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News & Press: In Memoriam

Howard E. Smither, 1925-2020

Tuesday, May 5, 2020  

Howard E. Smither, James Gordon Hanes Professor of the Humanities in Music (emeritus) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and President of the AMS from 1980 to 1982, died February 1, 2020, at the age of 94.

A native of Pittsburgh, Kansas, he served in the United States Air Force as a dance band trumpeter before receiving the B.A. (magna cum laude) at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Cornell, where he studied with Donald J. Grout and wrote a dissertation on rhythmic theory in twentieth-century music. He subsequently taught at Oberlin College (1955–60), the University of Kansas (1960–63), Tulane University (1963–68), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1968–90), and was John Bird Professor of Music at the University of Cardiff, Wales (1993–95).

Howard was a remarkable teacher, inspiring in the classroom by the palpable intensity of his entwined loves for music, history, and ideas, and by the dazzling breadth of his erudition. Renowned among his students for his laser-like attention, careful editorial comments, and generosity, he was much sought after as a mentor or advisor wherever he taught.

As a scholar, Howard is best remembered as having written the first English-language history of the oratorio as a genre—a project that occupied him on and off for forty years. Noticing at his first teaching job that the latest scholarship on the genre was half a century old, by the early 1960s he had resolved to write a single-volume history. As he would write decades later, "The topic assumed a path of its own, and I followed it."

That path led him to produce a four-volume history, published by the University of North Carolina Press from 1977 to 2000.  A monument that comes in at nearly 2,000 pages, Howard’s multi-volume history shares with other monuments a commitment to meticulously researched, clearly organized, and beautifully written narrative history, combined with descriptive analyses. Howard's narrative history was particularly notable, however, for its precise historicist attention to questions of terminology; to the themes and structure of oratorio libretti (rare in a generation that focused above all on "the music itself”); and to the historical- and local-specificity of the intellectual, theological, and human motivations of the genre's patrons, creators, and audiences. In these qualities, as in his steadfast refusal to make transhistorical claims and frequent proclamation that musicology was a form of cultural history, Howard's scholarship foreshadowed some aspects of the "new historicist" turn that was part of the so-called "new musicology."

Howard was also supervising editor of fifteen volumes of Oratorios of the Italian Baroque (Concentus Musicus 1983–); editor and translator of poems in Alfred Einstein’s The Italian Madrigal (1971); music review editor of Notes, the Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association (1967–69); a member of the editorial board of Detroit Monographs in Musicology (1971–87); chairman of the editorial board of Early Music Masterworks: Editions and Commentaries (1978–83); and member of the editorial board of Videodisc Music Series, National Endowment of the Humanities (1982–86). He received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and was awarded ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award in 1978 for the second volume of his oratorio history. Howard's presidency of the American Musicological Society coincided with the first Congressional threats to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His own spirited public defense of the NEH, combined with his frequent exhortations that members write Congress in support of the Endowment, initiated the Society's tradition of public advocacy.    

In retirement, Howard returned to his early love of the trumpet, playing jazz with his wife, violist Ann Woodward, among other band mates, and took up both acrylic and digital painting.