Sunday, February 14, 2021 Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Classical Composition: APO introduces African-American composer's 1947 sonata

Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999)
Courtesy Center for Black Music Research, 
Columbia College Chicago

It was 1989, and Helen Walker-Hill, a member of the piano faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was working on a book titled "From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music."

She wanted to interview a Chicago teacher named Irene Britton Smith -- not because Smith was a composer, as far as she knew, but because Smith had reportedly known African-American composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

What she discovered brought a completely unknown African-American composer into the spotlight. And Smith's work is now a topic of interest for Arkansas Philharmonic musicians Er-Gene Kahng and Nathan Carterette, who will perform her Violin Sonata for Piano Feb. 19.

"I first performed this work when I was performing a concert with Dr. Samantha Ege in Singapore," remembers violinist Kahng. "She introduced me to her and Ethel Smyth's violin sonatas."

"Er-Gene herself originally mentioned the Violin Sonata to me," adds pianist Carterette. "It is published by Vivace Press, a firm dedicated to publishing work of lesser known composers, especially women. They have some other pieces by her, and really a treasure trove of scores that cannot be found elsewhere."

According to her 1999 obituary in The Chicago Tribune, Smith earned a bachelor's of music in composition from the American Conservatory of Music, studied at New York's Juilliard School and received a master's degree in musical composition from DePaul University. Her life's work was teaching -- more than 42 years -- in the Chicago Public Schools. Music was her hobby: For example, she took a sabbatical to study at Juilliard.

But she also created about 30 pieces of classical music, and according to Walker-Hill, 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, Walker-Hill wrote, 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.

[Irene Britton Smith is profiled as a Composer of African Descent at]

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