A renowned pianist and composer who flourished under professional relationships with Aaron Copeland and Igor Stravinsky, Leo Smit was also a pioneer of transforming the standard recital format into thematic, multimedia concert presentations.
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In 1957, when composer-pianist Leo Smit was presented with the New York Music Critics Circle award for the “best new orchestral work of the year”—his Symphony No.1 in E-flat, which had received its premiere that year by the Boston Symphony—the honor was magnified by the prestigious company of well-established senior composers in which he found himself. The thirty-six-year-old relative newcomer to the world of recognized 20th-century composers—until then known more as a pianist than as a composer—was one of a trio honored by the Circle that year with its tripartite award. Smit’s fellow recipients were Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky, who, at seventy-five, was internationally acknowledged as the most influential and probably the most famous composer of the first half of the 20th century, and whose Agon—staged a month earlier by the New York City Ballet—was adjudged the “best new ballet score”; and a prominent member of the group of French composers known as Les Six, Francis Poulenc, upon whom the Circle bestowed its award for the “best new opera of the year,” for his now well-known and highly regarded The Dialogues of the Carmelites. Agon went on to receive many choreographies and stagings throughout the world over the next half century and has been programmed frequently at orchestral concerts. The Dialogues of the Carmelites, too, is no stranger to opera audiences, with productions from time to time by some of the major opera houses. But the vicissitudes of the music world are such that for Smit, that occasion, with its ample press coverage, probably turned out to be the most visible public moment in his long and nonetheless fruitful career. It is probably safe to say that—despite his successful composing, pianistic, and teaching career, with numerous commissions, performances, and accolades—only knowledgeable contemporary composers and aficionados or historians of 20th-century American music would know of his first symphony today. Somewhat ironically, however, it was Stravinsky who was later acknowledged by critics and by Smit himself to have been the most important influence on his music.
Smit was born in Philadelphia to Jewish parents who had emigrated from the Czarist Empire. His father, Kolman Smit, was a violinist who played at various periods with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the young Leo displayed prodigious talent at the piano. In 1929, when he was eight years old, he accompanied his parents (some accounts refer only to his mother) on a visit to the Soviet Union, the reasons for which are not entirely clear from readily available sources. (It was not so common—though not impossible either—for Americans to travel to the Soviet Union at that stage in its youth, even to visit relatives. The most obvious motivating factor for such visits was often curiosity about the “new world order” and the manipulated success stories of the Bolshevik Revolution; and many who visited in those days did so out of preexisting sympathies for communist, or at least socialist, ideals. But present research has yielded no reason to believe this to be applicable in this case.) While there (according to later press accounts) he was offered lessons with the well-known Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, and he remained for that purpose with his mother for a period of three months to a year—depending on which press reports are accepted as accurate. After returning to Philadelphia, from 1930 to 1932 he studied piano at the Curtis Institute with Isabella Vengerova and then went to New York, where he studied with José Iturbi prior to that popular classical pianist’s Hollywood career. Beginning in 1935 he studied composition with Nicolas Nabokov, whose music he later premiered in concert. Smit’s first piece written during his studies with Nabokov was a Yiddish song, Tsvey, on a poem by the intellectual Yiddish poet Mani Leib. In its vocal line and in its piano part, the song reveals chromatic as well as expressionist tendencies.
When he was only fifteen years old, on the strength of his extraordinary sight-reading ability, Smit was engaged as a rehearsal pianist for George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet, which at the time was also the resident ballet corps for the Metropolitan Opera. For the rest of his life he credited that experience with having had a lasting impact on his direction and on his music—not least because it was there where he met Stravinsky and came under his guidance.
Stravinsky had been commissioned to write a ballet score for the company, which became his Jeu de cartes, and he came to New York to supervise its 1937 production. As the rehearsal pianist, Smit benefited from what he later called “detailed coaching” by Stravinsky, and he also learned much from the composer’s many comments to the dancers.
Later, Smit composed two ballet scores of his own for the dancer Valerie Bettis: Yerma (1946); and Virginia Sampler (1947; rev. 1960), his first major work, which was commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. By that time, he had become an established pianist.
Aaron Copland, whose reputation was building as the most widely recognized American composer of any period up to that time, also exerted a profound influence upon Smit, especially with regard to rhythmic and harmonic gestures, but in terms of his interest in Americana as well. Copland chose Smit to record his piano concerto and coached him during rehearsals and recording sessions; and Smit performed the concerto a number of times in public.
