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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Sarah Glover

Sarah Glover 1786 - 1867

Sarah Glover - Image courtesy of NMAS
Sarah Glover

Sarah Glover, born in Norwich, and died at Malvern was the inventor of the Norwich Sol-fa and of the Glass Harmonicon. She is best known for inventing the Norwich Sol-fa , a system of musical notation designed to improve the standard of singing, and to simplify the reading of music. The system was taken up and developed by John Curwen, and it is Curwen's system, known as the Tonic Sol-fa, that is still in use today. She also invented the glass harmonicon.

Sarah claimed that: 'No instrument constructed by man can compare in beauty with the human voice and that the aid of instruments is not indispensable to the preservation of tune in vocal performance.'

Her Life

Born on 13th November, 1786, the daughter of the Revd. Glover, Rector of St. Laurence Church, St. Benedicts, Norwich, she lived at 91 Pottergate. From the age of six she took music lessons from Dr. J. C. Beckwith. Her mother was a devoted follower of the writings of Mrs. Trimmer . In appearance, Sarah was slight, near-sighted with light brown hair and a tendency to stoop.

Sarah and her sisters ran a school in Black Boys Yard (off Colegate) - there is a plaque to her on the side wall of the Colegate Merchants pub - and she also taught at the Norwich Workhouse, in the Central School (the teacher training establishment in Norwich at the time), and at Lakenham. She taught music to the blind, and worked as a governess for the family of Sir T. Fowell-Buxton.

She invented the Norwich Sol-fa system of notation in an endeavour to improve standards of amateur music-making amongst all classes of society. She was also interested in other aspects of learning, and appears to have had something of a scientific bent. In 1859, she wrote her Dissertation upon the relationship between Colour and Music, relating it to the Analogy discovered by Sir Isaac Newton to exist between the proportions of the prismatic colours and the division of a musical story, in the ascending Minor scales. She corresponded with academics and researched her subject thoroughly.

Sarah also invented the glass harmonicon, an instrument designed to facilitate her Sol-fa system. Three of these are still in the possession of the Norfolk Museums Service.

At the age of 65, Sarah retired to Cromer, moving to Reading four years later. In 1864 she moved again, this time to Hereford. Sarah died in Malvern on 20th October, 1867, whilst staying with a friend, and it is there that she is buried. She was 87. She merits an entry under her own name in the Grove Dictionary of Music, yet very few Norfolk people have heard of her.

Sarah and the Norwich Sol-fa

The term sol-fa comes from the Italian sol-feg-gio. Sarah regarded it as a 'science', a scientific system. She frequently refers to 'Guido's art of sol-fa-ing' , and claims that she had "more time and practical teaching experience than men of science and practical musicians [for] leisure for meditation combined with opportunities for making experiments with children."

Sarah used her Norwich Sol-fa system in her own teaching, but she also published a number of books and charts explaining and facilitating her methods. Her Manual of the Norwich Sol-fa System - The Tetrachordal System designed to facilitate the acquisition of music by a return to First Principles was published by Jarrold & Sons in Norwich, and Novello in London. It was re-issued, with Sarah's up-dates, in many editions. The system became popular, and was used in a number of publications.

The system used a long scroll known as the Norwich Sol-fa ladder , showing the DOH scale with its relative LAH (minor) scale, each accompanied by its two attendant keys (explained in Callcott's Musical Grammar p. 114 6th edition). BAH and NE = the sharpened 6th and sharpened 7th in the minor mode. The use of this ladder can best be explained by reading a contemporary account to Sarah's school during a singing lesson.

Sarah explains the need for a simplified notational system:

"Amongst the superior orders of the county in this country, singing is at present rarely cultivated at all by gentlemen, and few ladies have such an acquaintance with intervals, as to venture to sing the simplest tune, unprompted by an instrument, or by some voice better skilled than their own in sustaining an air in tune. Psalmody is therefore usually abandoned to the illiterate, some of whom derive and from a degenerate species of sol-fa-ing, still extant among them..."

"...Shall we not then be willing to bestow some time and labour upon rescuing sacred song from its present degraded condition?..."

"...When it is considered to what sacred purposes vocal skill may be applied, it cannot surely be justly deemed unworthy the attention of the highest class of society."

To remedy this in future generations, Sarah recommended that parents employ ...a young nursemaid acquainted with the sol-far notation, and the use of an instrument called the Sol-fa Harmonicon, which has been constructed to accord with this system.

The advantages of the system:

Sarah considered that her system of notation was quicker to learn than the conventional method. It more clearly defined the rhythm, characterised the intervals, marked the scale; moreover, it could be printed in common type. She also felt that her system favoured good intonation. There was no fixed DOH, so the system favoured easy modulation and transposition.

She felt that the system offered a good start for those not musically literate (Curwen's visit to her school describes a child barely old enough to stand singing with the class), and excellent for use in schools: she drew attention to its potential usage for "singing... in schools for the children of labourers", although 'when applied to charity schools, the instructor can exercise discretion in omitting refinements [in rhythm, tone and expression] deemed unnecessary for the labouring classes' - not a statement we would find acceptable today!

She was happy for those who wished to do so, to progress to standard notation. In her writings she points out a number of drawbacks with standard notation, such as the lack of differentiation between whole and half tones, non-accidental sharps and flats, the confusion caused by the variety of clefs, and octave ranges. She felt that her system was superior, and even hoped that it would replace the old system.

