Trinity Has Its Own Composer? Yes, Since 1979

4 min read


Did you know that Trinity had a Composer-in-Residence? Me neither.

Since, 1979 Robert Edward Smith has been the College’s go-to composer when it comes to new music for the Chapel Singers. He is also the director of the annual summer Chamber Music Series on campus.

But Smith was a harpsichordist before he became a bona fide composer. He began harpsichord when he was “older than you should be,” he told me over the phone. But in fact, he is the first person since the 18th century to record all of Francois Couperin’s (1668-1733) harpsichord works (all 226 of them). He has also recorded works by Jean-Philippe Rameau and J.S. Bach.

He began his professional studies at Juilliard, where he studied organ with Bronson Ragan. He then went on to study harpsichord with Sylvia Marlowe at the Mannes School of Music, earning his B.S. in 1968.

Since then, he has toured extensively throughout the world. But he fell in love with Trinity when he came here with John Rose, predecessor of Prof. Christopher Houlihan as College Organist. As a Composer in Residence, when he first came to the College his role was almost like that of a professor. While teaching harpsichord realization at the Hartt School of Music, Smith worked with Rose in Chapel Music. Although he has since moved to Boston and only very rarely comes back to Trinity (he still directs the Summer Chamber Music Series), he still composes music for the chapel and other venues on campus.

Gone are the times, he says, where composers would physically work in offices, showing their work to colleagues, operating in the same physical space. His method of composition has changed with the advent of email, the internet, and music composition software. Now, the Chapel, really Prof. Houlihan, commissions work from Smith for choral pieces for the Chapel Singers. In fact, Smith recently finished a piece to be performed at the annual Lessons and Carols on Dec. 9, which he says he wrote in an afternoon. He also composes music for commencement.

Working remotely, and communicating work electronically, with the advent of the technology age, Smith says has changed nothing about composing. I thought he would have said it changed everything and something to the effect of “it was better back when we just wrote on paper.” But he told me that nothing has changed in the way composers interact with each other.

He does not only compose for Trinity, but also writes chamber and orchestral works for premier in Boston and around the country. He is working on a new horn concerto which will be premiered in Boston in May 2019.

The role of a composer today, he told me, is a producer of a product. “Beethoven thought of himself as a producer of a product,” he says. In that vein, he says that composers today “are looking to please their audience.” His music certainty shows that sentiment.

Relying on predictable, but artful, tonality, parallel thirds, and frequent cadences, his music is like a mix of Mozartian lightness and sometimes Beethovenian drive. He “wants people to hear my stuff.” Sometimes, then, the music sounds like it was from the 18th century. And this confuses some people, he says. But Smith does not subscribe to the idea of Schoenberg and the Romantics that music should “educate” the audience. Smith was careful to not use the word “entertain,” but he said people should “relax and enjoy” his music.

Emily Wertheimer ’20, a chapel singer who recently sung one of his composition says of his music, “it is understated and simple yet oddly satisfying.”

And if that isn’t enough to dismiss the Second Viennese school of composers, Smith said that Schoenberg and the weird atonal music of his contemporaries will never make a resurgence. It’s “snobbish” to want to educate the audience, he says.

Smith did not sound like he has any plans of giving up composing soon. But his feeling that Trinity’s campus is “emotionally evocative” will also never subside. When I asked if he had anything else to say to the Trinity community, he said, “I miss them.” It gave me the chills.

You can hear Robert Edward Smith’s compositions on SoundCloud or attend any Sunday Chapel service at 12:30, and odds are one of his compositions will be on the program.

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