Smith, Robert Archibald (DNB00)

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SMITH, ROBERT ARCHIBALD (1780–1829), musical composer, son of Robert Smith, silk-weaver, was born at Reading on 16 Nov. 1780. His father, a native of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, had been a silk-weaver in Paisley, whence dull business sent him to Reading. Here he married Ann Whitcher, who succeeded to a small property and the interest of a little money, which was invested for her son after her death. Ignoring Robert's precocious musical talent, his father apprenticed him to silk-weaving. He early joined a church choir in Reading, and played on flute or clarionet in the band of a volunteer regiment. In 1800 the family removed to Paisley, where father and son became muslin-weavers. For a time dislike of his occupation and environment depressed Smith, and threatened his health, but recognition of his musical gifts, and particularly the friendship of the poet Tannahill, gave him fresh stimulus. He joined a volunteer company, played in its band, and composed its marches and quick-steps.

Becoming a teacher of music, Smith was in 1807 appointed leader of psalmody in the abbey church, Paisley, and soon formed an excellent choir. Dr. Boog, the incumbent of the parish, introduced him to Dr. Young, minister of Erskine, Renfrewshire, from whose extensive and exact knowledge of harmony he profited. In 1817 he successfully conducted his first public performance of sacred music in the abbey church, an innovation which became a precedent. In August 1823 Smith was appointed musical conductor in St. George's Church, Edinburgh, the minister of which was Dr. Andrew Thomson (1779–1831) [q. v.], an accomplished musician. Smith straightway obtained an excellent professional standing in Edinburgh. His health, however, failed while still busily employed in Edinburgh in teaching, composing, and editing; he died there on 3 Jan. 1829.

Smith married, in 1802, Mary MacNicol, a native of Arran, who survived him with five children.

As a boy Smith wrote out notes of music that interested him, and in later years he displayed great facility in reproducing airs to which he had listened. He early set to music some trifling verses of his own, and a song by Burns's eldest son. In ‘Devotional Music, original and selected,’ 1810, twenty-four of the numbers are Smith's. His setting of Tannahill's songs, especially of ‘Jessie, the Flow'r o' Dumblane’ (1816), brought him renown. This air, said a contemporary critic, ‘has no common claim to general admiration. The descant consists throughout of the most graceful and euphonious intervals, and the cadence at the words “the flow'r o' Dumblane” is remarkably beautiful and happy’ (‘European Magazine,’ January 1816). His ‘Scotish Minstrel, a selection from the vocal melodies of Scotland ancient and modern,’ was published in six volumes, 1821–4, and reached a third edition, 1838–43. It is one of the best works on its subject, and many of the striking anonymous melodies are attributable to the editor. Songs by Tannahill, and others appropriately set by Smith, first appeared in this work. The editor erred in allowing certain female coadjutors, without acknowledgment, to tamper with the original words of some of the older songs. The ‘Irish Minstrel,’ with similar musical equipment, appeared in one volume in 1825. In 1826 Smith published a practical ‘Introduction to Singing.’ A first volume of Smith's ‘Select Melodies, with appropriate Words, chiefly original, selected and arranged, with Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Pianoforte,’ appeared in 1827. Ambitious and comprehensive, this work includes examples of the greatest song-writers, but was not completed. Many pieces by contemporary lyrists are anonymously set by Smith himself. To one of these, Motherwell's pathetic ‘Midnight Wind,’ Tom Moore gave special praise. Smith further published: 1. ‘Sacred Music for the Use of St. George's, Edinburgh.’ 2. ‘The Sacred Harmony of the Church of Scotland’ (1820). 3. ‘Sacred Music, consisting of Tunes, Sanctuses, &c., sung in St. George's Church’ (1825; other editions, 1830?, 1856, and 1867). 4. ‘Anthems for George Heriot's Day.’ His music, virile, strenuous, and fluent, is still heard in the Scottish churches. His setting of the anthem ‘How beautiful upon the mountains’ has been often reprinted.

[Memoir of R. A. Smith, prefixed by P. A. Ramsay to his edition of Tannahill's works; Semple's Poems and Songs, and Correspondence of Robert Tannahill; McConechy's Life of Motherwell; Harp of Renfrewshire; Brown's Paisley Poets.]

T. B.