From quartet to quarto: Curwen’s musical notation typeface

With the Proms in full flow, it seemed apt to choose music as the focus of today’s blog – and where better to concentrate than the origins of printed music, as initiated by the talented Revered John Curwen.

A Congregationalist minister, Curwen’s fervour for religion was matched only by his passion for music, for which he longed to find a reliable teaching method. He became one of the main proponents of tonic sol-fa notation, invented by Norwich inhabitant Sarah Ann Glover. While sol-fa has other roots stretching back to the eleventh century, Curwen developed, formalised and propagated the system that became the ‘do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti’ with which we are all familiar.

The second stage of Curwen’s musical quest was to open the Curwen Press, a printing house dedicated to the publication of sheet music. It became one of the most important and respected presses of the 20th century due to the Reverend’s refusal to cut costs. Curwen would even commission entirely new musical fonts if necessary to achieve his exacting expectations of quality.

Years later, Curwen’s grandson Harold altered the focus of the press towards more commercial output. By the 1980s, though, the business was struggling; while the Curwen Press’s dedication to high standards of print remained, competitors had started to outsource jobs, undercutting the company and, by 1984, forcing it into receivership.

At this point the business’s assets were sold off, with certain materials, including logo press punches, were donated to St Bride Library. A buyer in Canada purchased the blocks used to produce custom borders and is now looking to showcase them in a new, limited-edition book.

A business falling by the wayside is a terrible thing and for the Curwen Press to go bust as a result of cheaper, lower quality outsourcing is a shame – but at the same time it provides a cautionary tale to today’s printers. Quality is a fantastic aspiration, but focusing on that alone is not necessarily the key to success.

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