Smyth | Entente Cordiale

Announcing Our New Recording Project:

Ethel Smyth’s Entente Cordiale

About the recording

The Announcement - 22 April 2024

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Today, 22 April, is Ethel Smyth’s birthday. At least, that’s the date on her birth certificate, although she consistently claimed that it wasn’t until tomorrow!

And as you may have seen on the news already, particularly if you’re in the UK or France, April 2024 is also the 120th anniversary month of the signing of the Entente Cordiale.

So there’s no better time than this to announce our latest plan: to record Ethel Smyth’s final opera, Entente Cordiale, as we approach the centenary of its student premiere on 22 July 1925 and professional premiere on 20 October 1926.

While the complete performance materials for Entente Cordiale are mostly still missing (only the Intermezzo remains), Smyth herself suggested a practical approach in one of her books:

“If ever the moment comes for reviving [The Boatswain’s Mate (RO001) and Entente Cordiale] I would suggest that they awake to the sound of a piano. Why break the back of your enterprise financially by having an orchestra at all? … So, again I say it, scrap the orchestra.”

We hope that the lost orchestral performance materials will eventually be located but, since this might never happen, and in line with Smyth’s published advice, we intend to record Entente Cordiale with piano accompaniment.

Ben is currently working to create a definitive recording edition using all available sources. Once complete, we will officially launch a fundraising campaign for Entente Cordiale. You can find some preliminary information about the work and its composer on this page.

This announcement comes fresh on the heels of the success of our latest release, Stanford’s operatic masterpiece Shamus O’Brien, which was described as ‘superb’ in The Telegraph earlier in the month and received a glowing review in Gramophone magazine last week.

In other news, last month we recorded Kennedy-Fraser and Bantock’s extraordinary Celtic Folk Opera The Seal-Woman, and we’re now working hard to raise the remaining £7,000 necessary for its release.

Having already raised over £20,000, we sincerely appreciate every donation, and any connections to potential donors that can help bring this enchanting opera into the public domain and reach new audiences through our recording would be very gratefully received. Your generosity is the backbone of our success, and we invite you to continue this journey with us. Support The Seal-Woman.

Thank you for your continued enthusiasm for, and support of, our work – to find out more about what we do, or to donate, please visit our website.

Valerie, Andy, David, Chris, and Ben

The Project

Smyth occupies a pivotal place in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British opera, and Entente Cordiale represents her final contribution to the genre. It is significant for its continuation of the ‘new departure’ she started with The Boatswain’s Mate, an attempt to reinvigorate English light opera in the generation following Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), with whom she was personally acquainted. Nonetheless, it is often overlooked since it lacks the ambition and scope of her magnum opus, her three-act The Wreckers, or the popularity of The Boatswain’s Mate. One reason for the neglect of this charming and humorous work is that the composer was already nearing the end of her career, having composed Entente Cordiale in her mid-sixties—by which time she was also severely deaf, which makes this opera all the more alluring. Another reason is that the full score and orchestral parts have been lost since the premiere productions (apart from the Intermezzo, which exists in different versions). However, the composer herself publicly endorsed the performance of this opera with piano accompaniment only, which, given that the orchestral parts might never be rediscovered, is the version in which we propose to record it.

One major indication of the long-standing importance of Entente Cordiale was seen in 1958, when it was the ‘Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies’ from this opera, rather than any other of Smyth’s music, that was performed at the Last Night of The Proms to commemorate the centenary year of the composer’s birth. The full work has, however, been unjustly neglected since the productions it enjoyed in the 1920s, and we intend for our revival to restore it to its rightful place in the history of British opera. Our premiere recording will therefore represent a valuable and worthwhile addition to Retrospect’s existing catalogue, which already includes the first recordings of Smyth’s The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate, and Fête Galante, as well as building upon the recent resurgence of interest in Smyth internationally that our releases have spearheaded. We hope that it will be of great interest to you, the listening public, as well.

(c) Christopher Wiley, 2024


Entente Cordiale

Writing in 1928 in her book A Final Burning of Boats Etc., Smyth discussed the operatic change of direction represented by two of her final contributions to the genre, The Boatswain’s Mate and Entente Cordiale, which she called ‘a new departure in comic opera’. Entente Cordiale has much in common with its better-known sibling: both are one-act ballad operas in which songs are interspersed with spoken dialogue, for which Smyth contributed the libretto as well as the music. However, unlike The Boatswain’s Mate (which was based on a short story by W.W. Jacobs), Smyth described Entente Cordiale as ‘founded on fact’, inspired by an anecdote told to her at a dinner party. Set in northern France in summer 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, it presents the story of a popular English corporal, Erb ’Iggins, whose poor understanding of the native language (a scenario with which many Anglophones on holiday abroad can no doubt relate!) leads him to enter into a marriage contract with a married French local, Jeanne Arcot, when all he is actually trying to do is buy a chicken.

Entente Cordiale premiered in a student production at the Royal College of Music, London on 22 July 1925, followed by a professional premiere in Bristol the following year, on 20 October 1926 (our recording is mindful of both upcoming centenaries). It incorporates a range of pre-existing music, including a romantic ballad by Méhul and various military bugle-calls and folk tunes. The latter are notably found in the opera’s Intermezzo, which is often performed as a standalone work as ‘Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies’ (which Smyth arranged both for orchestra and for chamber ensemble of flute, oboe, and piano), and combines a Burgundian country dance with a minor-key Breton folk melody. Smyth, who came from a military family, dedicated the opera ‘To my own branch—the Army’, referring to herself on the work’s title page as a ‘Bengal Military Orphan’. In addition to the quotation of bugle-calls in the score, her libretto is infused with military colloquialisms.

(c) Christopher Wiley, 2024

Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was a pathbreaking British composer, author, and suffragette. The daughter of an army general, she spent the majority of her life in Surrey, England, with the exception of her move to Leipzig to study music in 1877, where she remained for over a decade before returning to her home country. In 1910, she came into contact with the women’s suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst and pledged two years’ service to the political campaign for women’s rights, composing the suffragette anthem, ‘The March of the Women’. During the First World War, she worked as a volunteer radiographer attached to the French army. In later years, the deterioration of her hearing led her to develop a secondary career as a writer of memoirs and other essays, publishing ten books alongside her continuing musical activities. She was awarded the DBE in 1922.

Smyth’s compositions include the Mass in D (1891), Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orchestra (1927), her oratorio The Prison (1929–30), and other orchestral, chamber, and vocal works. However, it is her six operas that represent her single most substantial contribution to music: Fantasio (1892–4), Der Wald (1899–1901), The Wreckers (1902–4), The Boatswain’s Mate (1913–14), Fête galante (1921–2), and Entente cordiale (1923–4).

(c) Christopher Wiley, 2024


Ben Hamilton is currently working to create a definitive recording edition using all available sources. Once complete, we will officially launch a fundraising campaign for Entente Cordiale. If, in the meantime you’d like to discuss supporting this project, please contact us via the link at the bottom of our homepage.