Leo Smit

Leo Smit and Nils Vigeland, Hotel Del Coronado,Ca., June 1997

Leo Smit and Nils Vigeland at the Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego, California, June 1997

When it became clear that it was time to find my second piano teacher, my parents came up with the idea that I should play for the newly hired professor at SUNY Buffalo, Leo Smit. I was 13. I had heard Leo play a recital in the downtown library and decided to prepare one of the pieces he had played, the Rondo final movement of Mozart's Sonata in B flat major, K. 281. Upon arriving at his house, Leo did not answer the door, but simply called out, "come in". I entered the hallway to find him lying on a couch in the piano room. I launched into the piece and made it through the second theme, at which point Leo interrupted and asked, "Do you play ping-pong"? I answered affirmatively and that ended the lesson. We then played ping-pong for the next hour. That was 1963. The first time I beat Leo was in Rome, ten years later, on a table on the top floor of the Villa Auralia. 

I never really studied piano with Leo, rather I learned music from him. Throughout high school, then in Rome in 1972-73 and then upon returning to Buffalo for graduate studies, I was a regular visitor at his house as he was at my parents'. A constant traveler, he would let it be known upon arriving back home, that a slide show was ready for viewing. This was usually followed by hours at the piano, often of Leo playing his newest piece or sometimes four hand sight-reading. We performed Le Sacre together as well as Billy the Kid. I remember the first time I showed him a piece of mine, a setting of a Psalm for chorus and organ. He played the first sound, a widely spaced diatonic chord and said, "clean chord", then the next sound, an 8 note pile of four Major thirds separated by a minor 2nd. This he pronounced a "dirty chord". That was my introduction to composition lessons. 

Leo was an extraordinary pianist who seemed at an early age destined for a big time career as a soloist. He gave his Carnegie Hall debut in 1938 which included the first performance of a piece written for him by Nicholas Nabokov. His career began conventionally enough, touring with standard repertoire, but very quickly, Leo began to tire of this. Composing was becoming more and more important for him. He left management and went out on his own. He was the second person to perform the Copland Sonata and became part of Copland's circle of preferred performers. His recording of the complete solo piano works of Copland for SONY in 1977 remain the definitive performances of these pieces for me. His own work began to achieve recognition - his First Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony with Charles Munch was given a Critic's Circle Award in 1953.  This piece, severely classical in design and tonality, is reflective of his association with the music of Stravinsky, whom he first met as the rehearsal pianist for Balanchine's premiere of Jeu des Cartes in 1937. When Stravinsky eventually adopted his own kind of serialism, Leo began to admit some aspects of 12 tone thinking into his own music, while always filtering them into a language essentially tonal. Examples of this are his Piano Concerto and a setting of a Theodore Roethke poem, In a Dark Time. Like many American composers of his generation, notably his very close friends, Alexei Haieff and Harold Shapero, a general drift away from classicism in American music, left Leo's work further from general attention.

Perhaps aware of this, in the last ten years of his life, Leo devoted himself almost exclusively to setting the poetry of Emily Dickinson. There are 88 songs, grouped  by different themes and subjects in six cycles,  five of which have been recorded on Bridge Records, three of them by Leo and Rosalind Rees1, the other two by Georgine Resick and Warren Jones2. In this late music of Leo, a unification of purpose is sensed as well as a great assertion of freedom and confidence. As Leo himself said, it was "the happiest period of my creative life". 

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1 Bridge Records CD 9080
2 Bridge Records CD 9227
Two of the cycles, Childe Emilie and The White Diadem are published by Theodore Presser. Two others, The Marigold Heart and The Celestial Thrush are available in editions supervised by the composer.
For information, write to Nils Vigeland <nvigeland@optonline.net>