Herbert Sharpe (1861–1925)
Sharpe was a student at the National Training School and was one of the founding professors of the RCM. He later had the challenge of teaching Vaughan Williams. His son, Cedric Sharpe, was a distinguished cellist and, like his father, a composer.
Herbert F. Sharpe
Fifty years ago (on May 17th next) the National Training School for Music commenced its short, but not unimportant career in the building which saw (in 1883) the inception of the R.C.M., and which is now the R.C.O. The N.T.S.M. reared several musicians who have since become famous, and on its opening day there assembled some thirty or forty young people who had gained the first scholarships. It was on that day that I first met Herbert Sharpe, a handsome youth, full of enthusiasm, and keen on the work now opening out before him. He was already an excellent pianist, and had composed several piano pieces. He, with Dr. Sweeting and myself, formed a group eager for any harmless fun, closely associated, too, in being pupils of Mr. J.F.Barnett, whose amusing mannerisms we irreverently copied. It was in those early days that Wagner came to the Royal Albert Hall. Many were the controversies we had over the new music, and I well remember Eugene d'Albert (a fellow student) getting us together with a passage from one of the operas, obvious enough to-day, but then too daring for any of us!
Sharpe's playing had made rapid strides, and I recall his fine performance at a Training School Concert in the West Theatre of the Royal Albert Hall, of Chopin's Study in E, and that on the black keys. He cut the thumb of his right hand in practising the octave passage at the end of the G flat study, the injury taking some time to heal. The Lady Superintendent (Mrs. Thurston Thompson) kept a keen eye on the lady students, and upon us, too, and we needed it ! That was a memorable occasion when Sharpe locked me out on the balcony, still to be seen at the R.C.O. Mrs. Thompson appeared unexpectedly, and could not open the window from the inside. I stood helpless until assistance arrived, and when I did get in had to face the angry lady. I caught sight (while being questioned) of Sharpe and Sweeting peeping round a comer immensely enjoying the scene. We were, however, not always in these high spirits, and Sharpe invented an antidote. This consisted of the phrase "Let's have a laff" (laugh), and many a time did it come to our aid. We sometimes went for a very modest lunch to the Buffet at the Royal Albert Hall, when Sharpe would assume a broken English accent. The young lady was quite deceived by his "Von bon Mees", and spoke of him as our foreign friend.
But as time went on a very remarkable change came over Sharpe. He seemed suddenly to realise (far sooner than most of us) the seriousness and meaning of his work. We used to try to rally him with "Let's have a laff". He would look very serious and say, in a significant tone and with as hake of the head, "Nay, lad (!)," evidently having far more weighty things on his mind. His music was to him as a religion, and he spoke of it as something quite apart from the ordinary things of life. Herbert Sharpe was one of the most distinguished scholars the School possessed, and gained one of the Royal Scholarships founded, I think, in 1880-81. On leaving when the School was closed, in 1882, to make way for the R.C.M., he found a severe struggle before him. But his upright character, charming personality, and high ideals won through, and scholars and students of the R.C.M. know full well the invaluable influence he exercised, both as a teacher and examiner. I know that in the latter capacity he suffered much, from his intense sympathy with candidates who had to be rejected, and he felt the whole thing most acutely. He found quite early in his career that as a public soloist his nerves so often prevented the display of his great powers, but with a few sympathetic listeners he undoubtedly rose to great heights. He therefore devoted himself to teaching, and our beloved College thereby owes him a debt which can never be repaid. I passed him in College not long before he died, and was greeted with the old formula "Let's have a laff." To the last his charming character and appreciation of fun never left him, and I cannot believe he ever had an enemy. I heard only the other day from Dr. Sweeting, in Adelaide. He had just heard of our loss, and wrote : "I have come across several of his pupils out here, all of whom spoke of him not merely with gratitude for what he had done for them, but in terms of real affection."
May his memory live long, and his fine example prove an incentive to those to whom their art is their life !
W. G. ALCOCK.
All those Collegians, past or present, who had the privilege of studying the piano with Mr. Herbert Sharpe, will feel that by his death College has suffered a loss it can ill afford. Mr. Sharpe had been associated with the College as a Professor almost from the beginning, having been appointed in 1884.
But it is not merely length of service, great as this has been, that we are grateful for. Mr. Sharpe brought to his teaching certain qualities that endeared him to all his pupils. His patience was phenomenal. Imperturbably genial and kind, he would go over a difficult point again and again if necessary, without a trace of irritation. He had a quiet comprehensiveness of personality that made pupils trust his guidance entirely. His teaching was not of the narrow kind that sees but a segment of musical truth and proclaims it as the whole, thereby warping instead of widening the powers of judgment in the pupil. His musical vision was wide, and embraced many different manifestations of the art. He did not rely on any particular "method" in teaching, but used largely the way of example at the keyboard. It was a rare pleasure to bear him play passages from Debussy and Ravel, with a quality of tone almost uncanny in its beauty. But memory of all [sic], perhaps, was his Mozart playing which had unassuming serenity that approached perfection.
His influence for good in the life and work of the College has been a very potent one, and perhaps all the more so owing to the complete freedom from anything spectacular in his artistic nature. Always modest and self-effacing, inclining to no extremity of view, but always keeping a splendid balance and poise in his musical outlook, he has been instrumental in giving to the innumerable students who passed through his hands a broad and sane view of their work which is a very precious thing in these days of change and instability. While deeply mourning his loss, they will resolve to carry on in the light of his example.
