San Diego County










            An organist and composer of international repute, Dr. Humphrey John Stewart was one of the greatest individual forces in San Diego’s progress along cultural lines, for as organist of the municipal open air organ at Balboa Park he fostered in the people of this city a love for and appreciation of the best in music.  One full hour six days a week for forty-eight weeks in the year he presided over this fine instrument, giving the organ recitals for which San Diego became noted.  He ranked with the foremost American composers of this era, and was termed “the Walter Damrosch of the Pacific coast” because, like that distinguished musician and conductor, he preceded his recitals by an interesting and informing talk about the composers of the selections played by him.

            A native of London, England, Dr. Stewart was born May 22, 1854, and pursued his musical education under the best instructors of that country.  Coming to the United States in 1886, he began teaching in San Francisco, and during his residence in that city, which extended over a long period, was organist of some of its larger and finer churches.  In 1901 he went east, becoming organist at Trinity Church in Boston, but in 1902 returned to San Francisco, and for twelve years thereafter served as organist of St. Dominic’s Church of that city.  He had been solo organist at the Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, and in 1915 was made official organist at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego, in which capacity he presided over the world famous open air organ owned by this city.  For eighteen years Dr. Stewart remained here, winning a host of friends, who had a sincere admiration for his genius as a musician and a thorough appreciation of his worth as a man.  Age did not diminish his power, for up to the time of his death he continued to lead a busy life at the organ and played about two hundred fifty recitals each year.  His programs covered the entire range of organ music, from Bach to composers of our own time.  His work as a concert and recital organist received wide recognition.  Among the many appreciative notices in musical journals and other publications, the following is typical.

            “I would not feel content to end this little sketch without a mention of our meeting Dr. Humphrey John Stewart, one of the really great organists in the country.  We sat in the large outdoor arena in Balboa Park and heard his inspiring interpretation of the music of the music masters of the world.  Enthralled by his master playing, we introduced ourselves in order to express our appreciation.”

            The great outdoor organ in Balboa Park dates back to 1915.  That year will ever be a memorable one in the annals of San Diego, for on January 1, 1915, the great Panama-Pacific Exposition was formally opened in Balboa Park.  The beautiful buildings still stand as a memento of this event.  Some have been replaced by permanent structures, while those of a temporary character have been renovated and repaired from time to time.  Among the permanent buildings the Organ Pavilion stands out prominently as one of the greater attractions.  This pavilion, together with the organ which it contains, was donated to the city of San Diego by John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels as their contribution to the Exposition.  The dedicatory oration was delivered by Senator Samuel M. Shortridge, who, in the course of his speech predicted that the gift of the Spreckels brothers would become one of the greatest cultural assets of the city.  This prediction has been verified, for the same of the San Diego outdoor organ and organ recitals have extended practically throughout the world.  It is worthy of note that John D. Spreckels, who first conceived the idea of an outdoor organ, experienced no little difficulty in carrying out the plan.  At length the firm of Austin Brothers of Hartford, Connecticut, agreed to install an organ on the lines indicated by Mr. Spreckels and the instrument remains a monument to his skill.

            In addition to his organ recitals, Dr. Stewart was a prolific composer and his published works include operas, oratorios, cantatas, masses, choral music, both sacred and secular, songs, composition for the pianoforte and the pipe organ.  A complete set of these publications he recently presented to the San Diego Library, the collection comprising fifteen bound volumes.  Among his composition the following are most notable:  “The Nativity,” an oratorio, (1888); “His Majesty,” a comic opera, (1890); “The Conspirators,” (1900); “Montezuma,” an orchestral suite, (1903); “Scenes in California” (1906); “Mass in D Minor,” (1907); “Mass in G,” (1911); “King Hal,” a romantic opera, (1911); “The Hound of Heaven,” an oratorio; a ballet suite for the organ; “Flag of the Brave,” a patriotic cantata; “Scenes from Shakespeare;” “The Tempest,” a suite for the organ.  He has composed the incidental music for many plays and wrote the music for the Bohemian Club grove play, “St. John of Nepomuk,” in 1921.

            Dr. Stewart was one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists, and in 1900 the winner of its gold medal for composition.  In June, 1921, the city of New York presented him with its official flag for distinguished ability as a recital organist.  In 1930 he was decorated by Pope Pius XI, who conferred upon him the rank of Commander of the Holy Sepulcher.  Dr. Stewart was an outstanding member of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco.  Forty-six years of his long and notable life were spent within the borders of this state, for which he had a deep and abiding affection.




Transcribed by V. Gerald Iaquinta.

Source: California of the South Vol. IV, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 577-579, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis.  1933.

© 2012  V. Gerald Iaquinta.