This is one of my earliest recollections in primary school. It still fills me with dread. The teacher unfurled a long, narrow, faded and creased parchment. A stringed loop at the top attached it to the wall, as she announced “Children – the Curwen Modulator.”
The tonic sol-fa Curwen modulator, to be more precise, as she reached for her pointer. Pointing to a specific place on the chart and calling out your name.
The expectation was that you would be able to ‘sing’ the correct note.
“You’re as flat as a pancake!” she would reprimand me, as she played the correct note on the nearby piano.
The pointer, moving in a slow, scratching, deliberate movement, to a new and equally mystifying place. “What about this one?”
Not a hope.
And so it went on, always painful. I always looked away to avoid the teacher’s gaze and further humiliation.
Curwen Modulator Changed Music History
My own failure and inadequacies did not stop the progress of the ‘dreaded modulator.’
The Curwen modulator has been responsible for the emergence of choral singing as we know it today.
The name on our modulator at school was John Curwen (1816-1880). His name became synonymous with the Tonic sol-fa, a technique for teaching sight-singing.
Invented by Sarah Ann Glover (1785-1867) and popularised by Curwen. But not in my school.
The consequence of this new technique was that music became available to the masses.
Unlike the old notation. The incomprehensible system of black dots, which was generally not at all understood. It was also thought to be the exclusive domain of the well-off who could afford tuition.
The Marauding Modulator
The Curwen modulator also soon appeared in church halls and chapel vestries across the land. There was no escaping this marauding modulator.
Moreover, it became an irresistible musical force that would change the face of choral music for ever.
Choral music up to this point was in unison and was in a sorry state of affairs.
But the tonic Sol-fa system allowed choral music in four voices. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
Of course, the new found harmonies began to enchant the chapels, churches and concert halls. Throughout the land.
The Curwen Modulator in Wales
The Curwen modulator now embraced energy and vigour. Choral singing soared to new heights and choirs proliferated.
Especially the male voice choirs in Wales, centred around the industrial heartland.
The coal and slate mining districts in particular. The employment of vast numbers of men produced large male voice choirs – by the dozens.
Of course, they took part in concerts, eisteddfodau and cymanfaoedd canu (singing festivals). The cultural fibre of a proud nation became enriched.
Wales has become known as ‘The Land of Song’ and it’s a term that’s never rejected. I think we’re rather proud of it.
In essence, the credit must go to John Curwen. He opened up a closed system, and gave everyone the opportunity to sing.
Do you have memories of the Curwen Modulator?