Life Sentences

In the early 20th century, one couple broke new ground and became global Australian musical stars, as Dr NICOLE McLENNAN, PhD ’98 uncovers.

It is easy to get distracted by the lives of others when undertaking biographical research.

Recently I came across Charles Horatio King (1864-1950), who featured prominently in the music columns of newspapers in the late 19th and early-20th centuries.

By the time of his death in 1950, however, few remembered him and newspapers marvelled at how a musician had accrued over £30,000, a considerable sum at the time.

King was born into a musical household. His father Henry claimed to be the first professional organist to migrate to Victoria and his six siblings became professional musicians, primarily specialising in the organ.

King was already an established accompanist on the piano when he made his debut on the violin aged about 15 at Launceston.

In 1885, he returned to Victoria after being appointed organist at Christ Church, Daylesford, and later moved to All Saints’ Church, Sandhurst (Bendigo). Settling in the central Victorian goldfields, he taught violin at Girton College and took private students in voice, violin and pianoforte.

King was thrust into the spotlight following the extraordinary success of his vocal student Miss Lili Sharp at the 1898 and 1899 Austral Literary and Debating Society’s competitions.

Then, King was described by the Adelaide Critic as “the perfect cut of a stage aesthetic musician, a pale, clear-cut face, surrounded by a mop of the most weirdly long hair”.

Soon after, recognising his hirsute likeness to the celebrated Polish pianist Paderewski, King adopted the stage name of Melnoth Rafalewski. Using this name, King and Sharp toured New Zealand.

On 13 May 1901, the couple married in Sydney. They departed that day for France and spent the next 11 years abroad.

Demonstrating a talent for self-promotion, they sent back letters and notices of their achievements to friends and the press.

Australian newspapers reported Lili Sharp as the “Australian Nightingale” in London concerts, while Rafalewski’s feigned foreign appearance enabled him to be billed as “the Great Hungarian Virtuoso” in Scotland.

After seeing a recent picture of Rafalewski, the Brisbane Courier remarked that he “out Paderewskis Paderewski” and likened his hair to an “immense Waratah”.

The Kings worked hard and travelled widely. They toured across Great Britain, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, India, Burma, Java, China and Japan. Returning to Australia in 1912, they claimed to have presented over 1000 concerts.

Well-known thanks to their self-promotion, they settled in Sydney where Rafalewski taught privately.

Once, when challenged over the guinea he charged a lesson, he responded: “Do you know of the reputation I have got? I am known all over the world.”

Despite the successful profile the Kings cultivated, in Bendigo – where they are still remembered as “our Charley” – the press mocked reports of Miss Sharp being ‘better than Melba’ and Rafalewski being “a native of Russia”.