Joseph Robert Smith (July 4, 1948 – March 23, 2015), known professionally as Joseph Smith, was a pianist, author, and lecturer.
Smith was known for bringing public attention to piano works of musical worth that had fallen into obscurity for non-musical reasons. His “Rare Finds” column in Piano Today magazine combined editions of piano pieces with essays about the piece and the composer. David Dubal wrote that “Smith’s editions of rare piano musics are exemplary, and his articles in the magazine Piano Today are eagerly read.”He published books combining essays and sheet music, in some cases with a bound-in CD of his own performances. He also presented his ideas in recitals, recordings, books, and radio broadcasts. Stuart Isacoff called him “a walking encyclopedia of the piano” and credited him with help in writing A Natural History of the Piano.
Smith gave nearly-annual New York recitals from 1974 to 1991 His 1987 recital at Alice Tully Hall introduced the public to an unpublished piano piece from a George Gershwin manuscript, “Rubato.” In 1984 Edward Rothstein said that Smith’s performance of the Brahms Opus 39 waltzes “made a compelling case for taking them seriously as a unified cycle.”
He recorded about a dozen LPs and CDs. Because he liked to place musical pieces in context, many of them were anthologies of related piano pieces by different composers, cross-illuminating each other. According to Dubal, “His recordings reveal a sensitive performer with a keen ear for structure and detail.” Gershwin scholar Edward Jablonskiincluded one of Smith’s CDs, “Rhythmic Moments,” in a Gershwin discography even though it contained only three Gershwin pieces, because “the collection is valuable in part because of the non-Gershwin activity… even without Gershwin this would be a fetching collection of musical Americana.”
Benita Meshulam, a close friend, writes: “Joe was the most curious musician I have ever known, always looking for forgotten works, studying them thoroughly. He was interested not only in the works but the composers and investigated everything. He was a pianist who didn’t care about the condition of the pianos he performed on. It was his message that he wanted to get across–a real musician’s musician who lived and breathed his art. He was also the kindest and most generous colleague.”
Smith was a man of tenaciously held opinions. Stuart Isacoff called him “incredibly thorough, an impossible conversationalist, charmingly argumentative.” He was obsessive about details such as the most correct form of Amy Beach’s name.
An example of Smith’s style of analysis is provided by his essay in Piano magazine, based on a 2013 seminar he conducted at the New England Conservatory of Music, entitled Hand Divisions (an ethical, technical, or esthetic issue?) Smith wrote:
A colleague recently asked me if I condoned ‘cheating’ by redistributing material between the hands, or if I was a ‘purist’ who maintained that distribution must be precisely ‘as the composer wrote it….’ (for convenience, let’s call these two positions ‘divisionist’ and ‘anti-divisionist’). Is this really purely a question of ethics? Is divisionism no more than a naughty indulgence?….
This does not mean, however, that there may not be legitimate limits to divisionism. The absolute divisionist position is encapsulated in the familiar formula, ‘I don’t care if you play it with your nose, as long as…’ (though so far, I have never encountered a passage facilitated by this means). In other words, the arrangement of the notes that enables us to execute a passage comfortably, reliably and accurately is always justiﬁed. But like anti-divisionism this attitude is based on a very questionable assumption. It presumes that because sound is primary to musical performance, visual appearance is necessarily irrelevant. In fact, however, most of the literature of music was composed to be played live, rather than recorded — the musician’s visual presence is unavoidably part of hisor her performance. Since this is so, is it not possible that the division between hands must sometimes take the visual into account? To give an extreme example, if we saw a pianist playing Scriabin’s left-hand Nocturne with two hands, would we not feel dissatisﬁed, no matter how beautiful the sound?
He taught “Introduction to Music” for over ten years at the John J. Cali School of Montclair State University, and was on the faculty at Montclair’s Stokes Forest Music Camp.
Smith had a special interest in the composers John Field, Percy Grainger, Edvard Grieg, Charles Griffes, Robert Schumann, and Carl Maria von Weber  and produced a recording of Griffes: Piano Music
A comic sidelight in his career was his role as the pianist in a commercial with baseball player Dave Winfield. The commercial promoted a mutual fund company, and the message concerned the folly of trying to “play another man’s game.” Smith and Winfield appear to be performing a Chopin polonaise together; Smith plays, but when it is Winfield’s turn to play he pounds the keys dissonantly, evoking shocked reactions from the audience and from Smith. A portion of the commercial is posted on YouTube: Dave Winfield plays Chopin Polonaise Opus 53 in A flat (and B flat and C flat….).