Smit’s memorable sense of humor, displayed in writings and lectures, is illustrated in his assessment of the various pedagogic and artistic influences on him:
I scholarshipped with Dmitri Kabalevsky (who taught me adagio); then … Isabella Vengerova (who taught me legato); and José Iturbi (who taught me forte); Nicolas Nabokov, who taught me music… Igor Stravinsky, who prepared me as a pianist at age fifteen in three of his ballets for George Balanchine’s American Ballet; and Aaron Copland, who freed my last lingering musical inhibitions.
In 1939 Smit made his Carnegie Hall debut in a piano recital, after which his performing career began to soar. He found himself increasingly in demand and valued by other composers as an interpreter of new music, and he is still remembered as a brilliant pianist and a leading pianistic exponent of 20th-century works—many of which he premiered. He played in concert under such world-class conductors as Charles Munch, Leopold Stokowski, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Izler Solomon, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein—mostly in performances of 20th-century concertos. Among the composers whose works he premiered—some of them as a conductor—are Bartók, Copland, Hindemith, Kabalevsky, Haieff, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Bliss. Having established himself firmly as a composer as well by the late 1950s, he was frequently asked about that dual career—whether the time needed for piano practice impinged on the time needed for composition and its requisite periods of reflection. He always replied that to the contrary, he found no conflict. Work at the piano acted as a stimulus for his composing, and he once told New York Times critic Edward Downes that it provided an invaluable means for trying new ideas for his own music. Initial ideas can be mere abstractions, he pointed out, but many composers—himself included—needed the physical sound of music as a testing ground.
From 1947 to 1949 Smit taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 1950 he was awarded two major fellowships: a Fulbright in piano and a Guggenheim in composition, which enabled him to spend two years in Rome at the American Academy. In 1957 he relocated for a while to Los Angeles, where he taught at UCLA as head of its piano department and also served on the board of directors of a series known as Monday Evening Concerts—an effort to promote new music. In 1962 he began his tenure at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. He remained on its faculty for many years, punctuated by a fifteen-week tour of Latin America under the sponsorship of the State Department, where he introduced those audiences to American music, and a return to the American Academy in Rome as composer in residence in 1972–73. It was in Rome that he wrote Caedmon—a cantata for three solo voices, male chorus, and orchestra, to a text by Anthony Hecht in Latin and English—which was premiered by the Buffalo Philharmonic; and Copernicus: Narrative and Credo, to a text in English, Latin, and Italian by the British astronomer Sir Frederick Hoyle. Scored for narrator, chorus, and nine instruments, Copernicus was commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences (where it was also premiered, in Washington, D.C.) to commemorate the five hundredth birthday of the groundbreaking astronomer.
Smit developed a dislike for the conventional recital format and pioneered so-called thematic concerts as an alternative, with visual aids, interspersed commentary, readings, and other innovations. In those forward-looking endeavors, he appears presciently to have been ahead of his time in anticipating such successful late-20th-century programming as Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations and Mona Golabek’s The Romantic Hours. Among Smit’s most interesting and most often repeated thematic concerts were:
The Masters of Jazz presentation was especially effective and well received in several of the cities on his Latin American tour. In Venezuela, following one of its performances, Smit was asked by a news reporter if he thought that jazz would “save the world.” “Unfortunately,” he replied, “today’s politicians are not particularly musical; and if Chopin and Beethoven have not done the job by now, the future does not look too bright.”
Three distinct yet related periods in Smit’s creative development, stylistic approach, and technique have been discerned by critics and other observers:
1. The 1940s “American phase,” when—partially influenced by Copland’s examples—some works were inspired by American subjects and Americana in general. Some bear the more direct mark of Copland’s stylistic impact as well.
2. A neoclassical or quasi-neoclassical period, beginning in the 1950s, when he seems to have leaned more toward contrapuntal textures and more abstract approaches.
3. The period from the 1960s, marked by an integration of styles and techniques, including outright alternation between very free rhythmic passages and tightly organized meters.
By the time of his first “big break” with his first symphony in 1957, Smit had already begun his so-called neoclassical phase. Following its second performance by the Boston Symphony immediately after its premiere, this time in New York, Howard Taubman of The New York Times referred to its “directness and clarity” and described the first movement as having “an almost classical profile.” He heard the slow movement as “almost Brahmsian, with his [Smit’s] broad, singing theme which has a long line and a strong romantic inclination.”
