Stewart, Sir Robert Prescott (1825–94), organist, conductor, composer, teacher, and academic, was born 16 December 1825, the second of two sons of Charles Frederick Stewart of 6 Pitt Street (latterly Balfe Street), Dublin, librarian of King's Inns. Nothing is known of his mother other than that she studied music with one of the Logier family, presumably the noted military musician and piano teacher Johann Bernhard Logier (qv), a resident of Dublin from 1809.
Robert was educated at Christ Church cathedral school, Dublin, where he was a chorister. He began to accompany choral services in his early teens, and in 1844 was appointed organist of Christ Church and Trinity College chapel. In addition, in 1852 he became de facto organist of St Patrick's cathedral, and held all three positions concurrently for the rest of his life.
Stewart's first conducting appointment was with the Dublin University Choral Society in 1846, to which he later added similar appointments in Dublin, Bray, and Belfast. He was active as a teacher (both privately and from 1869 at the Irish Academy of Music) and as a critic with the Dublin Daily Express. On occupying the University of Dublin's chair of music in 1862, he took steps to formalise requirements for the music baccalaureate, introducing examinations in a modern language, Latin (or a second modern language), English (literature and composition), arithmetic, and music history. As a result, though not until 1878, similar examinations were introduced at Oxford and Cambridge. In his professorial capacity Stewart delivered in the 1870s public lectures on Bach, Handel, Wagner, church music, music education, organology, and, most notably, Irish music, in which he revealed an uncanny knowledge of the wire-strung harp and the uilleann pipes. He also contributed entries on Irish music and musicians to the first edition of Grove's dictionary of music.
By all accounts, Stewart was a very adept musician, having perfect pitch, a formidable memory, and astonishing facility in transposition. Apparently an autodidact, he was the first Irish organist to cultivate pedal technique, while in the art of improvisation both Joseph Robinson (qv) and Sir John Stainer held him to be the equal of Mendelssohn.
Intent on broadening his musical horizons, Stewart travelled widely. From 1851 he was a regular visitor to London, and from 1857 made frequent trips to the Continent, attending the Beethoven and Schumann festivals at Bonn in 1871 and 1873 respectively and Wagner's first Bayreuth festival in 1876. On the initiative of the Dublin University Choral Society, he was conferred with the simultaneous degrees of Mus.B. and Mus.D. at a special ceremony on 9 April 1851. On 28 February 1872 he was knighted by the viceroy Earl Spencer (qv), a social climb that Stewart, who had no independent income, could afford only by accumulating professional appointments and by relentless private teaching. In addition to successive townhouses in the vicinity of Merrion Square, he owned a smaller property on Bray Esplanade, named Holyrood.
Among Stewart's compositions, his disciple James Culwick (d. 1907) lists about forty partsongs (of which several won prizes), more than twenty solo songs, fifteen anthems, several church services, a quantity of shorter liturgical music, and sixteen choral cantatas with orchestra. Three of the cantatas set texts by John Francis Waller: the 24-movement A winter night's wake, The eve of St John (which was performed in Australia), and An ode (dedicated to Queen Victoria) for the opening of the Cork Industrial Exhibition of 1852. Other occasional pieces were an ode for the inauguration of Trinity College campanile (1854), an Ode to Shakespeare for the Birmingham Festival of 1870, a fantasia for the Boston Peace Festival of 1872 (words by Wellington Guernsey), and odes for the Dublin Exhibition of 1873 and the tercentenary of TCD (words by George Francis Savage Armstrong (qv)) in 1892.
Though Stewart destroyed many of his works, his surviving music is consistently well crafted (the tercentenary ode received favourable comment from Stainer and Sir Hubert Parry), and the rapid decline in the popularity of the odes is at least partly attributable to the tawdry and ephemeral character of their texts. Yet despite his esteem for Wagner, Stewart never shook off the conservative stylistic influences of Handel, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, and the posthumous performance of his music has been restricted almost entirely to the Dublin cathedrals.
In August 1846 Stewart married Mary Emily Browne, the daughter of Peter Browne of Rahins House, Castlebar. They had four daughters, of whom the eldest died in 1858. Following Mary's death on 7 August 1887, he married on 9 August 1888 Marie Wheeler of Hyde, Isle of Wight, the daughter of Joseph Wheeler of Westlands, Queenstown. Stewart died 24 March 1894, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery alongside his first wife and eldest daughter. Portraits of him are in the possession of the Dublin University Choral Society and the RIAM, and his statue, erected on Leinster Lawn in 1898, still stands.