Norwich's fascinating link to The Sound of Music

Sarah Glover, the pioneering Norwich music teacher who was born in Norwich of 1786.

Sarah Glover, the pioneering Norwich music teacher who was born in Norwich of 1786. - Credit: Archant Library

There was a gathering earlier this month in a very special building, where two talented musicians were remembered and honoured…Sarah Glover from yesteryear and Mary Rae of today.

Sarah, born in the city during 1786, went on to develop the Norwich tonic sol-fa system of music notation –Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti and the rest.

Who could ever forget the timeless The Sound of Music? Those hills were alive. She had a music school in what was Black Boys’ Yard and also taught at the Diocesan Training College on Colegate.

Sarah was said to have changed lives. And how the children, many of them very poor, loved her.

Last Norwich Yards.
Pictured: Black Boy Yard was behind the Black Boy pub on Colegate, since rena

Last Norwich Yards. Pictured: Black Boy Yard was behind the Black Boy pub on Colegate, since renamed The Merchants of Colegate. - Credit: Norfolk Library and Information

The elegant Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Norwich.

The elegant Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Norwich. - Credit: Octagon Chapel

News of her revolutionary ways of teaching music (which involved using her using her 'musical ladder' published by Jarrold) became famous and captured the attention of the Rev John Curwen who was looking for new ways of teaching people in schools and choirs to sing to music.

He came to Norwich, met Sarah, and this resulted in him founding the Tonic-So-fa College.

In 1857 she was at Crystal Palace to hear a choir of 3,000 children, using her notation, singing to an audience of 30,000.

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Curwen College of Music is now an examining board offering various diplomas and awards. The Dean of Studies is Dr Nicholas Groves - a Norwich-based musician, writer and lecturer who is also the organist at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate, close to where Sarah worked.

So, when college members arrived at the Octagon to hold their general meeting it was the perfect opportunity to honour our famous music teacher of today…none other than Mary Rae.

It was Nicholas’ honour to confer a Fellowship 'honoris causa' on Mary for her work as a teacher, performer and concert promotor for so many years.

Mary Rae receiving her Curwen College of Music Fellowship from Nicholas  Groves at the Octagon Chapel. 

Mary Rae receiving her Curwen College of Music Fellowship from Nicholas Groves at the Octagon Chapel. - Credit: Rosie Rogers

“The Fellowship,” he said, “is being awarded on account of three areas of her musical life: teaching, performing, and promotion. We normally award it for achievement in only one of them.”

The Octagon, described by John Wesley in 1757 as perhaps the most elegant meeting house in all Europe, has been a second home to Mary since 1984 and we all have so much to thank her for.

The former music teacher of 27 years at Heartsease High School and member of the Norfolk Opera Players was approached by Betty Rathbone and challenged to fill the Octagon with people listening to great music.

She accepted, and began to create a great network of musicians who work for love (no fees involved). The rewards have been to perform for charities dear to the performers hearts in a building which, according to the BBC, had better acoustics than Wigmore Hall.

The choir became the Octagon Singers, performing a huge range of concerts – from Handel to Simon & Garfunkel, and introducing generations of people to the unique Octagon Unitarian Chapel.

A few weeks ago the 348th concert took place and the amount raised to help others now stands at more than £300,000. An extraordinary achievement.

“What is amazing is that all the artists who take part in these concerts give their services free and all the money raised goes to various charities,” said Nicholas.

“I have been playing the organ here for about eight years now: originally just a one-off to help out, but Mary got her claws on me, added me to the rota, and somehow I have turned into the main service organist."

“It is truly a delight to be working with her,” said Nicholas…and I know a lot of people would agree with him.