November 14, 1816
Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, England
May 26, 1880 in Manchester
Also Known As:
Curwen was a Congregational minister and British educator especially noted for developing a system of musical notation known as the tonic sol-fa. Although not as widely utilized as before, Curwen's system continues to be used in Europe, the United States and other countries.
In order to further promote the tonic sol-fa system, Curwen established the Tonic Sol-fa Association in 1853. Ten years later, he founded the music publishing house Curwen & Sons, Ltd (later known as Curwen Press) where he became director. He was later succeeded by his son John Spencer Curwen. In 1856, Curwen became a teacher at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. 1879 marked the opening of the Tonic Sol-fa College, later named Curwen Memorial College. It is now known as the Curwen Institute which is sponsored by The John Curwen Society.
The Tonic Sol-fa:
Also known as the Curwen Method, it was developed by John Curwen during the 1840s. This method was adapted from Sarah Ann Glover's Manual of the Norwich Sol-fa System
which was in turn based on Guido de Arezzo's
system of notation. Glover used movable solmisation syllables to develop sight reading and a sol-fa notation to teach music reading from the staff.
More on the Tonic Sol-fa:
Curwen's method uses the sol-fa syllables (or solfège syllables) doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, te to signify pitch
Aside from Glover's work, Curwen also adapted the French time names from Aimé Paris' Langue de durees to teach rhythm. The letter "t" or "f" denotes tones while the letter "s" denotes rests; for example taa (one beat note) saa (one beat rest). His method also uses barlines, semicolons and other symbols as rhythmic notation.
The Curwen Handsigns:
Curwen would later exclude the staff system of notation from his method and instead used the tonic sol-fa notation on its own. In 1870, Curwen developed hand signs in conjunction with the sol-fa syllables. A modified version of the Curwen handsigns is used in the Kodaly Method
to teach students how to sing in pitch. A different handsign is used to signify a particular pitch; for example the handsign for "do" is a closed fist and the handsign for "fa" is a thumbs down. The handsign goes up or down in relation to the pitch; for example, upper "do" is signaled at eye level.
Curwen's Published Works:
- 1843 - Grammar of Vocal Music
- 1858 - The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing
- 1872 - The Standard Course
Publications Under Curwen & Sons, Ltd
- The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter and Magazine
- The Musical Herald