Irene Britton Smith



PREFACE

The opening line in Dr. Helen Walker Hill’s book on black women composers titled From Spirituals To Symphonies is a quote by Tania Leon saying “I am tired of all our labels...I’m not a Black conductor...am not a woman conductor...The fact that I’m in this physical costume, does not describe my energy, does not describe my entity.”


As we try to navigate the need for representation in the classical music world, and the need for historically aware and culturally sensitive music education, we are faced with many questions.

How do we represent minoritized musicians without diminishing their achievements to a single aspect of their identity? How can we do that while still highlighting the challenges and obstacles minoritized musicians face in a “highly competitive, sexist and racist musical world”?


The research of Dr. Helen Walker-Hill offers some solutions; her thorough, and well-organized writing on the lives of African-American female composers is a critical yet compassionate view of these composers’ lives. Walker-Hill provides four main reasons for why African-American women’s music must be studied:

  1. Their music deserves to be heard in the larger concert world.

  2. Art music of African Americans still does not receive equal attention in the cultural mainstream.

  3. Knowledge of these composers and their music provides a more accurate sense of American music history and literature.

  4. There is a need to correct the stereotyped concept of “black experience” and affirm multiple black identities and varied black experiences.

 

In her essay Black Women In Art Music, Teresa L. Reed provides yet another reason to

study music by African-American female composers, she writes:


“Unlike singers, instrumentalists, and conductors, black female composers have remained relatively anonymous to the public during the creation and performance of their works.”


Without the curiosity and research of historians, scholars, and musicologists there is a risk of certain musical voices being forgotten. For example, it is only by chance that Walker-Hill discovered Irene Britton Smith was in fact a composer. Walker-Hill initially arranged to speak to Smith about her connections to Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, it was in this conversation that Smith took out her scores and showed Walker-Hill some of her compositions.


 

IRENE BRITTON SMITH

BIO

(1907-1999) of African-American, Crow and Cherokee descent was born in Chicago. Smith started to learn and compose little pieces on the piano from a young age. By the age of 14, Smith also developed an interest in the violin. Music and composition were her passion, and although she wanted to learn music at Northwestern University, her family was not able to afford it. Instead, she turned to the two-year course at Chicago Normal School to train as a teacher. While being assigned to teach primary grades in the Chicago public schools, Smith studied music on a part-time basis. She received a BA from the American conservatory in 1943, and took composition courses at the Juilliard School of Music taught by Vittorio Giannini in 1946.

  • In 1948, she studied contemporary harmony with Wayne Barlow at the Eastman School of Music.

  • In 1949, she worked with Hugh Ross in choral conducting at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood and studied composition with Irving Fine.

  • She subsequently completed her MA in theory and composition at DePaul University in 1956 with Leon Stein.

  • Two years later, Smith was in Paris studying with the famed Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.

Smith’s compositions resumed until 1962, and her works were performed during her lifetime. Towards the end of her life, Smith had difficulty recognizing her own music due to her battle with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. She died at the age of 91 due to complications from these diseases, and she was buried in Lincoln Cemetery. In accordance with her wishes, Smith’s papers and music scores were donated to the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, where they now constitute the “Irene Britton Smith Collection.”


MY FIRST INTERACTION WITH HER MUSIC



I came to learn about Irene Britton Smith’s music in conversation with pianist Nathan Carterette, who mentioned that he was recording Smith’s violin sonata with violinist Er-Gene Kahng.


Carterette and Kahng performed Smith’s violin sonata in the University of Iowa’s Voxman Recital hall, in an event presented by the Center for New Music, February of 2019. They recently published a new recording of the violin sonata which you can listen to here.


You can also listen to a live performance of Smith’s violin sonata and a discussion with Er-Gene Kahng and Nathan Carterette in this event, which will be held by the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra on the 19th of February at 7 PM CST.


While some of Smith’s favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and she was quite fond of composers like Franck and Faure. Her musical style is similar to French neo-classical music, emulating transparent textures, linear writing, and modal harmonies with elegant simplicity, as can be heard in the violin sonata.


Smith composed a small number of works, and very few have been recorded, or are available online. Other than the violin sonata, the only other piece available on YouTube is a short violin and piano piece titled Reminiscence, which is recorded by violinist Rasa Mahmoudian and pianist Marianne Parker.


When I heard Smith’s violin sonata for the first time I couldn’t help but wonder why I’ve never heard of this music before. As a pianist studying classical music in the Middle East, I rarely heard music by American composers, it was strange enough that I was listening to the music of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. I would often ask myself “Who brought Beethoven to the Middle East? Who am I supposed to be? Do I fit into this world? Why do I play?”


Irene Britton Smith’s music and life seem to be asking similar questions: What brought French idioms of music to Chicago? Who is she? Did she fit into this world? And why did she compose?

Smith was similar to composer Julia Perry in the sense that she wanted to write music for the sake of music, her compositions do not reflect African-American idioms or employ the racial characteristics of music by African-American composers such as Florence Price, William Grant Still, or William Dawson.


At the same time, she wrote poetry speaking to the affinity and belonging she feels for her African-American community, she ends one of her poems with the words “This is my life, a song, because I am me, I am my people”.


It might just as well be that Irene Britton Smith was writing music for the sake of music, and that she hadn’t wished to be seen as a Black, female or Cherokee composer. She even modestly protested to being referred to as a “real” composer “certainly not like Margaret Bonds”.


Smith insisted that her life and compositions were not affected by her being black nor by being a woman. And while being sensitive to the way that she perceived herself and without completely ignoring sociological and musical attitudes to minoritized composers, it is possible to lean into the wealth of artistic expression within the multiplicity of black identities and variety in black experiences.


References:

Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007.


Hayes, Eileen M. Black Women and Music: More than the Blues. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2007.

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