John Curwen (1816-1880)

John Curwen, Nonconformist minister and founder of the Tonic Sol-Fa system of musical teaching, was born in Heckmondwike of an old Cumberland family. His father was a Nonconformist minister, and he himself adopted this profession, which he practised till 1864, when he gave it up in order to devote himself to his new method of musical nomenclature, designed to avoid the use of the stave with its lines and spaces.

He adapted it from that of Miss Sarah Ann Glover (1785-1867) of Norwich, whose Sol-Fa system was based on the ancient gamut; but she omitted the constant recital of the alphabetical names of each note and the arbitrary syllable indicating key relationship, and also the recital of two or more such syllables when the same note was common to as many keys (e.g. "C, Fa, Ut," meaning that C is the subdominant of G and the tonic of C). The notes were represented by the initials of the seven syllables, still in use in Italy and France as their names; but in the "Tonic Sol-Fa" the seven letters refer to key relationship and not to pitch.

Curwen was led to feel the importance of a simple way of teaching how to sing by note by his experiences among Sunday-school teachers.

Curwen brought out his Grammar of Vocal Music in 1843, and in 1853 started the Tonic Sol-Fa Association; and in 1879, after some difficulties with the education department, the Tonic Sol-Fa College was opened. Curwen also took to publishing, and brought out a periodical called the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, and in his later life was occupied in directing the spreading organization of his system. He died at Manchester on the 26th of May 1880. His son John Spencer Curwen (b. 1847), who became principal of the Tonic Sol-Fa College, published Memorials of J. Curwen in 1882.

Curwen's Sol-Fa system has been widely adopted for use in education in Britain and the United States, as an easily teachable method in the reading of music at sight.

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Encyclopedia Britannica article on John Curwen
Wikipedia article on John Curwen

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