Sharp, Cecil James


Sharp, Cecil James
(1859-1924)
   Born in London, Sharp spent much of his early adulthood in Australia, returning to England in 1892, planning to make a living in music. He served for many years as music master at Ludgrove Preparatory School, and Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music, and he seemed destined to remain an obscure figure on the fringes of the respectable music establishment, but two chance encounters with traditional music transformed him into the most important figure in the Edwardian * revival of interest in folk *song and *dance. On Boxing Day 1899, Sharp first saw the Head-ington *morris dancers perform, and noted down the tunes from the young concertina-player, William Kimber. At the time, he did little more than arrange the tunes for piano, but the experience took on greater significance some years later. At that period, Sharp was not alone in contemporary musical circles in feeling that British music had been overshadowed by continental models for too long, and to start thinking about how to forge a new British (in most cases, English) form of musical expression. His first attempt was to edit and publish a Book of British Song (1902), which was drawn from previous collections of 'national' songs, but a second chance meeting changed his view, and the direction of his life, completely. On a visit to Hambridge (Somerset) in summer 1903, Sharp overheard a gardener - John England - singing 'The Seeds of Love'. He soon commenced an ambitious programme of collecting, publishing, lecturing, and propagandizing, and constructed the theory that as folk-song had existed in the hands of unspoilt and uneducated rural people, it necessarily embodied the true musical soul of the nation.
   The first volume of his Folk Songs from Somerset appeared in 1904. He joined the *Folk-Song Society, which he publicly accused of being virtually moribund. After a very public disagreement with the Board of Education over the type of songs taught in schools, he published (with Sabine *Baring-Gould) Folk-Songs for Schools in 1905, and the immensely influential English Folk Song: Some Conclusions in 1907.
   Sharp was approached, in 1906, by Mary *Neal, organizer of the Esperance Working Girls' Club, in St Pancras, London, which catered mainly for poor young women in the dressmaking trade, for advice on songs and dances to teach the girls. Sharp sent her to see William Kimber, who came to London to give lessons to the girls, who were soon performing morris dances at their own gatherings and increasingly in public as outside interest grew rapidly. Sharp published the first part of his Morris Book in 1907 (completely revised in the second edition of 1912), and he used the Esperance girls at his lectures and also as teachers for the growing number of morris devotees. Tensions between Sharp and Neal, however, had begun to surface, focusing on questions of artistic standards and control of the burgeoning folk-dance revival, and these burst into increasingly acrimonious public exchanges. Both sides gathered supporters, but Sharp finally won the day as Neal, who had other concerns than folk-dance, withdrew from the field. Meanwhile, the Board of Education had included morris dance in their recommendations for physical exercise in schools, and Sharp cultivated a close relationship with the South-Western Polytechnic Institute (later the Chelsea Physical Training College), in part to provide himself with a body of teachers to replace the Esperance women, and the *English Folk Dance Society was formed in 1911, firmly under his control. Many leading lights of the folk-dance revival became involved at this time, including George *Butterworth, Douglas *Kennedy, Alice * Gomme, and Maud *Karpeles, and the principles he laid down had a lasting effect on the revival for decades. Sharp was also keen to revive the old social *dances (country dances) which had almost faded from memory, and he undertook research into Playford's English Dancing Master (first published in 1651) and other early dance manuals, and also collected what he could from village traditions; publishing the first part of his Country Dance Book in 1909.
   In 1914, Sharp went to America to help with Granville-Barker's New York production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and while there gave lectures and conducted a number of classes in folk-song and dance and established a USA branch of the English Folk Dance Society. He returned there in 1915 and again in to start an intensive and highly successful song collecting campaign in the Appalachian Mountains, which continued in and 1918. After the First World War, Sharp's position as leading expert on folk-song and dance was secure, and his principles and aims increasingly accepted by the musical and educational establishments, and his appointment as Occasional Inspector of Training Colleges in Folk Song and Dancing gave him the opportunity to inculcate his views into the future teaching force. He was still active in lecturing, demonstrating, adjudicating, and organizing right up to the time of his death. The building which bears his name, *Cecil Sharp House, was raised as a memorial to him, and opened in 1930.
   There was a tendency after his death for Sharp to be regarded as the unquestioned founder of the folk-song and dance revivals in England, and as he had in essence vanquished most dissenters by then, those who carried on his work after his death were necessarily drawn from his associates and disciples. Hardly a word of criticism was raised against him until a new generation of enthusiasts in the 1970s - children of the second revival - began to reassess their own roots in the first revival, and Sharp came under critical scrutiny, verging on vilification (e.g. Harker, 1972). Fortunately, more balanced assessments have also appeared, but the man and his actions still excite strong emotions and interest among researchers and lay people alike. It is all too easy to find evidence to show Sharp in a bad light. He was certainly autocratic and stubborn, and too willing to engage in unseemly public argument, even when he himself was on unsure ground. His criticism of the Board of Education's policy on national songs sits awkwardly with his own British Songs publication only four years previously, and his first Morris Book volume was almost completely rewritten for its second edition as doubt was cast on the traditional standing of some of the dances, and his own interpretation of the genre. Nevertheless, most of his faults can be explained, if not excused, by reference to his role as a pioneer, a man with a mission, and, importantly, a man in a hurry (he came to his life's work in his mid-forties).
