Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sharp, Cecil James (1859–1924)

by Sue Tronser

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924), musician and folk-music collector, was born on 22 November 1859 at Camberwell, London, eldest son of James Sharp, slate merchant, and his wife Jane, née Bloyd, both music lovers. Cecil attended Uppingham School, University College School, London, and from 1879 Clare College, University of Cambridge (B.A., 1883). On his father's suggestion, he migrated in 1882, arriving in November in Adelaide which apparently he had chosen because of Beethoven's song of that name. He found various jobs and read law with C. C. Kingston, before becoming from 1883 to 1888 associate to Chief Justice (Sir) Samuel Way and clerk of arraigns in the Supreme Court.

Sharp was well liked; he was a debonair young man. He was musical director in 1883-84 of the Adelaide String Quartet Club (whose first secretary was John Grainger, father of Percy), assistant organist to Arthur Boult at St Peter's Anglican Cathedral and conducted its choral society, for which he arranged Nursery Ditties (Adelaide, c.1890), and also the Government House choral society which performed his settings of Guy Boothby's Dimple's Lovers in September 1890. Later he conducted the Adelaide Philharmonic Choir.

In 1889 Sharp, who had many pupils, became co-director with Immanuel Reimann of the Adelaide College of Music. Sharp's students adored him but he resigned after two years. He had written an operetta to a text by Boothby: Sylvia, produced at the Theatre Royal in December 1890. In 1892 he returned to England and on 22 August 1893 at East Clevedon, Somerset, he married Constance Dorothea Birch, also a music lover. By 1900 he had written some forty works; few were published. He taught at several schools and at the Metropolitan College, Holloway, and was principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music in 1896-1905.

Sharp's life changed after he saw a Morris dance performed in 1899; he concentrated on recording and reviving folk-song and dance; his notebooks contain over 1700 variants. The first collections he published were part I of Folk Songs from Somerset (with Charles Marson) in 1904, and The Morris Book (with Herbert Macilwaine and George Butterworth) in 1907; a list of his published collections is in Maud Karpeles's biography. In 1918 Percy Grainger arranged Country Gardens, a Morris dance which Sharp collected; Grainger could never persuade Sharp to accept half the royalties. They differed too on folk-music collection methods, Sharp preferring the pad and pen to the phonogram. In 1911 he founded, and in 1912-24 directed, the English Folk Dance Society.

In 1919 he became an occasional inspector, in folk-song and dancing, of training colleges, to spread his enthusiasm among teachers. Sharp had travelled twice to the United States of America, discovering English folk-songs in the Appalachian Mountains. In 1923 his old university made him an honorary master of music; in the House of Commons he was described as one 'to whose work in this field British education owes an almost irredeemable debt'.

Next year he completed The Dance, a historical survey of dancing in Europe, with Adolf Paul Oppé. On 23 June 1924 Sharp died of cancer at Hampstead. Survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, he was buried in Golders Green cemetery. The Times's appreciative obituary recognized his commitment and prodigious output (eighty volumes). It noted that while the accompaniments he wrote were not those of a musical genius, they comprised 'the stuff out of which music and literature are made'. The English Folk Dance Society amalgamated in 1932 with the Folk Song Society; in 1930 their headquarters had become Cecil Sharp House.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Fox Strangways, Cecil Sharp (Lond, 1955)
  • M. Karpeles, Cecil Sharp, his Life and Work (Lond, 1967)
  • J. Bird, Percy Grainger (Lond, 1976)
  • P. Depasquale, Guy Boothby (Adel, 1982)
  • Times (London), 24-28 June 1924.

Citation details

Sue Tronser, 'Sharp, Cecil James (1859–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sharp-cecil-james-8400/text14751, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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