Irene Britton Smith

It is difficult to find much recorded music of composer Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999).  She was born to parents of African-American and African-American and Crow-Cherokee descent. In her early years she played first piano, then violin; she wished to study music formally but financial realities led her first to a career in elementary education. She finally took a one course a year  at the American Conservatory, starting with theory then form/analysis, and counterpoint. She played violin in a few orchestras, one the all-black Harrison Ferrell Symphony Orchestra. When she married, her husband wished to pursue a grad degree in chemistry, but it was hard for qualified black people to get jobs in Illinois, so they lived apart for 10 years. In 1936 Smith wrote to Florence Price after hearing her talk at Lincoln Center.  She received encouragement for the composer, and decided to work to get a degree in theory and composition at the American Conservatory, which she received in 1938. 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. Yet she persisted, doing graduate studies at Juilliard and a summer at Tanglewood. It wasn’t until 1956 that she finished her grad degree, this time at De Paul. Two years later she was in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, who told her "You are a born musician.  Follow your ear.”  Later years were spent composing, but also developing a new method of learning reading for the Chicago Public School System. She became a educational docent for the Chicago Symphony after retiring from teaching in 1978.  Not many of her works are known; only about 3 dozen.  About half are vocal, the rest instrumental: ten instrumental works for solo piano (including two arrangements of Bartok), two for violin, one string trio, and four for orchestra (including an arrangement of Three Fantastic Dances by Shostakovich). 

Towards the end of her life she had difficulty recognizing her own music because she suffered from Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. She died the age of 91 of complications from these diseases and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, where Florence Price is also buried.

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