Charles McGuire has written an incredibly thorough and meticulously researched book on the Tonic Sol-Fa Movement to enrich our understanding of Victorian musical culture. Music and Victorian Philanthropy, as the preface makes clear, is neither a history of Tonic-Sol Fa nor a study of Tonic-Sol Fa as a pedagogical method (xvi); instead, McGuire focuses on the proponents of Tonic-Sol Fa, John and Spencer Curwen, and the various philanthropies they supported through their musical system. McGuire thus spends a chapter each on these various causes: temperance, missionary work, and the suffrage movement. His appendix divulges the depth of primary research he conducted in order to find many of his resources. Not only are the Curwens’ letters and business documents now missing, but the two main periodicals of the nineteenth century which they published to promote Tonic Sol-Fa, the Reporter (1853- 1888) and the Musical Herald (1889-1920), have only incomplete coverage scattered across four major libraries, including the British Library and the New York Public Library, and a microfilm series. Still, McGuire is able to mine the existing issues for much of his evidence about John and Spencer Curwen’s differing and evolving philanthropic approaches.
John Curwen, a Congregational minister, established the Tonic Sol-fa Association in 1851and began publishing the Reporter, the first of several periodicals dedicated to the promotion of Tonic Sol-fa, in 1853. A system of sight-singing which would bring music to the masses, Tonic Sol-fa became, to John Curwen, a means by which his Dissenting principles of social reform were focused in order to solve social ills. Upon his death, his son Spencer Curwen took over the business. As a trained musician, Spencer Curwen used his influence to expand the reputation of Tonic Sol-fa beyond philanthropic institutions for the working classes into the middle-class realm of classical music, aligning the movement with major composers of the day and transcribing classical music into Tonic Sol-fa editions to rival staff-notation scores. Attempting to raise the working-class singers to this higher standard of music, his philanthropic approach differed from his father’s, a distinction that McGuire links to the changes in the larger world of social reform: “Thus Victorian charity moved from a paternalistic model based on volunteerism and self-improvement in John Curwen’s time to a collectivist model with greater attention to the root causes of poverty… in the age of Spencer Curwen” (42).
The second chapter systematically analyzes the links between temperance and Tonic Sol-fa, “the most closely associated philanthropic movements of the era” (69). McGuire suggests three ways in which Tonic Sol-fa singing aided the temperance movement: as a means of moral influence and improvement, as a distraction away from the lure of alcohol, and as an incentive to attend Temperance meetings that featured collective singing. Yet, temperance movements did not embrace Tonic Sol-fa with as much fervor as Tonic Sol-fa embraced temperance, and when temperance fell with the failure of the 1895 Reform Bill, Tonic Sol-fa fell too. Ironically, then, the Curwens could not have picked a worse reform to sponsor.
McGuire’s third chapter focuses on missionary work of the century, with mission organizations like the London Missionary Society (LMS) embracing Tonic Sol-fa’s power to create joyful—and tractable—converts (114). McGuire suggests that both Curwens’ decision to support missions only in part (favoring Protestant Dissenting mission groups, particularly the LMS’s work in Madagascar) and only half-heartedly was “perhaps their biggest mistake” because missionaries truly embraced the power of music in their conversion endeavors (121). Calling for more work in this area, McGuire reminds us of the ways in which missionary music wiped out indigenous music even though the positive effects of Tonic Sol-fa are still felt in such cultures even today.
The final chapter investigates the Curwens’ mild support of the women’s suffragette movements, not for the egalitarian cause, but because it would “build up the Dissenting Protestant moral society they idealized” (166). Too, as a middle- and upper-class women’s movement, suffrage fit their working-class philanthropic endeavors less comfortably. Yet music, such as Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women,” became integral to suffrage rallies, and Spencer Curwen promoted it and other rallying music in Tonic Sol-fa sheet music. Ultimately, though the two institutions were only weakly successful together, McGuire concludes that “The army of singers trained under the auspices of Tonic Sol-fa ensured that … [skilled singers] did exist in Great Britain’s age of suffrage” (207).
If I have any lingering wishes after reading his book, it is that McGuire, as a well-respected musicologist, had done more close readings of actual musical texts. Such moments are few and far between, but fascinating (his analysis of “Touch Not the Cup,” for instance [86-88]). His histories of temperance, missionary work, etc, are very thorough but often take us far-afield from the actual music promised in his title. Given that Tonic Sol-fa was used a great deal with children in Sunday Schools and Bands of Hope temperance societies, John Curwen writing a number of hymnbooks for children in Tonic Sol-fa (The Child’s Own Hymn Book , The New Child’s Own Hymn Book ), I would also like to have heard more about Tonic Sol-fa’s philanthropic impact on children (McGuire only briefly alludes to Bands of Hope in his temperance chapter, for instance ).
These wishes aside, I highly recommend McGuire’s book to anyone working in the Victorian field. As McGuire reminds us, “Tonic Sol-fa was omnipresent in the Victorian era” and any Victorianist needs to understand how and why it infiltrated society and its institutions of philanthropy so completely (218). Now we can, through this carefully researched and executed book.
Alisa Clapp-Itnyre is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University East, Richmond, Indiana, where she teaches Victorian literature, children’s literature, etc. She is Executive Secretary to the Midwest Victorian Studies Association. Her publications include Angelic Airs, Subversive Songs: Music as Social Discourse in the Victorian Novel (Ohio UP, 2002); articles on music in the works of Tennyson, Eliot, and Hardy; and various children’s literature articles, including “Nineteenth-Century British Children’s Hymnody: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood with Chords and Verses,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (Summer 2010).