Leo Smit

Leo Smit

1921 - 1999

A prolific composer, Leo Smit wrote two operas and over ninety songs, with the majority of his songs on the text of Emily Dickinson as part of his work The Ecstatic Pilgrimage. Smit was also the premiere performer of Aaron Copland's piano works during his lifetime, as well as a conductor and dedicated educator. In addition to Dickinson, Smit also set the texts of Beth Frost, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and Marcia Willieme, in addition to many others.

Photo: Leo Smit, self-portrait, University of Buffalo Music Library


Born in Philadelphia, Leo Smit attended the Curtis Institute for piano starting in 1930. His composition studies began in 1935 under the guidance of Nicolas Nabokov.

Smit taught at Sarah Lawrence College, UCLA, and, most notably, SUNY Buffalo. He became a close friend of Aaron Copland after meeting him in 1943 and recorded Copland's complete works for piano.

Smit's most extensive composition, The Ecstatic Pilgrimage, is a six-cycle song group, which sets the poetry of Emily Dickinson. There are a total of 76 songs in The Ecstatic Pilgrimage. The songs were composed between 1988 and 1990, and Smit wrote about his connection to Dickinson:

“Since August 1988…Emily Dickinson has been running my life. I found many references to music, some direct, others metaphoric, and to birds, her symbols for life and creativity…A few months after falling under the spell of the great poet, I dreamed I was in her house, playing on her twangy square grand piano, knowing she was in her upstairs bedroom listening through the narrowly opened door. When I finished, I turned around, sensing a presence, and saw a slight girl in white, enveloped by a fiery mist. She silently pressed two hyacinths into my hand and vanished. I still have not awakened from my dream.”

The songs of The Ecstatic Pilgrimage are strongly tonal and contrastive, with both lyrical and dramatic elements.

For more detailed information about Leo Smit's life and works, please visit the University of Buffalo's website: Remembering Leo Smit. For inquiries about Leo Smit and to obtain sheet music, please contact Nils Vigeland at [email protected]

--Christie Finn Source: Nils Vigeland's article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Songs & Song Collections BY Smit (entered to date)
POETS & Writers Set BY Smit (entered to date)

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