By John Cynan Jones, Conductor Emeritus
One of the most frequently asked questions during my conducting career was: “What is TONIC SOLFA, and why do you use it?” I invariably replied: “Didn’t you ever enjoy listening to, or singing, the ‘Doh-Ray-Mee Song’ performed by Julie Andrews and ‘the von Trapp children’ in the film, ‘The Sound of Music?’ If you listen carefully the answers are all to be found there.”
The use of symbols (whether they be in tonic solfa or staff notation) to indicate musical sounds produced by the human voice is merely “a means to an end.” The so-called “invention” of musical notation is traditionally attributed to the 10th century Italian monk, Guido D’Arezzo, who used “notes” bearing similar names to those associated with the tonic solfa system of today. Guido’s “invention” led to the adoption of the term “Solfeggio” in Italy and “Solfège” in France, and in most civilized European countries it formed the basis of all choral singing.
In the United Kingdom the term “Solfa” became synonymous with the name of John Curwen, but this is rather unfair, for he was not its “inventor”. It had been devised by Sarah Glover, a clergyman’s daughter, as a means of helping backward children at her school in Norwich, and Curwen adopted and developed this system during the 19th century. His aim was to enable members of the “lower classes” who had migrated to the cities during the Industrial Revolution to enjoy the pleasures of singing in choirs that sprang up throughout the land.
Curwen developed methods of mass-producing printed tonic solfa copies of music of such complexity as oratorios, masses and even operas. He established tonic solfa classes in villages, towns and cities, and even set up advanced centres of learning. My wife Mary’s grandfather, a past Precentor at Hermon Chapel in Treorchy, was one of many who studied assiduously to gain the diploma of A.T.S.C. – an Associate of the Tonic Solfa College. Many of my contemporaries at Pentre Primary and at similar schools throughout Wales will remember (though perhaps not always with the same fondness) the daily vocal drills involving the “Modulator” – but how they valued that experience in later life!