The English Tonic Sol-fa System originated in Norwich, Norfolk in the 1830’s and was known at the time as the ‘Norwich Sol-fa’ notation system. Although credit for its development has frequently been given to John Curwen, it was Sarah Ann Glover who originated its theory. She was also the author of the subsequent book on the subject “Scheme to Render Psalmody Congregational” in which it details simplified notation for sol-fa syllables and rhythms. This system and its accompanying teaching strategies were discovered in 1841 by John Curwen who subsequently popularised and adapted them. Conflict arose between Sarah Glover and John Curwen regarding the modifications Curwen made to Sarah’s system, yet the impact of her work on Curwen and, eventually, on music education in general, cannot be disputed.
(The above extract and the following narrative is based on P.D. Bennett (1984) “Sarah Glover: A Forgotten Pioneer in Music Education” and her own extracts from B ernard Rainbow’s:…..”Musical Education in England 1800 to 1860″, Novello Copyright 1967).
SARAH ANN GLOVER (1786 – 1867): A BACKGROUND.
Sarah Ann Glover was born in 1786 at Cathedral Close, Norwich and baptised on 18 November 1786 in ‘St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, the Parish Church for the Cathedral Close.
Sarah, the eldest daughter of the Rector of St Lawrence Church, Norwich, had her first formal music lesson in her sixth year. This early training was not unusual at the time when young women were encouraged to study music to ensure a position for themselves socially, as well as for family entertainment and church teaching. Although she did become an accomplished pianist, nothing more is known of her career until, in her late twenties, she was given responsibility for music at her father’s church; this may have been around 1811 when her father became Curate of St Lawrence Church and also when she and her sister, Christiana, began to run the Sunday School.
At the time, when church choirs were particularly noisy and incompetent, Sarah’s children’s choirs were respected for the quality of their singing and St Lawrence became well known and enthusiastically attended for its musical performances. Inquiries began to surface as to ‘the method of teaching’ that enabled the children to sing so well. Apparently, young women from other parts of the country were soon being sent to Sarah Glover for training.
Although Sarah’s initial concern was to improve congregational singing, her sights were also reaching towards a reform of the teaching of music reading skills; to do this, a simplified notation system for teaching singing was needed. By 1827, Sarah Ann Glover had drawn up a complete method in which, simply speaking, DOH is always the first note of a scale, RAY the second – and so forth. This was called the ‘Norwich Sol-fa’ and she was to use it as part of her teaching of girls in a school she founded in Black Boy Yard, off Colgate Street, Norwich where she used her system with marked success. From her early choirs, Sarah’s influence gradually spread through those who studied with her and into the homes of the poor working class, as well as the affluent. In 1835, her system was first published by Jarrold & Sons of Norwich and went on to produce four other editions. However, as popular as her methods were with some music educators, The Norwich Sol-fa system remained in relative obscurity until that chance discovery, in 1841, by John Curwen.
SARAH GLOVER’S ‘HARMONICON’
Sarah’s pupils learned to sing by means of sol-fa notes and the use of the ‘Harmonicon’. This was an instrument, invented by her and manufactured in Norwich, which consisted of a long narrow mahogany box containing a drumstick and a number of pieces of glass, the latter attached to two pieces of string to enable them to produce various musical notes when struck. She designed it to help her teach her Sol-fa system in conjunction with her book “Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational” comprising a key to the sol-fa notation of music and directions for instructing a school.
JOHN CURWEN (1816 – 1880): HIS INVOLVEMENT WITH TONIC SOL-FA.
In the Spring of 1841, the Reverend John Curwen was charged by a conference of teachers at the Sunday School Union with recommending a suitable way to teach music in Sunday School. Curwen was already known as a brilliant teacher and the author of a highly successful children’s story entitled “The History of Nelly Vanner” but he was “completely without musical skill” (Rainbow, p.53). Already having experienced the difficulty of teaching large groups of children how to sing, Curwen had little confidence in his ability to fulfil the conference’s request. It was by sheer chance that a friend called Curwen’s attention to the work of Sarah Ann Glover and gave him a copy of her “Scheme to Render Psalmody Congregational” book. It was from this publication that Curwen produced his own adaption that was to become known as the Tonic Sol-fa System of notation.
JOHN CURWEN Verses SARAH ANN GLOVER
John Curwen has often been credited with being the originator of the Tonic Sol-fa System of notation but there has always been some controversy surrounding his adaption and popularisation of Sarah Glover’s ideas. As Curwen studied her treatise he began to realise why his earlier attempts to learn (from Ford’s ‘Elements’) to read music had failed. He had learned “off by heart” its various symbols and their meanings but, he had learned nothing of the symbol’s musical significance – this he discovered from Sarah’s method. Delighted with his discovery, Curwen experimented with teaching her method to a child living at his lodgings and found, as a result and within a fortnight, he was himself able to read a tune written in sol-fa notation (Rainbow, p.142). As Curwen’s enthusiasm for Sarah’s method increased he apparently forgot that the system was not something of his own devising. Only after he had been carried too far on the crest of his enthusiasm did it occur to him to write to Sarah Glover herself. This was in 1841 when, having detailed the merits of his changes, he sought to obtain her agreement and an opportunity to meet her; it would appear that at no time did he actual ask for her explicit approval for what he was doing.
By the time Sarah Glover had received John Curwen’s 1841 letter, he was in her mid-fifties and already with an established and successful, if not celebrated, career; she, emphatically, was not prepared to accept modifications to her successful system by a “bold, assuming young man”. Her letter of response to him no longer exists but it is known that for over twenty years Sarah “resisted Curwen’s attempts to secure her endorsement of his modifications” (Rainbow p.143). Although correspondence between them continued until her death in 1867, theirs was a strained relationship.
The principles of the Tonic Sol-fa System are long lived and still valued in the teaching of music. Invented to aid young students in sight reading, hearing and writing music is still recognised in many classrooms. The circumstances surrounding the popularisation and publication of Sarah Glover’s method have obscured her real contribution to music education. That hers has been a neglected story is proven by the limited number od sources giving accurate information on her work. Certainly, in the history of music education, Sarah Ann Glover deserves considerable recognition for her unique contribution.
Sarah moved away from Norwich in later life = first to Cromer, then Reading and then Malvern in Herefordshire where she retired to live of his modifications” with her sister, Christiana. Sarah died of a stroke at Malvern on 20 October 1867 and is buried there.
In 1891, a brass plate was erected in St Lawrence Church, Norwich to mark the jubilee year of the Tonic Sol-fa Association which was paid for by the London Branch. The plate states (wrongly) that her father was Rector of St Lawrence. The notation over the last two lines is the tune ‘Rockingham’ in Norwich Sol-fa. The Tonic Sol-fa concept became well known in popular culture after it was featured in a song from the stage and film musical ‘The Sound of Music’. Around about 100 years later, Blue Plaques were mounted at various places in Norwich which had connections with Sarah Ann Glover, such as: Colgate, St Benedicts, Pottergate.
Photos: Those by George Plunkett are shown by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett.