Leo Smith | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Leo Smith

Leo (Joseph Leopold) Smith. Composer, cellist, writer, teacher, b Birmingham, England, 26 Nov 1881, d Toronto 18 Apr 1952; B MUS (Manchester) 1902, honorary FRMCM (Manchester College) 1925. Smith's mother was an accomplished pianist, his father a teacher.

Smith, Leo

Leo (Joseph Leopold) Smith. Composer, cellist, writer, teacher, b Birmingham, England, 26 Nov 1881, d Toronto 18 Apr 1952; B MUS (Manchester) 1902, honorary FRMCM (Manchester College) 1925. Smith's mother was an accomplished pianist, his father a teacher. One of seven children, Smith was a child prodigy on the cello, studying with W.H. Priestley in Birmingham and Carl Fuchs in Manchester. He gave a full solo recital at eight during the Harrison concert series at Birmingham Town Hall. Studies followed at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he was later a junior instructor, and with Henry Hiles at Manchester U. A cellist in the Hallé Orchestra, he also played in chamber groups and (on a freelance basis) on tours to various centres in northern England. Compositions from his years as a student and young professional include a Symphonic Movement in E Minor (now lost) and many songs, among them some to texts by his brother Arnold, a poet. He was for five years a member of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. From this period he recalled playing under such conductors as Richter and such composers as Delius, Elgar, Debussy, and the young Bartók.

Smith emigrated to Canada in 1910, almost immediately joining the Welsman TSO and becoming principal cellist for that orchestra during its last season (1917-18). His appointment to the teaching staff of the TCM was announced in the fall of 1911. There he taught theory, composition, history, and cello and played in the Conservatory Trio and later (1929-41) in the Conservatory String Quartet. He was also a member of the Toronto String Quartette and the Academy String Quartet. Revealing a literary gift, he became a contributing editor 1918-35 to the Conservatory Quarterly Review, often writing more of the contents of each issue than his title would suggest. Early in his Toronto years Smith married the violinist Lena Hayes Smith (188?-1956).

Smith's professional career broadened considerably in the 1930s and 1940s. He was principal cellist 1932-40 in the TSO and held a similar position with the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra (Promenade Symphony Concerts) from 1938 to the mid-1940s. He also wrote the program notes for the latter. Smith played an active, though characteristically little-publicized, role as executive committee member 1946-51 of the AF of M Toronto local 149. Acquiring skill on the viola da gamba, he encouraged other musicians to cultivate the viol family, using the historic chest of viols belonging to Hart House. He later gave concerts on these instruments and introduced them into some of his works.

Composition, writing, and teaching continued to absorb Smith. His three textbooks, Musical Rudiments (Boston 1920), Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Toronto 1931), and Elementary Part-Writing (Oakville, Ont, 1939), all achieved wide use and went into several editions. Appointed lecturer in the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto in 1927, he became a professor on the inauguration of the honour music program in 1937-8, a post he held until his retirement in 1950. Remembered as a gentle, soft-spoken (at times even dreamy) Englishman, an erudite scholar, and a sensitive performer, Smith influenced a large number of young professionals through several generations that saw crucial changes in higher education in music. His pupils included Marcus Adeney, Louis Applebaum, John Beckwith, Keith Bissell, Howard Brown, Kenneth Peacock, Margaret Sargent, and Bertha Tamblyn. On his retirement, Smith was persuaded by friends to take up a position as critic with the Globe and Mail, where he provided a model of thoughtful, elegantly expressed comment until his death in 1952.

Smith said of his own music that he wished 'to pipe Canadian tunes' but feared they would always be 'sung to an English ground bass.' Though showing liberal acceptance of modern trends, he preferred in his own music to continue in the vein of impressionism, tinged with modality and Celtic lilt, which marked the music of composers in his youth such as Bax, Delius, or Edward MacDowell. He applied this approach with success to settings based on Canadian folk sources or texts by leading Canadian poets. He incorporated Quebec fiddle tunes in Tambourin for violin and piano, arranged west-coast Indian songs for concert use, and set well-loved verses such as Duncan Campbell Scott's 'When Twilight Walks in the West' with the same sensitiveness found in his leisurely, finely felt settings of Shakespeare, Blake, Swinburne, and other poets of the English tradition. Though at its best in understated and perhaps elegiac harmonies, as in the Scott song or the Delius-like A Summer Idyll, and leaning frequently on 6/8 folk-dance rhythms, Smith's music can also achieve dramatic impact, as in his version of the Tsimshian song 'Nalkina,' taken from Marius Barbeau's collection and translated by Scott as 'Whose Brother Am I?' His later output contains several works for voices with a few instruments, the major cycles of these being the Four Trios for high voice, cello, and piano, on Elizabethan English lyrics, and London Street Cries (also titled Old London Street Cries in some copies) for one or two solo voices, cello, and piano - the latter an interesting revival of a genre cultivated by Weelkes, Gibbons, and their contemporaries. His String Quartet in D was performed in Canada and also in Britain as part of a BBC program in 1935 devoted to music in Canada. His Cello Sonata in E Minor won a CPRS prize in 1943. Smith's manuscripts and writings are held in the National Library of Canada. In 1981 the NL of C held an exhibit of items from the Smith Collection and a memorial concert of his compositions.


