Variations on a Theme of Ethel Smyth, Op. 34

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Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was an accomplished and prolific composer whose works are still absurdly neglected. Her only work to have gained any mindshare among general audiences is the "March of the Women", composed in 1910 while she was (as the phrase goes) a guest of His Majesty King George V, imprisoned in Holloway Gaol for targeted vandalism in support of the women's suffrage movement.

From a purely musical standpoint, the tune is notable for the number of short, strongly contrasting motives it contains. This makes it ideal for variations, in the modern (i.e., post-Brahms) sense of the word.

A secondary motivation was supplied by a nameless colleague, who pointed out that I had never written anything making intensive use of the orchestral percussion section. It is always a mistake to confront a composer with a challenge of this kind, as the inevitable reaction is to the effect of "I'll give you something to cry about!"

On still another level, the work is a kind of sampler of the various styles that were on offer in 1910, including (among lesser lights) impressions of Reger, Glazunov, Elgar (of course), Nielsen (of a different course), and Chaikovsky (counterfactually assuming that he lived until 1910, when he would have been only 70). But it's all Wilhoit, too.

There are ten numbered variations, followed by an extensive finale that probably comprises two more and a reprise. The Traditional Big Finish looms, but is (? deftly) evaded.