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Robert Dalley-Scarlett (1887–1959)

by Peter Roennfeldt

This article was published:

Robert Dalley-Scarlett (1887-1959), musician, was born on 16 April 1887 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, son of Robert Campbell Scarlett, public servant, and his wife Emily Florence, née Hancock. The prefix to his surname was adopted on the insistence of his godfather William Bede Dalley, and was later hyphened. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he was a clerk with the Sydney Municipal Council in 1905-12. He had learned piano from S. Gordon Laver and organ under Arthur Mason, city organist, while young, and was soon serving as organist in suburban churches, singing in choirs and conducting amateur choirs and orchestras. In 1912, he became organist and choral conductor to Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, Grafton.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in May 1916, Dalley-Scarlett embarked with reinforcements for the 20th Battalion in October. He was transferred to the Army Pay Corps early in 1917, returned sick to Australia in September and was discharged in November. While stationed in London, he studied church music with Sir J. Frederick Bridge and Dr Richard Terry.

After returning briefly to Grafton, Dalley-Scarlett was organist at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, in 1919-32. He also conducted the South Brisbane City Choir in 1920-25 and the University (of Queensland) Musical Society in 1920-30 and 1938-41. He led many performances of works previously unknown to Brisbane, including particularly those of Renaissance composers and Bach; the university choir gave a Bach festival in 1930.

Although Dalley-Scarlett matriculated in the University of Queensland in 1920, he abandoned an arts course after one term and later enrolled for external study with the University of Adelaide (B. Mus. 1926; D. Mus. 1934); he majored in composition. With practical qualifications including Licentiate of the Associated Boards (1922), Licentiate of Music (Australia) (1924) and Fellow of Trinity College, London (1924), he maintained a teaching practice in piano, organ, singing, harmony and composition until 1941; successful pupils included Hugh Brandon and Herbert Cannon. A founding member of the Music Teachers' Association of Queensland (Musical Association), he became its president in 1935. He was an active member of the university's Music Advisory Board in 1924-37.

Dalley-Scarlett conducted at the Valley Methodist Church in 1932-34 and at All Saints' Church in 1934-41 but his main choir was the Brisbane Handel Society in 1932-59. After successful Handel festivals in 1933 and 1934, the society broadcast all his oratorios between 1934 and 1942. In the 1950s it gave annual unabridged performances of the Messiah, faithfully observing the composer's intentions.

In 1941-55 Dalley-Scarlett was employed full time by the Australian Broadcasting Commission as music presentation officer, acting music supervisor and music arranger, producing many broadcasts himself with the A.B.C. Brisbane Singers. One of his special projects was a programme of English coronation music, broadcast world wide by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1953.

Dalley-Scarlett was a prolific composer; many of his 300 works were broadcast or performed locally, although few were published. He was founding president of the Queensland Guild of Composers in 1940-53. His most notable contribution, however, was in musical scholarship. His 5000-volume library, now in the Fisher Library, University of Sydney, includes nearly 150 priceless first editions of Handel and other eighteenth-century composers. The library enabled him to produce arrangements specially designed for modern performance. His Handelian research was recognized in 1940 by award of the Hallé Medal. Besides his regular musicological articles in various journals, Dalley-Scarlett's most important publications were the 'Australia' article for Grove's Dictionary (5th edition) and a pamphlet on eighteenth century performance entitled Handel's 'Messiah': How Can We Realise the Composer's Intentions? (New York, 1955). As music critic for the Australian Musical News in 1934-37 and for the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1945-46 and 1952-59, he was a respected authority who continually encouraged all forms of music-making at both amateur and professional levels. His own indefatigable work inspired others with his initiative, untiring enthusiasm and dedication to high musical ideals.

On 8 September 1909 at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney, Dalley-Scarlett had married Gertrude Alice Peir, who bore him two sons. She refused to go to Brisbane and after ten years separation the marriage was dissolved on 3 March 1930. On 11 March he married Joyce Buckham who, as a singer and music copyist, proved an asset to his work; they had no children. He died at his home of a heart attack on 31 July 1959 and was cremated. A triennial scholarship to his memory exists within the University of Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • Descent, 1 (1961-62), pt 4, p 3, and 2 (1963-65), pt 1, p 3, and for bibliography
  • Studies in Music, 1971, no 5, p 87
  • Sun (Sydney), 15 Mar 1921
  • P. Roennfeldt, Robert Dalley-Scarlett: His Contribution to Musical Life in Brisbane, 1919-1959 (B. Mus. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1978)
  • E. Briggs, ‘The unappeasable mind’, Dalley-Scarlett memorial lecture, Apr 1961 (Fellowship of Australian Writers, Queensland)
  • Dalley-Scarlett collection (University of Sydney Library and University of Queensland Library)
  • newsclippings (ABC Archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Roennfeldt, 'Dalley-Scarlett, Robert (1887–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Scarlett, Robert

16 April, 1887
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 July, 1959 (aged 72)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.