> Music and social history
Photogravure after the portrait by William Bradley, 1829. Frontispiece to Leaves from the Journals of Sir George Smart, ed. H. Bertram Cox and C. L. E. Cox (London, 1907).
Sir George Smart's fundamental influence on the British music of his time has recently received thorough reassessment in John Carnelley's George Smart and Nineteenth Century London Concert Life (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015). The 150th anniversary of his death provides the Museum with a welcome opportunity to honour this important figure in our music history - 'arguably the leading musician in the capital' for some twenty years, and a lasting force for cultivated musical taste - to illustrate some aspects of his long and varied career.
George Thomas Smart was the eldest son of George Smart (1745-1818), music publisher and double bass player who had moved to London in about 1770. Smart senior is most important as founder of the New Musical Fund in 1786. This benevolent society for musicians and their families complemented the existing Royal Society of Musicians, to which only London-based subscribers were eligible. It mounted a high-profile Annual Concert, with which George junior was to become closely connected. His father continued to serve as Treasurer until the end of his life.
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Smart became a chorister of the Chapel Royal at an early age. He later studied the piano with J. B. Cramer, to whom he owed "my knowledge of Modern Music and the style of performing it". On leaving the Chapel Royal in 1791 he was appointed organist of St James's Chapel, Hampstead Road, and soon after deputy to Arnold both at the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey. His public debut as a pianist was at the New Musical Fund concert in 1794, playing a concerto by Dussek.
His first publication, Divine Amusement, Being a Selection of the most admired Psalms, Hymns and Anthems used at St James's Chapel, was issued from his father's Musical Instrument Warehouse at the corner of Argyll Street, 331 Oxford Street in c.1795. By far the most popular items in what was to remain a relatively slender output were the two glees The Butterfly's Ball and The Squirrel dating from the early years of the new century.
A thriving teaching practice gained Smart some important aristocratic and indeed royal connections and from the early years of the new century he began to make a reputation as a 'conductor' and concert organiser. A trip to Europe with his father and brother in 1802 had broadened his international perspective and in prestigious private as well as public concerts he was soon able to call upon an impressive roster of star performers in wide-ranging repertoire.
Smart remained committed to the New Musical Fund, conducting the Annual Concerts from 1808 to its dissolution in 1841.
After a season of concerts in Dublin in 1810, he was honoured with knighthood by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland (the 4th Duke of Richmond) on 22 February 1811.
A founder member of the Philharmonic Society in 1813, he became one of the Society's chief conductors, introducing works by Beethoven, Spohr and Mendelssohn in his programmes. Most famously on 21 March 1825, he conducted the British premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ( 'composed expressly for this Society') in the Argyll Rooms, Regent Street. Also in 1813 he initiated the Lenten 'oratorios' at Drury Lane, giving the British premieres of Beethoven's Mount of Olives in 1814 and Battle Symphony in 1815.
The success of Weber's Der Freischütz in its first English productions (from 1824) induced Smart in 1825 to again travel to the Continent, where he and Charles Kemble (of Covent Garden) commissioned the 'English opera' Oberon and engaged the composer to conduct it himself the following year. Smart also had notably fruitful meetings with Beethoven.
Weber was Smart's guest throughout his stay in London at the latter's house 91 Great Portland Street. Already a seriously sick man, the composer was to die during the night preceding his intended return to Dresden.
A reputation for scrupulous preparation and 'discipline' (Moscheles credited him with 'conducting with the greatest care and precision', while the bass singer Henry Phillips likened him to the Duke of Wellington!) led to an increasing career in the conducting of large-scale provincial festivals, beginning with Edinburgh in 1819 and ending with Newcastle in 1842.
One of the professional highlights of Smart's career was the Royal Musical Festival at Westminster Abbey in June, 1834. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of Handel's death and modelled on similar Handel commemorations in the late eighteenth century (in the first of which , in 1784, Smart had participated as a Chapel Royal chorister), this ten-day event involved around 600 performers and each of the concerts was attended by the King and Queen and a large royal party including the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria.
Smart also directed at the Coronations of William IV and Queen Victoria and continued to arrange prestigious private concerts, both royal and aristocratic, into his eighties. One of these, for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, was at Stafford (now Lancaster) House in 1853 and featured the American soprano Elizabeth Greenfield. Popularly known as 'The Black Swan', Greenfield had been born a slave and was sponsored in England by the Duchess and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Coached by Smart in Handel, Bellini and Donizetti arias, she had a tremendous success and sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace the following year.
In 1863 Smart published two collected volumes of his compositions, one of his church music and the other of his glees and canons. The contents spanned his life's output from the early glees like The Squirrel to new works like that dedicated to Sterndale Bennett shown here.
Among important initiatives not mentioned above, in which Smart was involved, were the Royal Academy of Music (1822), the Mendelssohn Scholarship (1848), the Great Exhibition (1851), the Weber Memorial Statue in Dresden (1860) and the College of Organists (later the Royal College of Organists) (1864). Extracts from his fascinating diaries (Leaves from the Journals of Sir George Smart, ed. by H. Bertram Cox and C. L. E. Cox) were published in 1907.
He died at the age of ninety-one in February, 1867 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. An obituary in The Athenaeum said 'A more truthful and kindly and efficient man than Sir George Smart has not gone from among us since we have had to do the sad work of writing inscriptions on graves.'