An Ancient Song (Henry VIII). Ms

Divertissement in Waltz Time. Orch (piano). Ms

Elegy for Small Orchestra. Ms

Little Pretty Nightingale. Ms

Occasion for Strings. Ms

A Summer Idyll. 1945. Cl, string. Ms. RCI 233/Cap ST 6261 (CBC Winnipeg Orchestra)


'The development of string music,' Canadian Courier, vol 12, 12 Oct 1912

'On having photisms,' 'Coloured music,' CanJM, vol 2, Sep 1915

'A survey of music in Canada,' British Association for the Advancement of Science Handbook of Canada (Toronto 1924)

'Music in our universities,' Canadian Forum, vol 5, Aug 1925

'Music,' Encyclopedia of Canada vol 4 (Toronto 1936)

'William Byrd: instrumental music,' CRMA, vol 2, Aug-Sep 1943

'Competition reveals outstanding talent,' CRMA series, vol 2, Oct-Nov 1943, Dec 1943-Jan 1944; vol 3, Feb-Mar, Apr-May 1944


Celtic Trio. Pf trio. Ms

Four Pieces from The Book of Irish Country Songs. Vc, piano. Priv published

Four Pieces in an Old English Style. Vc, piano. Schmidt 1946

A Horse Race Ballad. Vn, violoncello, harp. Ms

Old London Street Cries. 2 singers, violoncello, piano. Ms

Quartet in D. 1932. Str quartet. Ms

Shakespearean Music (arr). 2 treb viol, gamb (viol, gamb, harpsichord). Ms

Sonata in E Minor. 1943. Vc, piano. Ms

Three Ravens. Pf trio. Ms

Trio (Pavane). Treb viol, gamb, harpsichord. Ms

2 arr of French Canadian folk tunes for violin, piano: Tambourin and Trochaios (both 1930). Both FH 1930

2 arr of French Canadian folk tunes for string quartet: Dans Paris y a une brune and J'ai cueilli la belle rose (both 1927). Both CMH vol 20

4 trios for voice, violoncello, piano: The Passionate Shepherd, Her Reply, Spring's Welcome, Little Peggy Ramsay

Several other works for violoncello, piano, including Father O'Flynn and Indian Romance (1935). Both manuscript

Many other arr published by FH and G. Schirmer


Suite for Piano. CMH vol 6

Three Pieces for Piano. FH 1937

Concertina. 1942. CMH vol 6. WRC1-3315 (E. Keillor)

Many arr for piano published by GVT and others


'Beloved and Blest' (Swinburne). Male voices. G. Schirmer 1914

'Christmas Bells,' part song (Longfellow). G. Schirmer 1916

'Fresh from the Dewy Hill' (Blake). Female voices. Alexander & Cable 1929

'Night' (Swinburne). Male voices. G. Schirmer 1914

'On Dante's Track' (Swinburne). Male voices. G. Schirmer 1914

'We Are the Music Makers' (O'Shaughnessy). Female voices. Alexander & Cable 1930


Five Songs (Blake, Browning, Swinburne). Ca 1912. V, piano. WR 1912

Four Songs (Leigh Hunt, Poe, Swinburne). V, piano. G. Schirmer 1914

'To One in Paradise' (Poe). Ca 1924. V, piano. Ms

Songs of Experience (Blake). 1941(?). V, piano. Ms

Three Songs (D.C. Scott). V, piano. FH 1930

6 songs have been recorded by baritone Erik Oland (1989, SNE-557 CD).

Also 23 other works for voice and piano, 3 works for voice and instr, and arr for voice and instr

Many other arr, including 5 of French-Canadian folk songs, 6 of Elizabethan songs and ballads, and several arr of Old English songs using Elizabethan instr

Further Reading