S. G. SHIMMIN.
When I saw Mr. Sharpe at a concert, only the other day, how little I realised that was the last time I was to see him and to hear his kind enquiries as to my works progress, and his ever ready sympathetic interest in all my doings. That gentle, modest, reserved and forceful personality, with behind it all a genial quiet humour. And what a capacity for work! Nothing was too much trouble if it would make things easier for anyone. I have personally benefited by many hours of his valuable time, time which might so well have been used for his own necessary leisure. To hear him play made one realise what a beautiful instrument a piano is, and what a fine tone is capable of being produced from it. His touch was remarkable. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be his pupils must always be grateful for his insistence on "listen to the sounds you make"; and also his emphasis on the value of slow practice. How well I remember after having practised slowly as I thought - on going to my lesson being asked "Have you practised slowly this week?" and when I said "Yes" – "Show me" – then his quiet remark, "So that is what you call slowly!" How fresh is the remembrance of those happy, rare, and much treasured evenings spent in the privacy of his home circle, when he would play duets for two pianos with me, or give a great treat by playing himself. Only those who heard him then, realise how great was his loss to the concert platform, a loss by which we, his pupils, were the very great gainers.
The death of Herbert Sharpe has left a gap in the College which is well-nigh impossible to fill. It is difficult for me to attempt any adequate tribute to his memory. Since the age of thirteen my life has been so much influenced by him, not only as a master but as the dearest of friends, that no words can express the meaning of his loss. The pupils in all parts of the Empire who have come under his influence from time to time will sorrow for a master who was a fine artist in every sense of the word.
Those friends of his own generation who knew him will maintain that he might and should have been one of the greatest English performers had not various circumstances caused him to decide to devote his life to giving his knowledge to others. He adored his work at the College and the one consolation one felt in his sudden death was the thought that he had been spared a long and irksome illness.
Only those who had the privilege of studying with him knew what a beautiful pianist he was and not even the dullest student could fail to appreciate the way in which beauty always came first in his music. Only about two years ago at Arnold Bennett's house I heard him give a performance of Beethoven's Op. 110 which as a fine conception of the spirit of the music could scarcely have been surpassed. He loathed thoughtless virtuosity and though his comments on some contemporary players could be caustic he never failed to give the highest appreciation and respect to a really big artist. His understanding and sympathy with the music of the younger generation was wide and I believe I am correct in saying that he was the first man to introduce the pianoforte works of the Modern French School into the R.C.M. at a time when they were not altogether understood in England.
His mind was as broad and noble as his character was sweet, and his memory will remain fragrant in the minds of his appreciative pupils throughout their lives.
We have only happy memories of Mr. Sharpe, which is not always true of those to whom one owes a debt which cannot be repaid The debt we can never repay to Herbert Sharpe, is that for each one of us he discovered our musical selves because he gave as much of himself to the least talented as to the most brilliant. The interest he showed in all his pupils was amazing. His wonderful kindness, patience, and simplicity made a deep impression on everyone; he seemed untouched by the general bustle of life today, for he never appeared to be in a hurry, and though his days were filled by work he always had time to give to anyone who asked for his help. Slackness of any description was never tolerated, and his keen disappointment when one failed to reach the standard he expected made one ashamed, as no amount of sarcasm or anger could have done; but his great delight when one fulfilled his expectations, combined with his stimulating criticism and encouragement is something always to be remembered.
Two things stand out in his teaching: He aimed first at the understanding of a composer and appreciation of the composition, and then at the skill which would give the player the power to produce in lovely sound what he had discovered. The production of the most beautiful tone possible was always insisted upon by him, and we have vivid recollections of his playing in illustration of this.
Mr. Sharpe had the broadest sympathies, and encouraged us to play everything he felt to be sincere, from Byrd and his contemporaries to the newest British and foreign music.
We shall always remember with gratitude all he did for us, and feel proud to have been his pupils.
MARJORIE & LINDSAY WILLS
The news of Herbert Sharpe's death came as a sudden shock to us all, but we realise now that to die in full harness was a fit passing for one whose life was devoted to the College. He rebelled when illness kept him away, having an intense love for work.
It is difficult to define his particular success as a teacher. An atmosphere of understanding was created between him and his pupils. His sympathetic nature called forth their affection and regard to an exceptional degree. He was no taskmaster, but one felt that he expected much, and, in loyalty, one hated to disappoint him. He lured us on by example, and power of suggestion, rather than by words, into an appreciation of the delicacy of touch and a delight in the sense of tone-colour.
No account of Sharpe would be complete without some mention of his great fund of Yorkshire stories, which he told in dialect. His themes ranged from Yorkshiremen cubhunting in Africa, to the singer accused by his accompanist of "singing betweent' cracks!" There was not a better raconteur in College. Like another Yorkshireman, Sir Walter Parratt, he kept a keen watch on the progress of his county's cricket team.
We all miss his companionship and lovable personality, but we will not forget him and the inspiration of his teaching remains with us.
C. THORNTON LOFTHOUSE
Obituary etc., RCM Magazine, 22/1 (1925), 8-13