The start of music at CLS

‘Raised in the scale of civilisation’ – the start of music at CLS

For an abbreviated version of this article, with illustrations, see Gazette No. 295 (Spring 2009).

In September 1836 the Common Council approved the regulations for the new City of London School, which was to open in Milk Street five months later. These include an ambitious proposed curriculum, as progressive as any in England at that date. At the end of the wide-ranging list of subjects comes ‘Elements of Choral Singing’. But it is one thing to write a curriculum, and another to implement it; there is no sign that singing was taught for the first four years. This is perhaps not surprising, as the School Committee had weightier matters to deal with, leading to the departure under a cloud of the first Headmaster, Dr Giles, at the start of 1840.
 
By February 1841 his successor Dr Mortimer had things back on an even keel, and raised the question of choral singing with the Committee, who agreed to ‘refer to Mr Hullah, the Gentleman who has opened a Singing School for Schoolmasters at Exeter Hall’, and by March 1st the following ‘Proposals for Elements of Choral Singing by Mr Hullah’ had been received:
 
Two classes each of about 100 boys. Two lessons of 1 hour each to each class per week. Fee 2 guineas per afternoon (two per week). Only in the months when the school hours extend to 5 o’clock.
Total cost 120 guineas – Mr Hullah would reduce this to 100 guineas.
 
It was decided to invite Mr Hullah to deliver a lecture on his proposals to the Committee in the Theatre of the School, and this was set for 23rd April, but on 5th May it was reported that ‘Mr John Hullah was unable for a variety of reasons to give the lecture on 23rd April. He promised to fix another time within a few days, but nothing had been heard for a fortnight’. With this Mr Hullah’s direct involvement with CLS ends.
 
He was busy elsewhere. John Pyke Hullah (1812-84) was one of the leading figures in the strange ‘sight singing mania’ which became prominent in the 1840s. This came from two main impulses. One was the development of various solfeggio or solmization methods (where syllables are attached to musical pitches ‘doh, ray, me, …’, as in The Sound of Music) which enabled people to sing by sight without mastering music notation. The other was the perception that the large working class communities were ill-educated, intemperate and increasingly prey to the public house, worries which were reinforced when the rejection by parliament of first Chartist petition in 1839 led to unrest culminating in the Newport Rising. Many of the middle class argued that the masses needed civilising, and that one means was the influence of ‘improving’ music.
 
Hullah, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music, was the composer of three unsuccessful operas (the first, The Village Coquettes, to words by Dickens). In 1839 he went to Paris to investigate various systems of teaching music to large masses of people. His modified version of Wilhelm's system of the fixed ‘doh’ was taught with enormous success from 1840 to 1860. In 1847 a large building in Long Acre, called St Martin’s Hall, was built by subscription and presented to Hullah. The main hall seated 3000, with a lecture room for 500. It was inaugurated in 1850 and burnt to the ground in 1860, a blow from which Hullah was long in recovering. His later career was as a conductor in Edinburgh and London, and as musical inspector for the teacher training schools of the United Kingdom.
 
In place of Hullah the School Committee turned to another national figure. This was Joseph Mainzer (1801-51), born in Germany and a trainee priest before he rejected Roman Catholicism in favour of radical politics. He moved to Paris where he too wrote unsuccessful operas and taught artisan singing classes. These attracted the attention of the Orleanist police, and in 1841 he was forced to flee to England, where he immediately set about propagating his ideas of moral reform through music in Mainzer’s Musical Times and Singing-Class Circular (which later, under Novello, became the Musical Times), writing that:
 
The time is hastening when the soldier and the sailor, the plodding labourer and the dusky artisan, will forsake the pothouse and the gin-palace for the singing-school, and so become raised in the scale of civilisation – raised in the scale of humanity.
 
The Committee may have felt that CLS boys too could do with being ‘raised in the scale of civilisation’, for on 20th October they decided to send a delegation ‘to attend Mr Mainzer’s class at the Mechanics Institute Southampton Buildings on Monday evening next to witness his plan of teaching.’ Following this visit the Committee agreed to introduce ‘the teaching of vocal music on the plan adopted by Mr Joseph Mainzer, for three terms. The Fee to be £2-15-0 per term’ and on 15th February 1842 they engaged Mr Mainzer, or his deputy Mr Plumstead, to teach vocal music twice a week, at 1 guinea per session. The classes started, and in April 400 copies of Mr Mainzer’s Manual for Singing Classes were purchased for £30. This was presumably Singing for the Million, which Mainzer claimed had sold 200 000 copies in six months.
 