The Glass Harmonicon

This was an instrument invented by Sarah, to be used to establish pitch and to train the ear. It should not be confused by a glass harmonica, which is a series of tumblers filled with water, which are rubbed with a finger to produce a note. Sarah's instrument resembled a xylophone, with glass plates as keys, which were struck by hammers. A later instrument, probably made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and now in the Bridewell Museum, Norwich, had a keyboard similar to that of a piano. It produced a very clear sound, ideal for the purpose of establishing pitch.

The earlier instruments comprised of a polished wooden case, similar in size and shape to that of an old-fashioned violin case, wider at one end than the other. Inside is a row of glass plates suspended on threads. The wood below the centre of each plate has a round hole in it. The ends of many of the glass plates have been grozed (nibbled), presumably to fine tune each note, as other plates have smooth cut ends. Two wooden hammers are provided. The instrument is played by using the hammer to strike the centre of the glass plate, just over the hole. To the rear of the plates is a roller covered with paper on which is printed the name of each note. The roller was rotated so that the sol-fa notation related to the desired key. The instruments have a two-octave range, running from G to G.

One of the instruments in the Strangers Hall Museum has lists pasted inside the lid, including lists of clefs, including Descant, Soprano, Counter-tenor, tenor and bass. The instruments are not currently on public display.

A glass harmonicon cost £1 11s. 6d., which made it affordable only by teachers and schools, or by wealthier families. Alternatively, it was possible to purchase an entire Norwich Sol-fa kit for £2 10s. 6d. The kit also included charts, pointers and various other items.

Her Views on Church Music

Sarah was unhappy with the standard of church music at the time, and she was not alone; the Bishop of Norwich had also expressed concern at the low standard of singing in the churches of his diocese.

Sarah felt that two particular areas needed addressing:

'First, there must be a general acquaintance with notes, unless none but hacknied [sic] tunes are to be performed. Secondly, not only melody but harmony must be practised [this latter, to allow for different ranges of voices'.

Her recommendations were that one hour be set aside each week for those members of the congregation who were able to attend, to practise the music. She realised that not everyone would attend, but felt that if some, at least, of the congregation had attended a practice, a firmer lead would be given to the rest of those attending the service. She also advocated that poor children be taught to sing, in order that they might lead the congregation'.

Sarah believed that congregational singing needed at least one, and preferably two, leaders. If only one leader was available, he should be a high tenor, in order that the lead be clear to hear and to follow. (Traditionally, in church music, the tenor carried the melody.) The second part could be led by a bass voice. She was, however, fearful of making the church into a concert-room, and stated clearly that singing in worship should never be the subject of criticism: it was not a performance, it was an expression of worship to God, acceptable to him, rather than for the pleasure of the human listeners.                         

The use of the Organ in worship

During her lifetime, the church organ was again coming to prominence. Although not an enthusiast about its use, Sarah acknowledged its usefulness in establishing pitch and giving the air of a tune before it was sung. She also felt it was good for its

'power of drowning bad voices while the psalm is being sung'!

However, the organ also had its drawbacks. She called it:

'An unwieldy instrument to serve well as an accompaniment to an unskilful choir... [which] conceals articulation of words... [and] encourages indolence with respect to the cultivation of the human voice'

She stressed the need for the organist to stick to the vocal harmonies used by the congregation, and drew attention to the fact that the organ is unable to express the accent in musical feet. Overall, however, she considered the organ to be a noble instrument, which she respected, when rightly used.

Sarah Glover and John Curwen

The Tonic Sol-fa system is generally credited to the Revd. John Curwen, a Congregational minister. However, Curwen based his system on the Norwich Sol-fa system invented and published by Sarah in 1828, when Curwen was still a child. Indeed, it is claimed that he himself learned to read music by using the Sarah's Norwich Sol-fa system. Curwen did not publish his system until 1841, in which year they met for the first time. She was 55 and he was 24.

Curwen always acknowledged his indebtedness to Sarah. His title page reads: 'Singing for schools and congregations. A grammar of vocal music with course of lessons and exercises, founded on the Tonic Sol-fa Method (A modification of Miss Glover's Tetrachordal System).'

He felt that Sarah's system needed certain refinements; for instance, he placed the DOH at the bottom, whereas Sarah had placed it in the middle.

Sarah Glover said of Curwen's work, 'that these modifications are improvements may admit of a doubt" but in the unpublished last edition of Norwich Sol-fa System Manual 1859 she praised his "consummate skill and astonishing energy and perseverance', and was delighted by his success.

Places to Visit linked with Sarah Glover:

St. Laurence Church, Norwich - her father was the Rector

91 Pottergate, Norwich - Sarah's home (the road may possibly have been renumbered)

Black Boys Yard, Colegate - site of Sarah's school

Malvern - Sarah's grave

Stranger's Hall Museum has a fine collection relating to Sarah Glover (not on public display)                

Sarah Glover's Works

Some of Sarah Glover's published works, with contemporary prices: -

The Embossed Sol-fa Tune Book designed for the use of the blind. 3s.

Musical Ladder 3d

Sol-fa Tune Book 3d

Guide to Sol-fa-ing 3s

Small table of keys - no price

Piano forte card 1s

Table of Time 1s

Table of Keys, combined with table of time 4'8" x 2'6" 2s.6d.

As above, mounted on roller 18s.

Recommended Reading:

  • New Found Voices, D . Hyde. Chapter 3: Sarah Glover and the Contribution of Women to Music Education. (1984). Gives a brief biography and discussed the Norwich Sol-fa system in greater detail.
  • Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy: novel based around the introduction of an organ into the church music.
  • Grove Dictionary of Music: article on Sarah Glover                     

Penny Doe

July 2008

I am grateful to Strangers Hall Museum for access to original documentation, and for the photographs of Sarah's glass harmonicon.


Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS).