Home
Blog
Composers
Musicians
Black History
Audio
About Us
Links

 

Composers:
Adams, H. Leslie
Akpabot, Samuel Ekpe
Alberga, Eleanor
Bonds, Margaret Allison
Brouwer, Leo
Burleigh, Henry Thacker
Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel
Cunningham, Arthur
Dawson, William Levi
Dede, Edmund
Dett, R. Nathaniel
Elie, Justin
Ellington, Edward K. "Duke"
Euba, Akin
Garcia, José Mauricio Nunes
Hailstork, Adolphus C.
Holland, Justin
Jeanty, Occide
Johnson, James Price
Joplin, Scott
Kay, Ulysses Simpson
Khumalo, Mzilikazi
Lambert, Charles Lucien, Sr.
Lambert, Lucien-Leon G., Jr.
Lamothe, Ludovic
Leon, Tania
Moerane, Michael Mosoeu
Perkinson, Coleridge-Taylor
Pradel, Alain Pierre
Price, Florence Beatrice Smith
Racine, Julio
Roldan, Amadeo
Saint-Georges, Le Chevalier de
Sancho, Ignatius
Smith, Hale
Smith, Irene Britton
Sowande, Fela
Still, William Grant
Walker, George Theophilus
White, José Silvestre
Williams. Julius Penson

 

Guest Book

William J. Zick, Webmaster, wzick@ameritech.net

© Copyright 2006 - 2011
William J. Zick
All rights reserved for all content of AfriClassical.com
 

 

 

 

Kaleidoscope: Music by African-        American Women; Helen Walker-Hill, piano; Gregory Walker, violin; Leonarda 339 (1995)
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home -> Composers -> Smith, Irene Britton

Français

 
Irene Britton Smith  (1907-1999)

African American Composer

Taught in Chicago Public Schools Over 40 Years


 


Table of Contents

  1 Helen Walker-Hill
  2 Discovery
  3 Birth
  4 Father
  5 Mother
  6 Childhood
  7 Violin Lessons
  8 Teaching
  9 Music Studies
 10 Berean Baptist Church
 11 Violinist
 12 Marriage
 13 Reunited
 14 Florence B. Price
 15 Theory & Composition
 16 B.A. in Music
 17 Juilliard
 18 Vittorio Giannini
 19 Summer Studies
 20 Nadia Boulanger
 21 Reading Method
 22 Docent
 23 Performances
 24 Continued Learning
 25 Kaleidoscope
 
26 Death
 27 Papers
 28 Racial Identity
    
 29 Compositions
 30 Vocal & Instrumental
 31 Sheet Music & Recordings
 32 Sinfonietta
 33 Favorite Composers
 34 International Modernist
 35 Composed Linearly
 36 Mastery of Composition
 37 CD Reviews   
 38 Archives  
 39 Legacy
 

Irene Britton Smith
(Courtesy Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago)


1 Helen Walker-Hill
The principal source for this essay on Irene Britton Smith is the book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, written by Helen Walker-Hill and published by the University of Illinois Press (2007).  Dr. Walker-Hill is a former member of the Piano faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder.  She begins by explaining her purpose in interviewing Irene Britton Smith:

Because she was reported to have known the composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, I contacted Irene Smith in the summer of 1989 and asked for an interview.  She replied that, yes, she had known Margaret Bonds and Florence Price, and she would be willing to talk about them. 

Two other reference sources by Dr. Helen Walker-Hill are: Women of Note Quarterly, Chicago Composer Irene Britton Smith; FEB 97: Vol 5:1:5-8 and the Irene Britton Smith entry in the International Dictionary of Black Composers, edited by Dr. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. and published in 2 volumes by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago (1999).

2 Discovery
Dr. Walker-Hill describes the indirect manner in which she learned that Irene had done her own composing:

Only in passing did it emerge that she herself composed.  As she brought out her meticulously copied compositions, it became evident that hers was a highly trained and sensitive talent.  She had learned her craft in relative obscurity during years of dedicated study with some of the leading musicians and teachers of the twentieth century.  Although music and composing may have been the love of her life, most of her energy was required in her profession of teaching in the public schools.

3 Birth
Irene Britton Smith was born in Chicago on December 22, 1907, the biography tells us, and grew up on the South side of the city.  She lived in an apartment in the area for 42 years.  Walker-Hill provides details of her early education:

She attended Ferron Grammar School, then completed the seventh and eighth grades at Doolittle Grammar School, two blocks away.  For her secondary education she went to Wendell Phillips High School.

4 Father
From Spirituals to Symphonies relates that Smith's father grew up on a farm near Maysville, Kentucky and attended Louisville College before relocating to Chicago.  The book reports that the composer's father had both Native American and African American heritage:

He was of Crow and Cherokee as well as African-American descent; his Crow grandmother lived with his family until she died at age 93.  This ancestry is evident in photographs from his straight hair and prominent cheekbones.  Irene recalled that as a child she liked to stand behind his chair and comb his hair.  In Chicago he held a position as a clerk in a manufacturing company.  Irene could remember that during the race riots of the "Red Summer" of 1919, his company sent an escort to protect him on the way to and from work.

5 Mother
Helen Walker-Hill writes that Smith's mother was from Detroit and played the piano by ear:

Her mother, who came to Chicago from Detroit, was musical and loved to play hymns by ear, "favoring the black keys." She had acquired a piano before Irene was born, and as a small child, Irene began composing little pieces on it.

6 Childhood
Irene had two brothers who died while still infants, Walker-Hill tells us, and an older sister who passed away in the 1980s. She continues:

When Irene was 10, her parents separated and she was sent to a Catholic boarding school for a year.  Later she and her sister took piano lessons from V. Emanuel Johnson, who made them play duets.  "He was the kind who hits you on the fingers."

7 Violin Lessons
The author writes that Smith developed an interest in the violin while in her high school orchestra:

When Irene accompanied her high school orchestra, she became fascinated with the violin section and started to teach herself on her sister's violin.  She was then given lessons, and attended her first symphony orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall as a guest of her public school violin teacher when she was 14 years old.

8 Teaching
We learn from Walker-Hill that Irene desired to study Music in college, but was thwarted by financial reality:

Irene had ambitions to study music at Northwestern University but her parents couldn't afford it, so she turned instead to the two-year course at Chicago Normal School to prepare herself to teach in the elementary grades.

9 Music Studies
Although Irene accepted teaching as her means of supporting herself, she promptly began pursuing her avocation of Music on a part-time basis, the book relates:

After being assigned to teach primary grades in the Chicago public schools, she decided to take a course in music theory, which she had longed to study for many years.  She took one course a year at the American Conservatory, beginning with theory and harmony for two years, then progressing through form and analysis, and counterpoint.

10 Berean Baptist Church
Margaret Allison Bonds, who is also profiled at AfriClassical.com, was one of many Black musicians who frequented the Berean Baptist Church, according to the biography:

During the 1930s, Irene attended the Berean Baptist Church along with a good number of other musicians who were well-known in the black community.  These included Estella Bonds, church organist, and her daughter, Margaret.  Smith knew the Bonds family well, and was good friends with Estella's sister Helen.

11 Violinist
Walker-Hill tells of Irene's role as violinist in a Black symphony orchestra and in the student orchestra at the American Conservatory:

Irene played violin in the all-black Harrison Ferrell Symphony Orchestra, which rehearsed at the church and gave yearly concerts at Kimball Hall.  She was later a member of the student orchestra at the American Conservatory.

12 Marriage
Irene married in 1931, the year she turned 24, we learn from the biography.  Her husband's educational and career aspirations were complicated by the lack of equal employment opportunity for people of color, so a lengthy separation ensued:

In 1931 Irene married Herbert E. Smith, an employee of the postal service.  Smith had greater ambitions, and returned to school for a master's degree in chemistry at Bradley University in Peoria.  But after he finished his degree, he found that it was still very difficult for qualified blacks to get jobs in Illinois.  For a period of 10 years during the 1940s and 1950s, Irene and her husband lived apart while they both pursued their degrees.

13 Reunited
Irene and Herbert reunited, Helen Walker-Hill writes, and lived together until his death:

She recalled that he would send her a dozen roses on their anniversary, even during their years of separation.  They later reunited, and he eventualy worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on such projects as the development of gasohol.  The couple remained childless, and in December 1975 her husband passed away.

14 Florence B. Price
From Spirituals to Symphonies makes it clear that personal correspondence of the composer is included in the "Irene Britton Smith Collection" at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago:

In 1936 Smith wrote to Florence Price, already well-known as a composer, after hearing her give a talk.  Price responded with a letter saying, "It was very kind of you to say you enjoyed my little talk at Lincoln Center, and it makes me happy indeed to know that you received encouragement from it.  That you find the study of composition such a pleasure indicates that we may expect to hear from you some of these days.  I should be very glad to see some of your work if you care to call a few days ahead of time and make an appointment."

15 Theory & Composition
The author concludes that Irene's personality kept her from accepting Florence Price's invitation:

Smith was too shy to accept Price's invitation.  But Price's words encouraged her, and she decided to work toward a degree in theory and composition at the American Conservatory, with the approval of her instructor, Stella Roberts, and Dean Charles Haake.  She continued to take one music course each year, including violin and voice (she was also proficient in piano and organ), and in her last two years she studied composition with Leo Sowerby.  She distinguished herself in these studies, receiving an Honorable Mention in theory and analysis at the 1938 commencement exercises of the American Conservatory of Music.

16 B.A. in Music
We learn from Dr. Walker-Hill that Irene composed an increasing number of works in the later years of her studies at the American Conservatory:

Smith's composition gathered momentum in 1940-41, the years in which she wrote several ambitious works: Passacaglia and Fugue in C-sharp Minor, and Invention in Two Voices for piano, Psalm 46 for chorus and baritone, and Reminiscence for violin and piano, which was performed in May of the following year by violinist Adele Mdjeska.  In 1943, after 11 years of study, she completed her bachelor's degree in composition at the American Conservatory.

17 Juilliard
In 1946 Irene Britton Smith successfully submitted a hymn for publication, the biography tells us, and she undertook graduate studies:

Further impetus came in 1946 when Fairest Lord Jesus, her choral work for women's voices and organ on the words from the Crusader's Hymn, was accepted for publication by the prestigious New York publishing firm G. Schirmer.  That year she was on sabbatical leave from the Chicago public school system and went to New York for graduate study at the Juilliard School of Music.

18 Vittorio Giannini
Both of Smith's courses at Juilliard were taught by Vittorio Giannini, we learn from From Spirituals to Symphonies:

She chose two courses taught by Vittorio Giannini, one in song forms and the other in larger forms of composition. Smith recalled that when she brought her setting of the Paul Laurence Dunbar text "Why Fades a Dream?" to Giannini, he exclaimed, " 'Who is this poet?'  He went out and bought a whole book of Dunbar poetry.  He liked it [the song] and he's the one who suggested to me that I write a cycle."  For her class in larger forms, Smith completed her Sonata for Violin and Piano.

19 Summer Studies
The author writes that Smith subsequently continued music studies in Chicago, and devoted many of her Summer vacations to graduate study as well:

Upon returning to Chicago and her classroom teaching, Smith resumed studies in composition with Leon Stein at De Paul University.  She spent several summer vacations away from Chicago, studying with well-known composers and teachers.  In the summer of 1948, she studied contemporary harmony at the Eastman School of Music with Wayne Barlow.  In 1949 she was at Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, working with Hugh Ross in choral conducting and studying composition with Irving Fine.
                        ...
She met Julia Perry and showed her some of her compositions.  "In addition to Julia Perry, Elayne Jones, Mattiwilda Dobbs, and I were the only black women attending."

20 Nadia Boulanger
Smith completed her Master's Degree at De Paul University in 1956, Dr. Walker-Hill relates, and in 1958 studied in France with Nadia Boulanger:

Smith completed her master's degree in theory and composition at De Paul University in 1956.  In the summer of 1958 she fulfilled a dream to study with the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleu, France.  Boulanger praised her compositions and told her, "You are a born musician.  Follow your ear."

21 Reading Method
Irene Britton Smith taught Reading in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 40 years, the author writes, and last taught at Pershing Elementary School, from 1958 to the year of her retirement, 1978.  Dr. Walker-Hill continues:

She adopted the phono-visual mehod of teaching reading after attending a demonstration at Northwestern University in 1957.  It was remarkably successful, enabling her students to consistently leave first grade with third, fourth and even higher grade levels.  For the next decade, her energies went into giving workshops, and promoting and using this teaching technique.

22 Docent
The biography relates that Irene organized rhythm bands for school children, and that annual performances were given at the Cosmopolitan Community Church.  The author continues:

Smith's concern for young people was also evident in her volunteer work as a docent for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Chicago public schools, which she began soon after her retirement from classroom teaching in 1978.

23 Performances
Irene's music began to be performed more recently in the 1970s, the author relates.  She continues:

Her spiritual arrangement for baritone and piano, Let Us Break Bread Together,was sung in 1972 by Theodore Charles Stone, noted concert artist and music critic for the Chicago Defender.  In 1984 it was performed again, at the Second Presbyterian Church, where her Fairest Lord Jesus was later programmed (1989).  Songs from her Paul Laurence Dunbar Dream Cycle were performed by several noted artists and broadcast over WFMT, drawing a congratulatory letter from Cyrus Colter, chairman of the African-American studies department at Northwestern University.

