A Tribute to Stewart Symonds

In 2020,  we farewelled one of Australia’s foremost collectors of keyboards, Dr Steward Symonds.

It was through the generosity of Dr Symonds that ECU received the unprecendented gift of the Stewart Symonds Keyboard Instrument Collection.  Now preserved for posterity at Edith Cowan University and forming the greater Historic Pianos Collection.

This tribute was written by friend and colleague, Professor Geoffrey Lancaster, and delivered at Dr Symonds funeral (this is a shortened version).

It is an enormous privilege to celebrate Stewart, and to declare how much we all loved him.

I first met Stewart within the context of research for my book on the first piano to come to Australia.

And what an initial meeting it turned out to be; what I encountered was so very unexpected.

Behind the central doorway of Stewart’s single-storey sandstone Georgian home in Ermington lay a musical paradise––an unbelievable number and variety of the piano’s varying historical incarnations cluttered rooms and filled hallways, spilling out onto the veranda, into the garage and even into a garden shed!

Of all the musical instruments in Stewart’s vast collection that lured with their captivating beauty and tantalising provenance, a small square piano nestling against the bentside of a grand piano in the entrance hallway called more profoundly than any other. A square piano believed to have been on board the Sirius (the flagship of the First Fleet) as the vessel lay anchored in the tranquil waters of Sydney Cove in late January 1788. It was the first time that I had encountered such a culturally significant piano, and the instrument (along with Stewart himself) changed my life.

As I got to know Stewart, I realised that he had probably forgotten more about early pianos than anyone else knows. His knowledge was prodigious, and the depth and wisdom of his insights were always inspiring. And yet, in the face of his formidable understanding, he remained unfailingly humble.

My heart will long be warmed by the memory of Stewart; he was remarkable, and he was unforgettable.

We do not often encounter an individual who makes a profound and lasting contribution to the understanding and preservation of our nation’s rich musical heritage. Stewart was one such person.

Through the course of his life, he not only formed an immense collection of noteworthy keyboard instruments, but also assembled substantial collections of colonial sheet music and visual art––each of these collections continue to reflect his intelligence, connoisseurship and discerning erudition.

Stewart has left us not only with the good that he did through his years of giving, but also with his dream of the betterment of culture. Stewart, thank you for being so extraordinary. Thank you also for your brilliance, and for the myriad ways in which you brought that brilliance into our lives.