The cobbler’s son goes without shoes
, as the saying goes, and in the case of Robert Edward Smith, Trinity’s Composer-in-Residence, the saying rings true, but with a twist.
The year was 1970, and Smith had just made his professional debut in Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City. A particularly proud couple, Agnes and Edward Smith, was among the many audience members in attendance cheering the performance by the composer on the biggest day of his life, but for no other reason than the fact that it was their son.
“They were thrilled to be there, but they didn’t really know what was going on,” Smith, who is a professional harpsichordist, violinist, pianist, and
composer, cheerily recalled. “My parents had no interest in classical music.”
His mother affirms that her own interest in classical music developed over time.
“I didn’t know much about classical music until he started,” his 97-year-old mother, Agnes, said via telephone from her River Commons Retirement home in Florida. “But I was proud it was my son, and I really enjoyed when he played.”
Though his parents were only mildly in tune with Smith’s life craft, the music world took notice as The New York Times
dubbed him “an immensely skillful musician,” and called his debut performance “…never gimmicky or unmusical,” while adding that his playing that night was “tremendous.”(Right: Robert Edward Smith at the Trinity Chapel. Photo by Nick Lacy)
Smith, a world-class composer who has mastered the harpsichord, violin, and organ, said his parents were always his most important audience growing up. It was a tall order for the young virtuoso, considering his parents’ choice of music: top-40 radio hits and Broadway show tunes.
“I never wanted to write music they didn’t like,” he said shortly after debuting his first opera which chronicled the life of Isabel Stewart Gardener, at the Boston Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, in May. “They were always very supportive of me, even if they didn’t really understand what I was doing.”
At first, his parents had hoped their son would go in another direction.
“Every Saturday [Robert] would watch classical music on the television, and that was when he was just nine-years-old,” his mother said. “When he first picked up the violin – I was like ‘oh no!’ When his father asked him what he was going to college for, Robert said ‘music,’ and I said, what about English? His father told me to let him pursue whatever makes him happy, or he won’t be happy.”
Smith’s parents - his father, a letter carrier, and his mother, a stenographer - were in attendance for all of his performances along the years. His professional debut in New York was the last show his father would get the chance to see before passing in 1973. His mother watched his recent opera remotely, through DVD, which was projected on a large television to a crowd, which she estimates between 25-50 people, in a common area room for residents of her retirement community.
“They clapped as if they were in the audience and they told me, ‘you must be very proud’,” she said. “And, of course, I am.”
According to Agnes, there is a group of classical music enthusiasts at the retirement home that regularly gathers to listen to classical music, which she joked, “…needs to be cranked up very loud.”
It is no surprise that Smith’s musical went over so well with the group in Florida. Smith developed an adept ability to span across many different listening levels with his music, reaching everyone from those attending concerts for the first time, to devoted classical music enthusiasts.
“My goal is always to reach as many people as possible with my music,” he said. “People pay good money to [be at the performances], so I want everyone to enjoy it.”
And the people do enjoy it. At the conclusion of the opera performance, the Conservatory audience enthusiastically roared in approval – a rarity at a classical music performance.
“I felt profoundly satisfied that something I did reached the audience so deeply,” the understated Smith said about the overwhelming reaction. “That has always been my goal as a composer: to communicate with the audience, to move them. When a piece of mine is as successful at doing that as my opera was, there is simply nothing like it.”
In a review of the musical, The Boston Globe
took particular note of Smith’s skills.
“Smith’s music — performed by a small cast, plus eight strings, bassoon, horn, and clarinet, under Feltner — is tuneful and well made. ‘A Place of Beauty’ is the first opera by Smith, a skilled harpsichordist and a composer in residence at Trinity College Chapel in Hartford,” wrote The Boston Globe
in a review.
[Click here for more on the opera
“The orchestrations were wonderful, colorful, and complimentary to the singers,” said John Rose, College Organist and Chapel Music Director, about the performance. Rose called himself a “cheerleader and supporter of [Smith’s] talent,” from his work at Trinity, to Smith’s opera in Boston, where Rose was a part of the receptive crowd.
Smith wrote the music to the opera, entitled “A Place of Beauty,” for the Intermezzo Opera Company of Boston, in just six weeks. And while Smith called it “one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” the amount of time it took him to complete it was relatively insignificant compared the four years he spent writing a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in all the keys, major and minor, for organ. Before Smith accomplished the feat in 1999, it had never been done for the organ. Ironically enough, a man by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach, most known for his organ work, did it twice -- for the harpsichord. Outside of Smith and Bach, only one other composer has completed 24 prelude and fugues in all of the keys: Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a celebrated Russian composer who completed a collection for piano. Writing music, says Smith, is a craft of passion, and with that comes its peaks and valleys.
“Sometimes I find myself in a corner [while writing music] and other times, the piece writes itself. At times, it comes so fast that it is hard for me to keep up,” said Smith who developed shorthand to enable him to record his thoughts at a high speed. “Ideas come to me at the worst possible times. When I’m on the road, I need to pull over. When I’m outside, I’ll have to run into my house to get my thoughts on paper. At dinner, it becomes difficult, because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.”
Smith, who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, before moving to Elizabeth, N.J. after college, forged into the music world at the age of nine while in fifth grade. A teacher came into his classroom and asked if anyone wanted to learn the violin, so at that point he decided that he “just wanted to do it.” Eight years later, he had scholarship offers from three different music schools for organ, harpsichord, and composing. Smith’s choice between the prestigious Julliard and the lesser-known Mannes College of Music was an easy one for him: Mannes, because of an additional scholarship from the Harpsichord Music Society to hone his harpsichord skills, and because of the strong program and highly accomplished harpsichord teacher at the college.
Composition faculty at the Manhattan School of Music strongly urged Smith not to be a harpsichord major, because of his skills and promise as a composer. Though it is apparent the college faculty was correct in their assessment regarding Smith’s compositional skills, it is not a decision he regrets, because of his strong passion for the harpsichord.
“He really loved the harpsichord when he was little,” his mom said. “He still does.”
In 1979, Smith came to Trinity, where he thought he would be the Composer-in-Residence for “a couple of years.” Nearly thirty-three years later, he has written approximately 100 compositions for Trinity-specific events, church services, and formal performances at the Trinity College Chapel
on campus, which became a second home to Smith, who would spend many late nights writing music for any and all requests.
Rose, who recruited Smith to Trinity in 1979 after having worked with him in the past, says that most of Smith’s work has been tailored to the specific talents of the Trinity musicians performing the work, adding that it has been a great resource for not just the Chapel, but the College. Among the works that Smith has given to Trinity is what Rose calls “an emotional, simple, yet interesting” arrangement of ‘Neath the Elms; music for the hugely popular annual Lessons and Carols program; music for Trinity anniversaries and dedications; and original works for other key Trinity events, such as the dedication of the new Chapel Pew Lights in December, 2011. In addition, his work, under the Trinity College and Chapel name, has been shared across the country with prestigious choirs in New York, Chicago, California, and elsewhere.
“He’s given a lot to Trinity through his music and his sense of humor,” Rose added. “The students appreciate it and I appreciate it. His positive personality shows through in his music.”
[Watch a slideshow of the Trinity College Chapel Singers performing work by Smith: http://goo.gl/DbDSL
“It’s really such a special place,” Smith said about Trinity. “I love the people, and visually, it’s just so beautiful. There’s nothing like it in Boston.”
His mother shares a strong affection for Trinity.
“I used to watch many of his performances at Trinity,” Agnes recalled. “I really loved going there. I loved everything about it. I loved the campus. I loved the chapel. I especially loved watching my son’s performances.”
It is clear that Trinity has been a special place to Smith for many years, and it is clear that Smith’s music will have a special place at Trinity for many years to come. The cobbler’s son has his shoes. And his parents were cobblers without even knowing it. For more on Robert Edward Smith and samples of his work, visit: www.robertedwardsmith.com.