- “American” Piano Music by European Composers (Musical Heritage Society)
- Grieg and Grainger Piano Music (Musical Heritage Society)
- Joaquin Turina, Seymour Bernstein, Felix Mendelssohn, Abram Chasins (Orion – ORS 81402)
- Rhythmic Moments: Piano Pieces by “Popular Music” Composers
- From Foster to Ellington (Premier 1028)
- Burleigh: From the Southland (includes songs and piano works) (Premier)
- Let My Song Fill Your Heart: A Remembrance of the American Concert Song (Premier)
- Romancing the Piano (included with piano anthology of this name) (Ekay)
- Rare Finds (included with piano anthology of this name) (Ekay)
- Familiar Melodies: Transcription, Variations, Fantasies (Brioso 126)
- Piano Waltzes from Beethoven to Poulenc (Brioso 142)
- Piano Barcarolles: from Veniceto the Mississippi (Brioso 155)
- Griffes Piano Music (Arkiv 70001)
Books and Editions
- Four Early 20th Century Piano Suites by Black Composers (Coleridge-Taylor, Burleigh, Dett, Matthews) (G. Schirmer ISBN 0-7935-7604-0)
- Burleigh: From the Southland, ISBN 0-7935-7312-2
- American Piano Classics (Civil War era through early twenties) (Dover Publications ISBN 978-0486413778)
- Percy Grainger: Country Gardens and Other Works for Piano (Dover ISBN 0-486-42241-0)
- Great Waltzes for Solo Piano (includes pieces from Beethoven to Hindemith) (Dover ISBN 0-486-43119-3)
- Favorite Nocturnes and Other Piano Works by John Field (Dover ISBN 0-486-44159-8)
- Tangos, Milongas, and Other Latin-American Dances for Solo Piano (Cervantes, Morel,Nazareth, etc.) (Dover ISBN 0-486-42787-0)
- Piano Discoveries (each with an essay) (Ekay Music ISBN 0-943748-86-0)
- Romancing the Piano (by 22 different composers, includes a CD) (Steinway Library ISBN 1-929009-21-6)
- Rare Finds for Piano (each with an essay, includes a CD) (Steinway Library, Ekay Music ISBN 1-929009-53-4)
- Rubinstein: Variations sur l’air Yankee Doodle (introduction by Smith) (Musica Obscura Editions)
- Simply Romantic Piano (easier repertoire from the Romantic era) (Steinway Library, Ekay Music ISBN 1-929009-52-6)
- Mano Sinistra: Etudes for the Cultivation of the Left Hand (International Music Company, No. 3646)
- Complete lecture-recital
- Individual pieces, with Smith’s commentary
- Charles-Valentin Alkan: Barcarolette No.1 from Sketches, Op.63 (Smith’s performance begins at 4:40)
- Amy Beach: Hermit Thrush at Dawn
- Harry Burleigh: A New Hiding Place
- Frédéric Chopin: “Chopin Nocturne in Eb Op. 9 No. 2 with too many authentic ornaments”
- Frédéric Chopin: Fantasy Impromptu in c#, Alternate Version
- Charles T. Griffes: The White Peacock
- Ambroise Thomas: Fantasy on Scottish Melody “Auld Lang Syne”
- Joseph Robert Smith obituary, March 30, 2015
- Dubal, David (2004). The Art of the Piano: Its Performers, Literature, and Recordings. Hal Leonard. p. 338. ISBN 9781574670882.
- Isacoff, Stuart (2012). A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between. Vintage. pp. 415–6. ISBN 978-0307279330.
- John Rockwell, “Smith, Pianist, in Formal Debut,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 1974, p. 74
- Allan Kozinn, “Joseph Smith, pianist, at Alice Tully Hall,” New York Times, May 7, 1991, p. C14
- Holland, Bernard. “Recital: Joseph Smith” New York Times 19 Apr. 1987. The New York Times. Web. 26 Feb. 2016.
- Edward Rothstein, “Music: Joseph Smith,” The New York Times, Mar 29, 1984, p. C28
- Jablonski, Edward (1988). Gershwin: With a New Critical Discography. Da Capo Press. pp. 415–6. ISBN 9780306808470.
- Norman Lebrecht’s blog, “Slipped Disc,” March 26, 2015: Sudden death of New York pianist
- In Memory of Pianist Joseph Smith
- “Montclair State University, memorial concert for Joseph Smith, September 20, 2015”. Montclair State University. September 20, 2015. Retrieved February 27, 2016.
- Hand Divisions (an ethical, technical, or esthetic issue?)
- Nicholas Fellezola (August 31, 2015). “”The Montclarion;” In Memoriam: Professor Joseph Smith”. Montclair State University. Retrieved February 28, 2016.
- Griffes: Piano Musick Arkiv 70001; originally Musical Heritage Society, Charles T. Griffes: Complete Piano Music, MHS 513043
This article is a modified version of a Wikipedia article, in its March 6th, 2016 version, Joseph Smith (pianist). This article is licensed for copying under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike 3.0 license. If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.