Thursday, July 23, 2009

Irene Britton Smith, African American Composer Who Taught Reading in Chicago Schools for 40 Years

[Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999); Kaleidoscope: Music by African-American Women; Sonata for Violin and Piano, Irene Britton Smith, composer; Helen Walker-Hill, piano; Gregory Walker, violin; Leonarda 339 (1995)] Launches Page on African American Composer Irene Britton Smith

Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago and Florence Price made it her adopted home town, but Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999) achieved a world-class music education in her spare time while devoting her life to teaching Reading in the Public Schools of her native Chicago for more than 40 years.
Her exceptional success with the phono-visual method of teaching Reading made her a recognized specialist in Elementary Education. Today proudly launches a new web page on Irene Britton Smith, who was born in Chicago Dec. 22, 1907 and died in the city Feb. 15, 1999.

The principal source for the new page on Irene Britton Smith is the book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music, written by Dr. 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.” “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.”

he 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.” Smith's hymn Fairest Lord Jesus was published by G. Schirmer in 1946. In the same year a sabbatical enabled Smith to take two graduate courses at Juilliard from Vittorio Giannini. He was amazed by the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, when Smith showed him her setting of his text, “Why Fades A Dream?” Irene Britton Smith completed her Master's Degree at De Paul University in 1956, Dr. Helen Walker-Hill relates, and in 1958 studied in France with Nadia Boulanger.

One of Irene's works, her
Sonata for Violin and Piano (15:07) was published by Vivace Press in 1996 and is the most prominent work 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 published one of many favorable reviews of the CD: “...good music that has been overlooked and underrepresented in the traditional repertory...”

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