Still I Rise: Stories of Hope and Justice. Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman were ahead of their time for their social attitudes and personal gender expression, and in many ways would fit into contemporary England or New York better now than they did while they were alive. Their life stories, while challenging and often tragic, speak to the strength of their mettle and the hope that can be learned from their everyday rebellions. They showed their true selves to the world and wore their ‘difference’ as a badge of honour. 

Ethel Smyth was born in England in 1858 in a world dominated by men when women were expected to be ‘seen and not heard’, ‘be good housewives’ and ‘dutiful mothers’. However, this was not Ethel, who refused to conform to society’s expectations of her. Throughout her life, she had a rich history of deep friendships, and romances with all kinds of people, regardless of their gender or if they were already in relationships, including with famed Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and author Virginia Woolfe. Ethel challenged the norm also as a composer: writing symphonies with three movements instead of four, composing music that wasn’t merely sentimental, and wore tweed suits while doing it all.  


Caption: Ethel Smyth


She joined the Women’s Suffrage movement – protesting and fighting for equal rights for women – the right to vote, work, be creative and make her own choices. Her 1911 work, ‘The March of the Women’ became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and the suffragette movement more widely and she herself spent two months in Holloway Prison for participating in a stone-throwing protest. A true icon.  

Julius Eastman, born in 1940, was an African-American man whose life was filled with both tremendous joy and grief. As a child, he was full of talent: he played the piano, danced, and sang. As an adult, people said he had the deepest of deep voices. He gave dazzling performances at the world’s most glamorous venues, taught at the State University of New York, and even won a Grammy Award. Julius was also flamboyant and incredibly fabulous using fashion to express himself. Once, at a performance of his work Femenine, he served soup wearing either a dress, or possibly it was an apron – no-one was sure, but everyone remembered it. Another time, he arrived late to a busy concert in New York wearing a set of long white robes – then walked down the centre aisle, gave a spin, took a bow, and left having turned the concert hall into a pop-up fashion show.  


Caption: Julius Eastman © Chris Rusiniak


Julius didn’t care what was ‘for men’ or what was ‘for women’. He dressed in whatever way he liked, whether it was feminine or masculine or somewhere in between. Julius Eastman was a rebel. He refused to be stereotyped or to be told how to act. Julius was gay at a time when being so was still illegal in many US states but he saw music as an opportunity to demonstrate his identity as clearly as possible, saying ‘What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest’. He wanted to break the barriers of the classical world and was not afraid to mix things up. He used controversial racist language in the titles of his work and some of his performances were even banned. But he wasn’t being shocking for the sake of being shocking. He wanted those around him to engage and better understand the racism, cruelty and injustice he and others faced. Julius was committed to being fully himself at a time when he would have faced tremendous backlash.  

His story ends sadly however as he died at forty-nine years old after becoming unhoused and increasingly dependent on substances, however, his music has seen a resurgence and is increasingly being recorded and performed as his legacy builds. Certainly, a man whose story is worth remembering. 

To discover more about Ethel Smyth and Julius Eastman, stay tuned for the online publication of our digital concert film ‘Still I Rise: Stories of Hope and Justice’ later this year.  

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