SHARP, Cecil James (1859-1924)

SHARP, Cecil James (1859-1924)
musician, collector of folk-songs and dances
was born at Denmark Hill, London, on 22 November 1859. His father was a slate merchant, much interested in archaeology, architecture, old furniture, and music, his mother, Jane Bloyd, was also a music-lover. Sharp was educated at Uppingham, but left at 15 and was privately coached for Cambridge, where he rowed in the Clare College boat and graduated B.A. in 1882. It was necessary for him to find work and he decided to try Australia. He arrived in Adelaide in November 1882 and early in 1883 obtained a position as a clerk in the Commercial Bank of South Australia. He read some law, and in April 1884 became associate to the chief justice, Sir Samuel James Way (q.v.). He held this position until 1889 when he resigned and gave his whole time to music. He had become assistant organist at St Peter's cathedral soon after he arrived, and had been conductor of the government house choral society and the cathedral choral society. Later on he became conductor of the Adelaide Philharmonic, and in 1889 entered into partnership with I. G. Reimann as joint director of the Adelaide school of music. He was very successful as a lecturer but about the middle of 1891 the partnership was dissolved. The school was continued under Reimann, and in 1898 developed into the Elder conservatorium of music in connexion with the university. Sharp had made many friends and an address with over 300 signatures asked him to continue his work at Adelaide, but he decided to return to England and arrived there in January 1892. During his stay in Adelaide he composed the music for two light operas, Sylvia, which was produced at the Theatre Royal Adelaide, on 4 December 1890, and The Jonquil. The libretto in each case was written by Guy Boothby (q.v.). He also wrote the music for some nursery rhymes which were sung by the cathedral choral society.
Sharp had intended to devote his time to musical composition and of some 40 songs and instrumental pieces composed between 1885 and 1900 most were written after 1891. But very few of them were actually published. In London he gave lessons in harmony, played the pianoforte at musical "At Homes", lectured at schools, and from 1893-7 was on the staff of the Metropolitan College, Holloway. He was also music-master at Ludgrove, a well-known preparatory school, where the boys were devoted to him. He became principal of the Hampstead conservatoire in 1896, collected a fine staff, and held this position until July 1905. In the meantime he had found an interest which was to have important developments. At Christmas 1899 he saw a party of men dance the now well-known Morris dance (Laudnum Bunches) which was followed by other dances. He watched and listened spell-bound and it became the turning point in his life. For the next 24 years his great work and interest was the recording of the old folk songs of England, and reviving the old dances. The first part of Folk Songs from Somerset was published in December 1904, the first part of The Morris Book and Morris Dance Tunes in 1907, both followed by many others; a full list of his folk-song collections and folk-dance collections will be found on pp. 221-3 of his biography. He became director of the English Folk-dance Society in 1911, and in the same year he was granted a civil list pension of £100 a year, a welcome addition to his income. In December 1914 he visited America to help Granville Barker with the New York production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and while in the United States did some lecturing. During a later visit he recorded Folk-Songs of English Origin, Collected in the Appalachian Mountains. He remained two years in America and returned to England in 1918. In 1919 H. A. L. Fisher, president of the board of education, discussed with Sharp the best way of instilling a sense of rhythm and a love of English national songs and dances into the minds of the children. As a result in April 1919 Sharp accepted the position of occasional inspector of training colleges in folk-song and dancing. In 1923 a speaker in the house of commons described him as one to whose work in this field British education owes an almost irredeemable debt of gratitude. In 1922 he relinquished his pension as he now had a fairly adequate income. But he had never been a strong man and was having constant attacks of asthma, bronchitis and fever. On 8 June 1923 his old university, Cambridge, gave him the honorary degree of master of music. He died on 23 June 1924. He married in 1893 Constance Dorothea Birch who survived him with a son and three daughters. The work of the English Folk-dance Society continued after Sharp's death, and by 1932 the number of dancers had quadrupled. In that year the English Folk-dance Society and the Folk-song Society amalgamated. In 1930 "Cecil Sharp House" in Regent's Park Road, which had been built by subscription as a memorial to Sharp was opened and is now the headquarters of the society.
A. H. Fox Strangways, Cecil Sharp; The Centenary History of South Australia, p. 366; E. Morris Miller, Australian Literature, vol. I, p. 384.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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