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Plaistow primary celebrates John Curwen

PUBLISHED: 12:00 03 December 2016

John Curwen Primary School in Plaistow

John Curwen Primary School in Plaistow

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He’s the man whose efforts to simplify how music is written inspired the song Do Re Mi from the musical The Sound of Music.

He’s the man whose efforts to simplify how music is written inspired the song Do Re Mi from the musical The Sound of Music.

Now the Plaistow primary school which shares his name is celebrating the bicentenary of John Curwen’s birth.

Opened in 1888 under the name Stock Street Board, the school was renamed in 1949 in recognition of the Yorkshire-born son of a non-conformist minister who established a music printing press, Curwen and Sons, Ltd, in Plaistow’s North Street in 1863.

The congregationalist minister’s rise to fame began when he sought to revolutionise music education through the adoption of a simpler way of writing down music.

His effort was fuelled by a desire to make learning music accessible to people of all ages and social classes as well as being a way of helping Sunday school teachers instruct pupils in singing.

Curwen is thought to have adapted a system created by Sarah Ann Glover who invented the Norwich sol-fa system which in turn was based on a method invented by Guido of Arezzo, a 10th century Italian monk.

After developing his system, in 1853 Curwen founded the tonic sol-fa association later known as the English Schools Music Association and from then on his method was adopted by schools and choral societies.

His system, or variants of it, spread around the world and especially within the British empire.

However, Curwen was keen to ensure the music of eastern countries was also preserved.

In the 1860s, with failing health and an ambition to educate music teachers, Curwen resigned from his ministerial role and set up his own college, promoting his system with the slogan, “easy, cheap and true.”

By 1896 Curwen’s Plaistow printing press had become a large music and general printing business. The business survived until 1969 with the building being demolished in 1985.

Curwen Primary School has also undergone a few changes over the years with the original school being demolished in 1980 and replaced in 1981. Since then the site has been enlarged to meet Plaistow’s growing population with eight more classrooms added.

In a special celebration, children from the school commemorated the musician’s life by learning how to sing using Curwen’s system of hand signs and also wrote poems inspired by the man.

Speaking after the celebration, organiser and music teacher Swasthi Mahabeer said: “We spent a fantastic afternoon learning about a person who we are named after and recognised the heritage that we have.

“Curwen took music across the world and he got the world singing. It was a remarkable feat for him to do this using his system.”

Executive headteacher Paul Harris said: “The children did John Curwen proud, honouring his name and achievements.”

Curwen married Mary Thompson in 1845 and had four children. A descendant of one of the oldest families in England, the Curwens of Cumbria, in 1869 he built Workington House in Romford Road.

He died in 1880.


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