Obituary: Wilfred Smith

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The Independent Culture
WILFRED SMITH was a musician of many parts; in the profession he was recognised as an accomplished solo flautist, teacher and editor of studies for his instrument. He was also a skilled draughtsman who set up a highly successful harp workshop.

His first wife, Kathleen Clark, played the harp and, when it proved difficult to find someone to repair the instrument, Smith tried his hand at doing the job himself, carrying out the repairs in a spare bedroom. He discovered that harps had not been made in Britain for over 50 years and at that time, in the late 1950s, imported from Germany, Italy and the United States, they cost anything from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000, plus 30 per cent import duty and 36 per cent purchase tax. Students and professionals alike were obliged to play old instruments, many of which had been repaired beyond their limits.

All woodwork and strings can be replaced, but the mechanics of a harp - unlike the violin, which improves with age - are as complicated as a watch and wear out in the same way. Smith set out to make one himself and was so encouraged by the result that, with the proceeds of an endowment policy which matured at an opportune moment, he bought a disused barn on an old farm near Redhill in Surrey and converted it into a workshop at a cost of pounds 18,000, including electrically driven lathes at pounds 300 each.

The first harp he completed made its debut in a BBC TV programme played by the celebrated Spanish harpist Marisa Robles in 1970. Following its success, Smith engaged 10 craftsmen and for many years he was kept busy doing running repairs for professional harpists as well as making very handsome new ones. He also wrote a tutor for the harp.

The modern orchestral harp is the "Gothic" model patented by Erard of Paris in 1836 and there are over 3,000 separate parts in its construction, 2,000 in the mechanism alone. The "Smith" harp followed the traditional pattern, but has a polished wooden pillar instead of the more familiar gilt one.

Wilfred Smith was born in 1911 in Brockley, south London, and educated at Haberdashers Aske's school in Hatcham. Encouraged by his music master Herbert Murrill, he entered the Royal Academy of Music as a student of Charles Stainer and later went to France for a further period of study with Marcel Moise.

In the troubled Thirties, when Smith started on his career, jobs for musicians were thin on the ground, so he took himself to the north of England, where he subsisted on temporary jobs, entailing everything from working in the cinema pit and pantomime to entertainment on the end of the pier. He returned to London, when he was engaged as principal flautist in the Covent Garden Orchestra. Later, in order to fulfil more frequent solo engagements, he also played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Mozart Players on an ad hoc basis.

He edited a number of works for his instrument including his four volumes of Orchestral Studies for the Flute (1952-77), incorporating all the most difficult solo passages in the repertoire the orchestral flautist is likely to encounter. These are now standard fare in all the music colleges and are still best-sellers world-wide.

Smith was an excellent teacher who was known for his patience, and was especially helpful to the young. He taught for many years at the Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, Middlesex, and also had some private pupils.

During the Second World War he worked as a draughtsman at the Ministry of Supply; when he took his medical examination he was diagnosed as having a slight heart abnormality, so was unfit for active service.

After the death of his first wife, Smith married the pianist Daphne Ibbott and they gave many recitals together. As a person Wilfred Smith was friendly and easy-going, possessed of a tremendous sense of fun. His almost boyish enthusiasm knew no bounds, which was why he was so well liked by both colleagues and students. He was known for helping young players when they joined an orchestra for the first time, when the going can be tough.

All through his life, from the age of 16 until his late seventies, Wilfred Smith was a passionate motorcyclist, often contributing articles to the Motor Cycle Magazine. It was not an uncommon sight for him to be seen driving off to play at the Royal Festival Hall crash-helmeted, his evening dress coat-tails flapping in the breeze and his precious gold flute strapped on the back.

Wilfred Smith, flautist and harp maker: born London 8 August 1911; married Kathleen Clark (died 1963), 1964 Daphne Ibbott; died London 7 November 1998.

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