It’s probably fair to say that John Curwen taught the world to sing.
While the Heckmondwike-born Sunday school minister did not invent the ‘sol-fa’ system of recognising musical notes, he certainly popularised them and as the British Empire spread across the world, so did his teaching method. So much so that by 1891, 2.5 million children across the world were learning musical notes using the ‘tonic sol-fa’ system.
A hundred years later, of course, the same system would be popularised again, this time by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music, with lead Julie Andrews singing the modified ‘do re me’ version of the same scale.
Curwen was born in 1816 in the middle of the Heavy Woollen District, living until 1880. As the 200th anniversary of his birth approaches, efforts are underway to celebrate his achievements and also to remind people of his legacy.
Retired finance officer for Leeds City Council John Appleyard, 63, who is a member of the Spen Valley Civic Society, is leading the efforts for the celebrations, which will take place on or near Curwen’s birthday, November 14.
John said: “He was a congregational minister at Sunday School and when he was teaching singing he used to move his hand up and down to signify moving between high and low notes but he thought there must be a better way to do it.”
Curwen’s genius was to take two previously existing systems of denoting musical notes and combine and modify them. First, he uncovered a system which was invented in the 11th century by a Benedictine monk named Guido of Arezzo, which he then refined – Guido’s system used syllables to represent notes on a scale – and then popularised. The second system was pioneered by Sarah Ann Glover (1785-1876) from Norwich
Curwen ran a Sunday school and urged children to sing hymns. there was no such thing as sheet music in those days to sing from but he aimed to develop musical literacy in three stages, reading from sol-fa notation then reading from the score.
John said: “I just think he deserves more recognition. His tonic sol-fa system became the principal method of teaching in the 19th century in schools around the world.”
Curwen is featured as part of the Spen Valley Civic Society’s local heritage trail and a memorial to him stands in the park in the centre of Heckmondwike – it is said that it faces ‘the manse’ where he was born, although whether it still stands or not is debatable.
Heckmondwike boasts another first in that it was the first town in the world to have electric Christmas lights and this year when the lights are switched on, the countdown will not be from 10 to zero but will follow the ‘do re me’ scale, as a tribute to Curwen.
His life and achievements were recognised in a book, Yorkshire Greats: The County’s Fifty Finest, penned by The Yorkshire Post columnists Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher.
November 16 is the 200th anniversary of John Curwen who was born in Heckmondwike 1816 and is memorial can be seen in ‘the Green’ in the middle of Heckmondwike.
In April 2015, Leeside Primary in Liversedge became an academy school and rebranded itself as The John Curwen Cooperative Primary Academy. Sue Balfour-Bellamy, principal at the academy, said: “We thought it was important to take a local name and he did so much in terms of giving back to the community.” A plaque in the school’s entrance hall explains his association with the school.