24 Continued Learning
From Spirituals to Symphonies indicates that Smith continued to learn about Music, even after she stopped composing:

In later years, her only outside activity was attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra music appreciation classes and concerts.  She never stopped expanding her knowledge of music.  In the mid-1970s she wrote to Stella Roberts, "I haven't written any music for 15 years.  However, I do not regret one minute of learning about music and composition, and I still continue to learn.  I read current periodicals and books on music."

25 Kaleidoscope
One of Irene's works, her Sonata for Violin and Piano (15:07) was published by Vivace Press in 1996 and is included on the CD Kaleidoscope: Music by African-American Women; Leonarda LE 339 (1995).  The performers are Helen Walker-Hill, piano, and Gregory Walker, violin.   Notes, the Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association called the CD:

...good music that has been overlooked and underrepresented in the traditional repertory...

26 Death
From Spirituals to Symphonies
 has this to say about the compact disc and the composer's death:

For the last few years of her life, Smith lived in the Montgomery Place Retirement Home on Chicago's South Shore Drive.  During this time her Sonata for Violin and Piano was published and issued on a CD recording, but she had difficulty recognizing her own music because she suffered from Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.  On 15 February 1999, at the age of 91, she died of complications from these diseases.  Services were at the Griffin Funeral Home, and she was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, where Florence Price is also buried.

27 Papers
Irene Britton Smith's papers were donated to the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, where they now constitute the "Irene Britton Smith Collection."  Dr. Walker-Hill writes:

In accord with her wishes, her papers and music scores were given to the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) at Columbia College Chicago.

28 Racial Identity
Helen Walker-Hill comments on the composer's racial identity:

Smith's attitude toward race seemed ambivalent, and her remarks were often contradictory.
                        ...
Smith's compositional style displayed no trace of black idioms.  She didn't think that her experiences as a black person had any bearing on her composition, yet her use of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and her arrangements of spirituals indicate her sense of racial identity.  She had no objection to being categorized as a black woman composer for this study, and said, "I think that's good.  That's the only way we're going to get known."

It was in her poetry that Smith revealed her loyalty to and identification with her race.  Two of her poems in the archives at CBMR celebrate the strengths of African Americans and her sense of belonging to "my people." 

29 Compositions
About three dozen of Smith's works are now known to have survived.  Dr. Walker-Hill's 1997 article in Women of Note Quarterly, Chicago Composer Irene Britton Smith, was published while Smith was still alive:

The compositions she is willing to show number only about fifteen, and do not include the "sonatinas, inventions, and suites" of her early years.  All together, according to her estimate, she has composed about 30 works.
                    ...
A set of four songs, Dream Cycle (1946-47), on poems by Dunbar has been performed, notably by soprano Jo Ann Pickens at the Chicago Public Library's Myra Hess Concerts in 1977 and in New York at the Harlem School of the Arts in a concert broadcast on WQXR Radio.  Her arrangement of the spiritual "Let Us Break Bread Together" (1948) has been sung by a number of Chicago musicians.

30 Vocal & Instrumental
The biography identifies the number of Smith"s works in each of several categories:

Seventeen of the total of 36 compositions, a little less than half, are purely instrumental works, and 19 are vocal.  Of the vocal works, seven are choral, while 12 are for solo voice or voices.  Ten instrumental works are for solo piano (including two arrangements of Bartok), two are for violin (surprisingly little, since she was a violinist) one is for string trio, and four are for orchestra (including an arrangement of Three Fantastic Dances by Shostakovich).  Spiritual arrangements account for six of the vocal pieces.

31 Sheet Music & Recordings
From Spirituals to Symphonies lists those works of Irene Britton Smith which have been published and recorded:

Smith had one choral anthem published by G. Schirmer (1946), the Crusader Hymn Fairest Lord Jesus for women's voices, but it is now out of print and the copyright was returned to her.  Vivace Press published her Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1996 and four of her solo piano works in 2001.  The Sonata for Violin and Piano is the only work available on recording (see discography).

32 Sinfonietta
In Women of Note Dr. Walker-Hill analyzes the choral and vocal works, and refers to other short pieces by Smith:

These choral and vocal works display Smith's elegant simplicity, her exquisitely placed harmonic color, discreetly cultivated contrapuntal commentary, and over-all formal balance.

There are other choral anthems and songs, a Sinfonietta in three movements for full orchestra, chamber works, and works for solo piano including two short Preludes, a Passacaglia and Fugue in c# minor, and a set of Variations on a Theme of MacDowell.

