‘I think of thee’: unlocking a colonial song

The reconstruction of a unique but incomplete copy of a colonial song has allowed us to hear it 170 years after it was composed.

In 1846, the young Sydney pianist and composer Frederick Ellard announced that he was leaving for Europe to continue his musical studies there. At a farewell concert held before he left Sydney, his cousin, the soprano Eliza Wallace Bushelle, sang a song that Ellard had composed for the occasion, called ‘I think of thee’. The words were an English translation of Goethe’s poem ‘Ich gedenke deiner’:

I think of thee! when early morn gleameth,
From her ocean cave; –
I think of thee! when the full moon beameth
On the fountain wave . . .

An incomplete song

Until recently, there was no reason to believe that Ellard’s farewell song was ever published, let alone that the music might have survived. However, we now know that Frederick’s father, a music seller, engraved the song for publication, thanks to the discovery of one printed copy of it in the Stewart Symonds sheet music collection held by SLM in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Unfortunately, this unique copy is incomplete, consisting of only the first four pages of an original five. The missing lyrics for the lost final page can be supplied from the Goethe translation:

. . . Slow sets the sun, soft beams yon trembling star,
Loved one, wert thou here!1

As to Ellard’s music, the last surviving page of MHNSW’s copy shows that the young composer was probably intending to repeat music from his opening verse at the end. By simply doing this, it was possible to make a plausible reconstruction of the missing seven or so final bars.

Short of discovering a complete copy, we can never know for sure precisely how Ellard did finish his song. Even so, without a final page, no-one would perform the first four pages. Now, at least, we can hear them. Meanwhile, we’ve unlocked a rare and surprisingly eloquent colonial Australian example of a romantic art song, by a young Sydney musician of great promise.

A musical family

Ellard was born in Dublin in 1826, the son and grandson of music sellers.2 In 1832, aged just six, he arrived in Sydney with his parents. His father, Francis, opened a music shop, first in Hunter Street, and later moving to premises in George Street.

Frederick was sent to school, first Henry Carmichael’s Normal Institution on Hyde Park, and later Sydney College (as Sydney Grammar was then called). He probably received his earliest musical training from his father, and may also have taken piano lessons with his cousin William Vincent Wallace, who was later internationally famous as an opera composer. Frederick may also have taken piano lessons with his aunt Maria Logan, who was for several years in the 1840s organist at the original St Andrew’s Cathedral.

A budding composer

In 1842, aged 15, Ellard composed his ‘Opus 1’, a set of piano variations on a Swiss melody, which was published in a handsome edition by his father. This was followed in December 1842 by The Sydney Corporation quadrilles, celebrating the recent establishment of the Sydney City Council, and composed for the first civic ball.

Ellard made his public debut as a solo pianist in May 1845, not long after graduating from Sydney College. At a concert in June 1846, the Atlas judged: ‘He has all the requisites for a first-rate player – time, study, acquaintance with the best models, are alone required to develop those capabilities’.

The young Ellard was one of the first Australian-educated professional musicians to pursue further studies in Europe. After learning from some of ‘the best masters’ (sadly, he never revealed which ones), he returned to Australia in 1849. Over the next 25 years he had a substantial colonial career as a concert pianist, vocalist, and music teacher, and published over a dozen more compositions, copies of many of which survive. He died in Melbourne in 1874.

Visitors can hear a recording of Graeme’s reconstruction of ‘I think of thee’ on the past Songs of Home exhibition soundtrack page (track no. 50). Access the sheet music at slm.is/thinkofthee


1. ‘A braid of verses’, The story-teller; or, Table-book of popular literature . . . edited by Robert Bell, Cunningham and Mortimer, London, May 1843, p225.

2. For more on the Ellards, see Graeme Skinner, ‘The Ellard family’, Australharmony: sydney.edu.au/paradisec/australharmony/ellard-family.php

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Dr Graeme Skinner

Dr Graeme Skinner

University of Sydney

Graeme Skinner is an Australian musical historian, and an honorary associate in musicology at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, and has worked with SLM on its colonial music collections since 2011. He is author of the biography Peter Sculthorpe: the making of an Australian composer (UNSW Press; ebook 2015). In his regularly updated research website, Australharmony, he documents the musical history of Australia's colonial and early Federation eras, and curates a complementary virtual archive of Australian colonial music resources and user tags inside Trove. With co-author Michael Noone, he is also completing a catalogue of the plainsong and polyphonic choirbooks of Toledo Cathedral, Spain.

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