Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John Christopher

SMITH, JOHN CHRISTOPHER (1712–1795), musician, born at Anspach in 1712, was the son of John Christopher Schmidt, a wool merchant of that city. The father, an enthusiastic amateur of music, threw up his business in 1716 and followed his friend Handel to England in the capacity of treasurer. Four years later he sent for the family he had left behind him in Germany. His eldest son, John Christopher, was sent to school at Clare's academy, Soho Square. He showed considerable aptitude for music, and at thirteen Handel offered to give him his first instruction in the art. He was, says Fétis, the only pupil Handel ever took (Biographie Universelle des Musiciens, viii. 221). Smith also studied theory under Dr. John Christopher Pepusch [q. v.] and Thomas Roseingrave [see under Roseingrave, Daniel]. Very early in life he was established as a successful teacher. At eighteen his health suffered from excessive application to music, and the physician Dr. Arbuthnot invited him to spend the summer at his house in Highgate. The rest proved beneficial, and the symptoms of consumption were arrested. At Highgate Smith had the advantage of meeting Swift, Pope, Gay, and Congreve. In 1732 he composed an English opera, ‘Teraminta,’ and the following year a second opera, ‘Ulysses.’ Subsequently he spent several years on the continent.

In 1751 Handel's sight became affected, and, at his desire, Smith returned to England to fill his place at the organ during the oratorio performances. He also acted as the composer's amanuensis, and Handel's latest compositions were dictated to him. In 1750 he was appointed first organist of the Foundling Hospital. Smith was intimately acquainted with Garrick, who was instrumental in producing his opera, ‘The Fairies,’ at Drury Lane in 1754. This musical drama, which was adapted from ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,’ had an excellent reception. A similar work, arranged from the ‘Tempest,’ was less appreciated, though the song ‘Full fathom five’ became permanently popular.

Handel bequeathed to his old pupil all his manuscript scores, his harpsichord, his portrait by Denner, and his bust by Roubiliac. When Handel announced a wish to alter the bequest, and present his manuscripts to Oxford University, Smith declined an offer of a legacy of 3,000l. by way of compensation. After Handel's death in 1759 Smith, with the assistance of John Stanley, carried on the oratorio performances until 1774, when, the attendance having greatly fallen off, he gave up the conductorship and retired to his house in Upper Church Street, Bath. He composed several oratorios, ‘Paradise Lost,’ ‘Rebecca,’ ‘Judith,’ ‘Jehoshaphat,’ and ‘Redemption,’ as well as the Italian operas ‘Dario,’ ‘Il Ciro riconosciuto,’ and ‘Issipile.’ He taught the harpsichord to the Dowager Princess of Wales, one of his most generous patrons, whose death in 1772 he commemorated by a setting of the burial service. Out of gratitude for the many favours received from the royal family, Smith presented George III with Handel's manuscript scores—which are now at Buckingham Palace—as well as Handel's harpsichord and the bust by Roubiliac, which are now preserved at Windsor Castle. Smith died at Bath on 3 Oct. 1795.

[Anecdotes of Smith and Handel by the Rev. William Coxe, containing a portrait of Smith engraved from an original picture by Zoffany; Mason's Gray, 1827, p. 415; Burney's History of Music; Rockstro's Life of Handel; Grove's Dictionary of Music.]

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