33 Favorite Composers
In her book, the author discusses Smith's harmonic style as well as some of the principal composers she liked: 

In harmonic style, Smith's oeuvre varies from conservative and tonal to sharply dissonant. Smith's favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and she was also fond of the French composers Gabriel Fauré and César Franck.  It was in the music of Franck that she first discovered augmented sixth chords: "When I found what an augmented sixth chord would do - I marvelled!"

34 International Modernist
From Spirituals to Symphonies distinguishes Smith from Black composers whose works use African American idioms or display "racial" characteristics.  Instead the author groups her among composers whose music reflects "international modernist attitudes":

Smith's music does not employ African-American idioms or espouse the "racial" loyalties and characteristics typical of the music of William Grant Still, Florence Price, William Dawson, and other black composers of the 1920s and 1930s.  She knew the music of Margaret Bonds and admired her craft,but she did not share her social concerns or her enthusiasm for popular traditions.  Her attitude was closer to the international modernist sensibility of the 1950s and 1960s, which governed the work of Julia Perry, George Walker, Hale Smith, and other black composers.

35  Composed Linearly
The book quotes Irene Britton Smith as saying she composed "linearly."            

Smith's process of composition usually began with a melodic idea.  Then a countermelody would immediately suggest itself.  She said, "I think and compose linearly," that is, in horizontal melodic lines rather than vertical harmonies.  She preferred to compose away from the piano, and was aided in this by perfect pitch.  She did not need to play her music or hear it played, because she could hear the entire work in her head.

36 Mastery of Composition
Dr. Walker-Hill discusses the positive attributes of Smith's works at length in the book, and quotes the composer on the reason for her mastery of composition:             

Smith's works display an elegant simplicity, overall formal balance, discreetly placed harmonic color, subtle contrapuntal details, wide pitch range, and open textures.  She attributed her mastery of composition to her excellent training, as she commented in a letter to her former teacher Stella Roberts: "I can listen to music and evaluate it mentally whether it be traditional, contemporary or avant-garde, and all of this I can do because of the thoroughness of the theory I received from you at the American Conservatory..."

37 CD Reviews
Smith's Sonata for Violin and Piano (15:07) is the longest work on the CD Kaleidoscope: Music by African American Women Leonarda LE 339 (1995, and it drew a number of comments from reviewers, as Helen Walker-Hill relates in her book:

The reviewer for the American Record Guide complained that it was "incessantly melodic but dull and tensionless," but Strings magazine gave it a glowing review as "an outgoing and elegantly designed work in the American neoclassical tradition, and deserves further listening."  Other reviewers also were favorably impressed.  Barbara Harbach pronounced it "an exciting contribution to the violin and piano literature, rewarding not only to its performers, but also its listeners," and found it "immediately appealing...[with] long expressive lyrical melodies, careful and intriguing placement of unexpected harmonies, playful and imaginative interaction between the violin and the piano, touches of chromaticism, and alternating moods and tempos."  Rae Linda Brown considered it a "highlight of the CD...a substantial (almost fifteen minutes) work in the late nineteenth-century romantic tradition.  Tonally conservative, it is not without technical demands.  The work requires complete balance between the two instruments."

38 Archives
In addition to the Irene Britton Smith Collection at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago, From Spirituals to Symphonies lists as a resource on the composer:              

The Helen Walker-Hill Collection, located in duplicate at the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado and at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago.


39 Legacy
The legacy of Irene Britton Smith is manifest in the lives and careers of her students.  Patricia Pates Eaton is a living example of Smith's mentoring, which she recalls:

I have just retired from teaching music in the NYC Public School System, however I continue to be the Principal Conductor of the All City High School Chorus and I conduct a community choir, The Brooklyn Ecumenical Choir of Bedford Stuyvesant.
                      ...
Irene B. Smith was my first grade teacher at Forestville School who recommended my first piano teacher, Muriel Rose, to my parents when I was 6 years old. She took me to rhythm band rehearsals at her church, Cosmopolitan Community Church, on Saturday mornings when I was 6 years old. She attended my piano recitals and orchestra concerts when I became a member of the All Chicago Youth Orchestra.
                         ...
There is no time that I am asked how and why I became a musician that I don't mention her name because I stand firmly on her shoulders.

Patricia Pates Eaton has been a professional chorister in Metropolitan Opera productions in New York City, including Aida and Boris Gudanov; has worked with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and New York Philharmonic, among many other groups; has given recitals as a soprano soloist; and has performed several roles in operas, including Civil Wars by Phillip Glass and 'X' the Life And Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis.

                      This page was last updated on January 1, 2016