Curwen, John (DNB00)

CURWEN, JOHN (1816–1880), writer on music, the eldest son of the Rev. Spedding Curwen, an independent minister of an old Cumberland family, was born at Hurst House, Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, on 14 Nov. 1816. His mother was Mary, daughter of John Jubb of Leeds. Curwen's boyhood was principally spent at Hackney and (after 1828) at Frome. His earliest schools were at Ham, Surrey, and at Frome, but at the age of sixteen he entered Wymondley College to prepare for the independent ministry. A few months after his entry the college was moved to London, where the students attended University College. In 1838 Curwen was appointed assistant minister at Basingstoke, where he also kept a small school; in 1841 he held a similar post at Stowmarket, and, after living at Reading with his father for a year, in May 1844 he was ordained to the charge of the independent chapel at Plaistow, where he remained until 1864. At an early stage in his ministerial career he showed great interest in teaching: it was this which drew his attention to the educational value of music, and, though he was himself an amateur, led him to the elaboration of the system with which his name is chiefly connected. About 1840 he met at Norwich a Miss Glover, the daughter of a clergyman, who had employed in a school where she taught a very successful system of musical instruction. In the autumn of 1841, at a conference of Sunday-school teachers at Hull, the subject of school and congregational singing was discussed, and Curwen was requested to recommend the best and simplest way of teaching music. This led to an examination and partial adoption of Miss Glover's system, which was embodied in a series of articles on ‘Singing’ in the ‘Independent Magazine’ for 1842, in which the tonic sol-fa system was first advocated by Curwen. In the same year he became engaged to Miss Mary Thompson of Manchester, to whom he was married in May 1845. In June 1843 the first edition of Curwen's ‘Grammar of Vocal Music’ appeared, and from this time the adoption of the system spread with astonishing rapidity. About 1849–50 Curwen was engaged in compiling the ‘People's Service of Song,’ the tunes of which were harmonised by Mr. G. Hogarth, and at the same time he advocated the tonic sol-fa system in a series of papers which appeared in Cassell's ‘Popular Educator.’ In 1853 he delivered a course of lectures at Crosby Hall, which first called public attention to the system. At this time it was estimated that two thousand persons were engaged in learning the tonic sol-fa method; ten years later the number had increased to 186,000, while at the present day there are a million and a half of children learning to sing by this system in the elementary schools alone. In 1853 Curwen started the ‘Tonic Sol-fa Reporter,’ and in 1855 visited Scotland, lecturing on the new system. In April 1856 he was compelled by ill-health to leave England for seven months, which he spent at Langen Schwalbach, at Ziegelhausen on the Neckar, and in Switzerland. His letters from these places were afterwards published as ‘Sketches in Nassau, Baden, and Switzerland,’ 1857. On his return he devoted himself to the study of harmony, and in 1861 he issued a small work on the subject, which was followed by the establishment of ‘correspondence classes’ for teaching isolated students. In 1862 he visited Ireland, and in the same year read a paper on the tonic sol-fa system at the Social Science Congress in London. On the outbreak of the American war he sided ardently with the North, publishing various tracts on the subject, and organising the first Freed Slaves' Aid Society in England. About 1863 he recognised what was really the great danger of his system, viz. that it led to imperfect musical culture, and he henceforth devoted all his energy to raising the general standard of musical education among both teachers and students of the tonic sol-fa method. He also set to work on a series of manuals of instrumental music, and, in order to facilitate their printing, established a press at Plaistow, where most of his future publications appeared. In 1864 Curwen resigned his ministry and devoted himself entirely to music. He continued to lecture throughout the kingdom, and in the winter of 1866–7 was appointed Euing lecturer at Anderson's College, Glasgow. In 1870 he was elected a member of the school board of West Ham, on which he served for three years. In the autumn of 1873 he acted as one of the judges at the Welsh National Eisteddfod at Mold; in the following year he became engaged in a controversy with the education department, owing to the appointment as inspector of music in training colleges of Mr. Hullah [q. v.], who was notoriously hostile to the tonic sol-fa system. The opposition he met with here led eventually to the foundation of the Tonic Sol-fa College (incorporated in 1875), an examining body founded on a popular basis, which, by a system of certificates, chiefly granted by local examiners appointed by the college, insures that a certain standard of efficiency shall be attained by the teachers of the system. The first wing of the building was opened in 1879. On 17 Jan. 1880 Curwen sustained a great blow in the loss of his wife. In May he went to Manchester to visit a sick brother-in-law. He stayed at Heaton House, Heaton Mersey, Lancashire, and here he was suddenly taken ill, and after a few days' illness died on Wednesday, 26 May. He was buried at Ilford cemetery on 3 June. A portrait of him, presented as a testimonial in 1874, is now at the Tonic Sol-fa College. In addition to those already mentioned, the following are some of Curwen's chief works: 1. ‘Nelly Vanner,’ 1840. 2. ‘Child's own Hymn Book,’ 1841. 3. ‘Look and Say Method of Teaching to Read,’ 1842. 4. ‘People's Service of Song,’ 1850. 5. ‘Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book,’ 1859. 6. ‘How to observe Harmony,’ 1861. 7. ‘Songs and Tunes for Education,’ 1861. 8. ‘Commonplaces of Music,’ 1866, &c. 9. ‘New Standard Course on the Tonic Sol-fa Method,’ 1872. 10. ‘Present Crisis of Music in Schools,’ 1873. 11. ‘Musical Statics,’ 1874. 12. ‘Teachers' Manual,’ 1875. 13. ‘Musical Theory,’ 1879.

[Memorials of John Curwen, 1882; information from Mr. J. S. Curwen; newspapers for May and June 1880.]

W. B. S.