Irene Britton Smith

A dedicated educator in the Chicago Public Schools, Irene Britton Smith studied music part-time and was an accomplished composer, pianist, violinist, and organist. Smith composed 36 major works in her lifetime, 19 of which were for voice.

Photo: Irene Britton Smith, photograph from courtesy of the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago

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    Born in Chicago, Irene Britton Smith was the youngest of four siblings, and of African-American, Crow, and Cherokee descent. Smith showed musical interest at a young age, and began studying piano with V. Emanuel Johnson. She started to learn and compose short pieces, and by age 14 she began to take violin lessons in addition to her piano studies. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School, she wished to pursue a music degree at Northwestern University. However, due to financial constraints Smith attended the Chicago Normal School from 1924–26 instead, from which she received an education degree.

    Smith began work in the Chicago Public Schools as an elementary school teacher in 1930. Despite having to forego a collegiate music education, she studied music in her free time. From 1930–31, she played violin in the all-Black Harrison Farrell Orchestra. The following year, she became a part-time student at the American Conservatory of Music where she studied music theory with Stella Roberts and composition with Leo Sowerby, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Music degree in 1943. From 1946–47, Smith took a sabbatical from teaching to study composition at the Juilliard School of Music with Vittorio Giannini. She continued her composition studies during the following summers at the Eastman School of Music and the Tanglewood Music Festival, and in 1956 she completed a Master of Music degree in composition at DePaul University. Two years later, Smith traveled to the Fontainebleau Summer School in France, where she studied with famed composer Nadia Boulanger. 

    Many of Smith’s compositions are written in a style similar to French neo-classical music, reflecting her admiration of French composers César Franck and Gabriel Fauré. Her work also drew inspiration from her two favorite composers: Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms. Though Smith’s instrumental compositions—such as her Sonata for Violin and Piano (1947) and her Sinfonietta (1956)—are among her more popular works, Smith also frequently composed songs and arranged spirituals. Her song cycle Dream Cycle for soprano and piano (1947) sets text by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

    In addition to her classical training, Smith drew musical inspiration from her sonic surroundings. Her sister-in-law Jeanne Smith Ellis commented, “You always had the idea she was listening to the sound of your voice, the sounds that came out of your mouth.” Smith also was deeply influenced by her spatial surroundings in her hometown: “She liked the sound of Chicago. Chicago has sort of a musical sound.”

    Despite Smith’s extensive education and well-crafted compositions, she was a humble composer and often downplayed the quality of her work, leading her to stop composing altogether in 1962. However, music remained a rich part of her life. When Smith retired from teaching in 1978, she combined her two life’s passions—music and education—and became a docent for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at elementary schools. Though Smith stopped composing, her works continued to be performed for the remainder of her life, and they live on today. 

    Sophia Janevic

    This profile was created in 2021 as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.


    Abaido, Ghadeer. “Irene Britton Smith.” VWCM. VWCM, February 12, 2021.

    Payette, Jessica. “Smith, Irene Britton.” Grove Music Online. May 25, 2016.

    Struzzi, Diane. “Irene Britton Smith, Composer.” Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1999.

    Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 

    Related Information



    Sheet Music

    An Anthology of African and African Diaspora Songs - 60 Songs

    Composer(s): H. Leslie Adams, David N. Baker, Margaret Bonds, Charles Brown, H. T. Burleigh, Valerie Capers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Arthur Cunningham, Harriette Davison Watkins, William Dawson, Mark Fax, Bruce Forsythe, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Adolphus Hailstork, Jacqueline Hairston, Maud Cuney Hare, Jeraldine Herbison, Jonathan Holland, Sylvia Hollifield, Langston Hughes, J. Rosamond Johnson, Thomas Kerr, Lena McLin, Undine Smith Moore, Andre Myers, Camille Nickerson, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Eurydice Osterman, Robert Owens, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Zenobia Powell Perry, Rosephanye Powell, Florence Price, Dave Ragland, Nadine Shanti, Carlos Simon, Hale Smith, Irene Britton Smith, Brandon Spencer, Hilbert Stewart, Howard Swanson, George Walker, Aurelia Young

    Song(s): Amazing Grace (H. Leslie Adams)
    Christmas Lullaby (H. Leslie Adams)
    Sence You Went Away (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Heart of a Woman (H. Leslie Adams)
    The Alarm Clock (David N. Baker)
    The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Margaret Bonds)
    Caring (Charles Brown)
    Desire (Charles Brown)
    Your Eyes So Deep (H. T. Burleigh)
    Your Lips Are Wine (H. T. Burleigh)
    Autumn (Valerie Capers)
    Elëanore (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    The Willow Song (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)
    Minakesh (Arthur Cunningham)
    Stars (Harriette Davison Watkins)
    Out in the Fields (William Dawson)
    The Refused (Mark Fax)
    With Rue My Heart Is Laden (Bruce Forsythe)
    Suspiro d’alma (Antônio Carlos Gomes)
    If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Longing (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Loveliest of Trees (Adolphus Hailstork)
    Dormi, Jesu (Jacqueline Hairston)
    Gardé Piti Mulet Là (Maud Cuney Hare)
    I’ll Not Forget (Jeraldine Herbison)
    Little Elegy (Jonathan Holland)
    In Time of Silver Rain (Sylvia Hollifield)
    The Founding Fathers (Langston Hughes)
    This is My Land (Langston Hughes)
    L’il Gal (J. Rosamond Johnson)
    Soliloquy (Thomas Kerr)
    Amazing Grace (Lena McLin)
    The Year’s at the Spring (Lena McLin)
    I Am in Doubt (Undine Smith Moore)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Undine Smith Moore)
    For a Poet (Andre Myers)
    Chere, Mo Lemmé Toi (Camille Nickerson)
    Gué, Gué, Solingaie (Camille Nickerson)
    Mshila (Fred Onovwerosuoke)
    Entreaty (I Am the Rose of Sharon) (Eurydice Osterman)
    Could I but Ride Indefinite (Robert Owens)
    Die Nacht (Robert Owens)
    From the Dark Tower (Robert Owens)
    The Lynching (Robert Owens)
    The Secret (Robert Owens)
    Madrigal (Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
    O Children of Men (Zenobia Powell Perry)
    I Want to Die While You Love Me (Rosephanye Powell)
    Spring (Florence Price)
    The Sum (Florence Price)
    Martin Luther King, Jr. (Dave Ragland)
    Mangez, Boulez (Eat, Drink, Be Merry) (Nadine Shanti)
    Prayer (Carlos Simon)
    Troubled Woman (Hale Smith)
    Why Fades a Dream? (Irene Britton Smith)
    Dream Variations (Brandon Spencer)
    Spring Song (Hilbert Stewart)
    One Day (Howard Swanson)
    I Went to Heaven (George Walker)
    Norris Swamp (Aurelia Young)

    Voice Type: 36 Songs are for High Voice - Medium to High Voice
    24 Songs are for Medium - Medium to Low Voice

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