   His editorial practices have also been questioned. On the song side, he was far more interested in the music than the texts and while the tunes were noted and published as exactly as possible, the words suffered every possible editorial indignity, being 'softened', amalgamated, tidied up, and, in some early cases, completely rewritten. Sharp was certainly not alone in these attitudes, and he defended his practices by saying that he needed to produce 'singable' versions which would suit the tastes of the Edwardian music-buying public. The early collectors believed that the texts had been corrupted by the *broadside trade anyway. Similarly, comparison of his fieldwork notebooks and his published works show that he was willing to take liberties with dance material to reach a performable result, and his morris and sword dance books must be seen as practical manuals rather than academic studies. Sharp is also criticized on a class basis - portrayed as the middle-class man exploiting working-class culture for his own profit and status - an accusation which can be levelled at most folklorists - but on closer examination the view is simplistic. To maintain that the material 'belonged' to the working class alone is to beg questions of origin and cultural transmission at least. Sharp certainly had many of the characteristics of his class, but there is plenty of evidence that he got on well with his 'informants', and his guiding principle was to return the treasures of traditional song and dance to a people swamped by commercial (e.g. music hall) popular culture. However patronising this sounds today, it was a valid argument at the time. Nevertheless, Mary Neal's assertion that her working girls learning direct from traditional (working-class) dancers was more valid than his model of filtration through trained (middle-class) experts found little sympathy from him, secure in his notion that these important items could only be saved by experts like himself.
   Sharp was the only one of his generation to attempt a serious definition of the field of folksong and folk music, as encapsulated in his English Folk Song: Some Conclusions (1907). His attempt was ultimately unsuccessful (see *song, and Wilgus, 1959, for further discussion), but he provided a working definition which served as the basis for all in the field until well after the Second World War. The basis of Sharp's definition is that folk-song originated with 'the people', and is therefore distinguished from both the 'art' music of the educated classes and the commercial popular music of the time, and that it has undergone a form of evolution by being 'selected' for perpetuation by the community. Items which do not suit the community's taste fall by the wayside, and those which survive are thus necessarily genuine 'folk' and therefore have intrinsic value. This evolution takes place at both micro (village) and macro (national) levels and is the basis of Sharp's belief that a knowledge of genuine folk music was necessary to revitalize English classical music: '. . . as that (musical) taste is the controlling factor in the evolution of folksong, national peculiarities must ultimately determine the specific characteristics of the folksongs of the different nations' (Some Conclusions, 38). The three processes involved in this evolution are, according to Sharp, continuity, variation, and selection. This definition included a number of problems - not least in positing an ancient origin for traditional songs when later research has shown that many of the songs collected originated on the 18th century stage and pleasure gardens. His definition of the 'common people' as 'those whose mental development has been due not to any formal style of training or education but solely to environment, communal association and direct contact with the ups and downs of life' (p. 4) is also untenable, and, in fact, is at odds with the real backgrounds of most of his best informants. Only in the case of the 'modes' in which traditional song tunes are sometimes set, did his early definitional work prove of lasting value.
   Cecil Sharp left three lasting positive legacies: a huge body of collected song and dance material, most of which would otherwise have perished unrecorded; the foundations of viable revival movements in song and dance; and greatly enhanced public perception of the existence and inherent value of traditional musical forms. Sharp caught the mood of the time. There was a widespread, but largely incoherent feeling in several intellectual fields that there was something missing in English life; a heady combination of nationalism, xenophobia, rural nostalgia, arts and crafts, and fear of rapid societal change. The apparent simplicity, artlessness, and, above all, pure Englishness of these newly discovered traditional forms were precisely what was needed, and they became widely fashionable for young and old alike. The fact that his immediate successors chose to pursue a relatively passive policy of continuance rather than active reassessment and development, and thus rapidly became out of date, is hardly his fault.
   Main publications by Sharp: song: A Book of British Song for Home and School (1902); Folk-Songs From Somerset (5 parts, 1904-9); English Folk Songs for Schools (with Sabine Baring-Gould) (1905); English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (1907); Children's Singing Games (with Alice Gomme) (5 parts, 1911); English Folk-Carols (1911); English Folk-Chanteys (1914); One Hundred English Folk Songs (1916); English Folk Songs (1920); English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (edited by Maud Karpeles) (1932); major contributions to the Journal of the Folk-Song Society 2 (1905), 5 (1914), 5 (1916), 8 (1927). dance: The Morris Book (5 parts, 1907-14); The Country Dance Book (6 parts, 1909-22); The Sword Dances of Northern England (3 parts, 1911-13); The Dance: An Historical Survey of Dancing in Europe (with A. P. Oppe) (1924). Sharp's main manuscripts are at Clare College Library, copies (and much other material) at the *Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London.
   ■ Obituary, Folk-Lore 35 (1924), 284-7; A. H. Fox Strangways, Cecil Sharp (1933); Maud Karpeles, Cecil Sharp: His Life and Work (1967); D. Harker, 'Cecil Sharp in Somerset: Some Conclusions', FMJ 2:3 (1972), 220-40; Roy Judge, 'Mary Neal and the Esperance Morris', FMJ 5:5 (1989), 545-91; Hugh Anderson, 'Virtue in a Wilderness: Cecil Sharp's Sojourn in Australia', FMJ 6:5 (1994), 61752; D. K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (1959).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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