Alas, Mainzer was over-stretching himself. By mid 1842 he had eighteen sets of singing classes around Manchester, and by the end of the year a network of classes in London too and another thirty classes elsewhere. So it is not surprising that in the summer the Headmaster reported ‘the unsatisfactory manner in which the arrangements for the singing classes are conducted’, and that on 14th July Mr Mainzer’s engagement was terminated ‘in consequence of his other occupations preventing his devoting so much of his attention as was expected to his engagement at this school.’ But at the same time Dr Mortimer offered another solution: ‘Mr Woodroffe is studying with Mr Hullah, and should be able to manage the singing class by the time school reopens.’ C.N.Woodroffe had been appointed as assistant master of the Junior Class in January 1837, just before the school opened. The Committee prudently decided to attend one of the singing lessons given by Mr Woodroffe ‘prior to any definite arrangements being made with him on the subject.’
 
In September the Committee received a letter and verbal communication from Mr Cowdery, on behalf of Mr Mainzer, who clearly realised his mistake in not taking his prestigious earlier appointment more seriously:
 
Mr Mainzer purposes being more constantly in London during the approaching Winter, and would in all probability be enabled to render his personal services in the instruction of the School should the Committee be desirous of availing themselves of his attendance or that he would engage to provide a competent substitute who should be satisfactory to the Committee – or if they should prefer appointing a Teacher themselves he would be happy to give his services gratuitously in occasionally examining and watching over the progress of the pupils.
 
But he was too late: at the same meeting the Headmaster reported that ‘Mr Woodroffe has commenced giving instruction in singing on the plan adopted by Mr Hullah: upper division Tuesday afternoon, lower division Friday afternoon, each lesson for about 1½ hours – in addition to which Mr Woodroffe proposed devoting an extra hour from 12 to 1 o’clock on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the further advantage of those Pupils who chose to attend.’

So the Committee gave Mainzer a polite brush-off: ‘If in their future arrangements the Committee should desire to avail themselves of his offer they will be happy to communicate further with him on the subject’, the £30 spent on his manuals was presumably written off, and the boys were supplied with Mr Hullah’s first book of Exercises and Figures, price 6d.
 
In October the Committee were summoned ‘to meet on Tuesday week the 18th instant at half past three o’clock in the afternoon precisely to witness one of the lessons in singing to be given to the pupils by Mr Woodroffe.’ This inspection duly occurred (one would like to think that they sang along with the boys), and consequently on 2nd November Mr Woodroffe was appointed Instructor in Singing at £30 p.a. 
 
This time the arrangement worked, and continued until 1877 when Nathaniel Woodroffe retired after forty years service as a master at CLS. One of his pupils was John Spencer Curwen (CLS 1861-64) who was the son of the third great figure in the ‘sight singing mania’ story, the Revd John Curwen (1816-80), a non-conformist minister who gave up his full-time ministry to concentrate on spreading his Tonic Sol-fa system. This differed from those of Hullah and Mainzer in that Curwen’s ‘doh’ was not fixed at C, but could be any pitch. Curwen’s method could cope with music of greater complexity, and this meant that it eventually superseded the systems of Hullah and Mainzer.

Curwen’s interest was mainly in children’s education rather than social control; from 1853 he held classes at Crosby Hall for school teachers disenchanted with Hullah’s fixed ‘doh’ method, and in 1857 thirty thousand Londoners attended a concert he gave at the Crystal Palace at which nearly three thousand school children sang. One wonders which method Woodroffe was teaching by the 1860s, and whether he was influenced by Curwen senior. J.S.Curwen continued his father’s work: he was Principal of the Tonic Sol-fa College in Forest Gate (later the Curwen Institute in W2), a prolific author and director of the music publishers J.Curwen & Sons.
 
There are several tributes to Woodroffe’s popularity from former pupils, perhaps the most touching being from one of the school’s most eminent scientists, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (CLS 1871-76), the founder of biochemistry. His five years in the Junior School (which then included the third form) were not happy; he was lonely, claimed that he never received a personal word from any master and left after an episode of truanting. But he did remember that ‘There was one for whom, though I never spoke to him, I conceived a great liking; that was Woodroffe, whose singing classes were a great joy to me’.
 
 
Terry Heard
13.4.11