Curwen, John, 1816-1880

Titles by this author
The history of Eleanor Vanner, who died, April 26, 1839, aged 10 years

Born on 14 November 1816 at Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, Curwen was the eldest son of the Rev. Spedding Curwen, an independent minister. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of John Jubb of Leeds. As a child, Curwen attended schools at Ham, Surrey, and Frome. He entered Wymondley College to prepare for the independent ministry at the age of sixteen. He was appointed assistant minister at Basingstoke in 1838 where he also managed a small school. He held a similar position at Stowmarket. In May 1844 he was ordained at the Independent Chapel at Plaistow, where he remained until 1864. Early in his career as a minister, he showed a great interest in teaching and in the educational value of music. It was this interest that drew him to the tonic sol-fa system with which his name is chiefly connected. He elaborated the tonic sol-fa method from a system taught by Miss Glover of Norwich around 1840. Curwen wrote a series of articles on "singing" in the "Independant Magazine" for 1842, in which he advocated his new method as the best way of teaching music (352). He published Grammar of Vocal Music in June, 1843, and from this time on, the system swiftly gained popularity. In 1853, he lectured at Crosby Hall, and at this time, an estimated two thousand persons were engaged in learning Curwen's system. Ten years later, 186,000 people were using the tonic sol-fa system, and it is presently used widely in the elementary schools (353).

When the American Civil War broke out, Curwen sided with the north and organized the first Freed Slaves' Aid Society in England in addition to publishing numerous tracts against slavery. In 1863, Curwen recognized that the danger of his system was that it led to an "imperfect musical culture" (353). He subsequently resigned his ministry and devoted all his energy to raising the general standard of musical education in the tonic sol-fa method. He established a press at Plaistow for the purpose of publishing a series of manuals of instrumental music. He lectured throughout Great Britain and was appointed Euing lecturer at Anderson's College, Glasgow in 1866. Curwen established the Tonic Sol-Fa College in 1879.

Curwen's The History of Eleanor Vanner went through many editions on both sides of the Atlantic and also appeared as History of Nelly Vanner : Written Expressly for Children (1843). He is also the author of The Child's own Hymn Book (1841), Look and Say Method of Teaching to Read (1842), People's Service of Song (1850), An Account of the Tonic Sol-Fa Method of Teaching to Sing, (London, 1854), The Established Notation Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-Fa Teaching to Sing, (London, 1857), Music in Worship and other Papers on People's Psalmody (London, 1871), and Present Crisis of Music in Schools (1873).

Stephen, Sir Leslie & Sir Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. V. London: Oxford, 1917. 352-353.

Also in:

Kirk, John Foster. Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1891. 435.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Melanie Parry. Chambers: Edinburgh, 1997. pg. 476.

Written by Stephen Rachman