The legacy of Stewart Symonds

We acknowledge and farewell a dedicated Sydney Living Museums supporter, whose collection of sheet music has done so much to illuminate the history of domestic music making in colonial Australia.

On 21 September 2020, Dr Stewart Symonds (1937–2020) was farewelled by his husband, Cliff, family and friends in Sydney. Stewart had a close relationship with SLM through his donation to the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection of an important collection of sheet music provenanced to 19th-century NSW families.

Donated through the Commonwealth Cultural Gifts Program in 2016, the collection comprises more than 1500 pieces of print and manuscript music bound into 46 volumes, and is mostly for solo piano, or piano and voice. The collection includes Australia’s earliest surviving settler composition, ‘Currency lasses, an admir’d Australian quadrille’ by Tempest Margaret Paul, published in London around 1830, as well as rare Australian sheet music prints and examples of English, Scottish and Irish works retailed through early Sydney music sellers.

A passion for collecting

Stewart began collecting historical pianos in the late 1960s, along with examples of sheet music that would have been played on these instruments. In 2016, he gave his collection of 140 rare pianos to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts; he was also keen to find a home for his sheet music. SLM’s house museums contain a historically significant collection of sheet music, and when we examined Stewart’s collection in 2015, with the assistance of consultant music historian Dr Graeme Skinner, we immediately recognised the importance of this collection and the opportunity it offered to contextualise the domestic music story of SLM properties.

Stewart couldn’t have imagined that two years after his donation he would be attending the Bel Canto in the Bush concert, organised by the SLM Foundation, with special guest and international opera conductor Maestro Richard Bonynge AC CBE. At this concert, examples from Stewart’s collection were performed by soprano Jane Ede with Thomas Johnson on historical square piano. Maestro Bonynge commented on the strength of the music selection, and the event gave SLM an opportunity to thank Stewart publicly for his gift.

Reaching new audiences

The significance of this collection and its impact on our understanding of the history of music in NSW cannot be overestimated. Most importantly, we’ve been able to reach contemporary audiences through concerts and recordings and online, connecting them with our music history. Since 2016, the collection has featured in an international music symposium, eight public concerts, 12 videos, two CDs, and the award-winning Songs of Home exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. Over 200 pieces from Stewart’s collection are now digitised and freely available online, with more to come, and researchers from both Australia and the UK have taken advantage of this access while working with the collection.

SLM has been privileged to be able to convert the Stewart Symonds Sheet Music Collection into beautiful sound and to share it with the broader community. It was also a pleasure to share many discoveries with the man who spent decades following his passion and collecting this material for future generations.

View the digitised Symonds scores: https://archive.org/details/slmstewartsymonds

Printed cover of music booklet.
Cover of ‘The lancer’s quadrilles’ (1839), one of Sydney’s earliest sheet music prints. Stewart Symonds Sheet Music Collection, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Dr Matthew Stephens

Research Librarian

Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.  He is particularly fascinated by early book, musical instrument and sheet music collections in NSW and the stories they tell.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

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