By Eric Dundon
In January 1933, thousands of high school students filled the Odeon Theater at Grand and Finney Avenues in St. Louis to hear the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Vladimir Golschmann, the fairly new Music Director of the SLSO—his tenure had begun in 1931—took the podium in front of the capacity audience.
When Golschmann gave the first downbeat, he and the orchestra began the world premiere performance of the orchestral arrangement N. Clark Smith’s Negro Folk Suite, a three-movement programmatic piece of tunes from the African diaspora representing distinct cultures of islands around the world. The performances of Smith’s Negro Folk Suite are some earliest SLSO performances of a piece by a Black composer.
Following that initial performance, the SLSO gave several subsequent performances of Smith’s piece before audiences of thousands of St. Louis schoolchildren throughout the winter and spring of 1933.
N. Clark Smith’s contributions to American music, and music education in particular, are significant. He is one of the first people known to notate African American spirituals. He was influenced by well-known acquaintances, including Booker T. Washington. In 1906, he became the Commandant of the Cadets at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He taught and nurtured renowned jazz musicians including Harlan Leonard and Julia Lee. He lived throughout the Midwest, fostering—and in some cases, creating—school music programs.
Smith had composed for a majority of his career, even owning his own publishing company, and his compositions were mostly focused on smaller ensembles. His legacy includes more than 50 compositions with a heavy emphasis on African American spirituals.
In the early 1930s, Smith relocated to St. Louis to begin music programs at Sumner High School in north St. Louis. In the few years he worked in St. Louis, not far from where the SLSO’s home at Powell Hall stands today, Smith left an indelible mark on the community. He hosted “The St. Louis Blues Show” on KMOX weekly. The band and jubilee clubs at Sumner quickly became the pride of St. Louis School Superintendent Dr. Henry Gerling, and Smith’s tireless work to promote music literacy amongst young people became an equal point of pride. Smith’s ensembles performed on their own, often with Gerling’s assistance to find a venue.
Smith and Gerling collaborated with the SLSO to implement a series of concerts for schoolchildren in 1931, with fantastic success. Building upon a ten-year foundation of education concerts begun under Music Director Rudolph Ganz in 1921, entire school populations heard the SLSO perform in the early 1930s.
After many successful concerts, the SLSO performed a full orchestral arrangement of Smith’s Negro Folk Suite. Smith adapted folk songs from three islands—British Guinea (The Orange Dance), Martinique (The Pineapple Lament), and St. Helena Island (The Banana Walk)—originally for five pianos and percussion instruments. Over the years, he revised the composition and re-orchestrated it for different ensembles. For the school concert series, Smith orchestrated the suite for large instrumental forces and solo piano, with pianist Nathan Sacks giving the premiere performances with the SLSO.
Smith won a prestigious Wanamaker Prize for composition in 1930, two years before Florence Price won the prize for her Symphony No. 1, becoming the first Black woman to have a work performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).
Smith would continue a fruitful relationship with the SLSO throughout his time leading school ensembles in St. Louis, which due to health reasons, ended in 1934 before his death on October 8 of that year.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.
Source: Lyle-Smith, Eva Diane. Nathaniel Clark Smith (1877-1934): African-American Musician, Music Educator and Composer, dissertation, December 1993; Denton, Texas. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc277721/), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; .