Other works from that period include Capriccio (1958), for string orchestra, premiered under Copland’s baton at the Ojai Festival in California, which makes use of such 17th- and 18th-century elements as fugal counterpoint, variations, and quoted material (especially from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score Sleeping Beauty, since Smit wrote Capriccio as an overt homage to the Russian master); and Academic Graffiti, for voice, clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion (1959)—a setting of humorous quatrains by W. H. Auden about famous and infamous people in history.
After the early 1960s, when Smit entered his third phase, aspects of his earlier styles and techniques became intertwined with new forays into more advanced rhythms and rhythmic momentum, wider arrays of tone colors and sonorities, and, overall, a solid, hearty lyricism. To the 1960s belong his second symphony, in six movements (1965); and his piano concerto (1965), described in a review both as an “ode to nature” and as “a kind of old-fashioned work by a composer acutely alive to his world but also enamored of its traditions.” Originally titled Concerto for Orchestra and Piano, Smit revised it in 1980, adding new first and last movements, under its new title as Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.
Smit described his three-act science fiction opera, The Alchemy of Love—one of his best-remembered works—as a “space fable.” The first of his collaborations with Sir Frederick Hoyle (preceding Copernicus), the opera deals with incidents on “Planet 197/43,” suggesting similarities to events on earth. In 1971 he used some of the material from its score in a new orchestral work, Four Kookaburra Marches, referring to the exotic Australian kingfisher with its “hysterical laugh.” About the two works, Smit wrote:
In the opera and the marches, the kookaburra symbolically replaces the biblical rooster whose crowing points at man’s age-old talent for betrayal. The kookaburra’s infectious laughter smacks of the pettiness and cruelty of Homo Sapiens’ blundering on earth, while heralding the day when man abandons himself to his intelligence and love of life.
The final section of the opera utilizes an earlier work of Smit’s: his 1953 Parcae, an orchestral overture that he withdrew as a distinct piece when he decided to use it for the opera.
Among Smit’s other interesting works of the 1970s and 1980s are At the Corner of the Sky, for men and boys’ choir, flute, and oboe, with a text based on North American Indian poetry in translation; Scena Cambiata, for trombone, viola, and cello; Love Songs Without Words (after Cole Porter), for woodwind quintet; and In Woods, for oboe, harp, and percussion, of which he worte that the “romantic forests” of Germany and Austria inspired the musical decor, which “envelops the singing ghosts of several 19th-century composers…. I invite the listener to join me In Woods but hope that once ‘In Deep Woods’ [the title of the last of the five parts] he will find it difficult to leave, for having gone that far and perhaps having lost the way and found himself, he will wish to stay a while longer to explore this new place.”
One of Smit’s persistent concerns was what he felt must be sought as a sort of reconciliation of “radical” twelve-tone serial techniques of the Second Viennese School (along with other, subsequent serial procedures) and the sturdy, overall sense of tonality—however much advanced or enriched—in the music of composers such as Hindemith or, especially, Stravinsky, since he too had begun to take some interest in serial techniques. Although never a twelve-tone composer, Smit admitted feeling attracted to the discipline that came from the self-imposed limitations of serialism and its artistic potential, but only as one of many procedures that he could use in conjunction with freer approaches.
Toward the end of the 1980s Smit became almost passionately absorbed with the poetry of Emily Dickinson, his settings of which include six song cycles under the collective title The Ecstatic Pilgrimage (1988–1990); Alone, specified for a female violinist and reciter (1988); five choral songs titled The Last Hour; and Three immortality Songs for baritone and guitar (1996).
On the basis of available evidence and in the absence of deeper research, it is difficult to assess Smit’s attitudes toward his Jewish heritage or the degree to which he harbored feelings of Jewish identity. The fact that his first song as a student of Nabokov’s was a setting of a Yiddish poem in the original language, written while he was still a youth, suggests possible family influence along those lines. And in addition to the chamber work Tzadik, he wrote two other Judaically related pieces: a setting of V’shamru, from the Hebrew Sabbath liturgy, commissioned by Cantor David Putterman for the annual Sabbath evening service of new music at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York in 1947; and Hebraic Heritage, for solo piano.
Smit sometimes spoke and wrote about music and composing in primordial, quasi-religious terms, referring to the process as a “miracle of musical creation.” He saw the task confronting a composer as “frightening but inspirational . . . to make something intelligible out of unformed beginnings.” And inspiration, however elusive and however hard won at times, appears to have been his continuous desiderata: “If inspiration is the right word,” he proposed, “then it must be the gift all composers pray and work for.”