The Stewart Symonds sheet music collection

A recently acquired collection of printed sheet music provides valuable insights into Sydney’s music trade and concert scene in the 19th century and offers opportunities for musical interpretation of Sydney Living Museums’ places.

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) has recently acquired, through the Commonwealth Cultural Gifts Program, an important collection of 19th-century sheet music provenanced to people living in NSW. The collection comprises 1563 pieces of music bound into 46 volumes, including 55 leaves of manuscript transcriptions, and is mostly music for piano or piano and voice, with some arrangements for harp, flute, violin and cello. Much of the music was published in London and other British and European cities, but the collection also includes some rare Australian publications and many examples of English, Scottish and Irish publications retailed through early Sydney music sellers.

Local associations

One of the highlights of the collection is a piece titled ‘Currency lasses, an admir’d Australian quadrille’, composed by ‘a Lady at Sydney’ and published in London around 1830.

Ornately decorated printed cover with kangaroo design at top, with title printed below.

Cover: ‘Currency lasses, an admir’d Australian quadrille’, composed by a Lady at Sydney. Stewart Symonds sheet music collection, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

Musicologist Dr Graeme Skinner has identified this piece as the earliest surviving printed copy of a non-Indigenous Australian composition, previously unknown beyond newspaper reports. It was first mentioned in The Australian in February 1825 when it was performed in response to a toast by William Charles Wentworth of Vaucluse House at a public dinner for the outgoing governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane.

Another notable piece is ‘The City of Sydney polka’ (1854) by Charles Packer, dedicated by the Sydney publishers Woolcott and Clarke to the very same William Charles Wentworth. This piece of music is known from other copies held in Australian libraries, but our copy is included in an album which belonged to Miss Annie Amelia Myers (1843–1882), daughter of a successful Sydney tobacconist.

... the collection also includes some rare Australian publications and many examples of English, Scottish and Irish publications retailed through early Sydney music sellers.

The new acquisition is rich in such associations between the sheet music and its original owners. It provides opportunities for scholars not only to contextualise the extensive 19th-century sheet music collections already held by SLM at Rouse Hill House & Farm, Meroogal and the CSL&RC but also to musically interpret other SLM properties that no longer hold their original sheet music, such as the Scottish soundscape of the Macleay family at Elizabeth Bay House. The Australian music in the collection, mostly published between the 1830s and the 1860s, also offers new insights into 19th-century Sydney’s music trade and concert scene.

Research and access

The collection is the gift of private collector Stewart Symonds, gathered in Australia over five decades and including albums collected by the late well-known Sydney antique dealer William F Bradshaw. Stewart’s generosity has been matched by the work of a team of special research volunteers who took on the task of listing all of the pieces of music contained in the albums. Over a two-month period, three musicology students from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, an early career academic and a rare book librarian volunteered to painstakingly transcribe titles and composers, list publishers and places of publication, look for marks of previous ownership and search reference sources for dates. Now our task is to provide public access to the collection, through cataloguing and digitisation. We’ll be busy for a while.

Cover of music book with title printed in red and blue above a photo of a cricket team.

Cover, ‘Grand galop, the Australian eleven’, composed by Walter R Rice, 1878. Stewart Symonds sheet music collection, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Head and shoulders photo of woman holding up card to face with conservator's white glove on hand.

Megan Martin

Head, Collections & Access

Megan is the head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

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