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Student discovers earliest known Church of England hymn by female composer

by Cara Bentley

A Christmas hymn, found to be the oldest known Church of England anthem composed by a woman, will be performed by an all-female choir at Ely Cathedral's carol service on Monday 21st. 

While researching the musical opportunities for girls in charity hospitals in 18th century London, Rachel Webber, who has just graduated with an MA in Musicology at the University of York, found a hymn by Jane Savage in the British Library's digital archives, published in 1785.  

The date makes Savage the earliest known woman to have written a Christian hymn for an Anglican context. Savage was the daughter of one of the friends and colleagues of Handel, who wrote The Messiah, which was performed at the Foundling Hospital for children. Savage's hymn was written specifically for the girls' choir of the chapel of The Asylum for Female Orphans. 

The hymn has the lyrics of While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night to a different melody. 

Rachel Webber, credit University of York

Webber, who is a member of a church choir herself, said: "I was shocked and thrilled to see an extended piece with the popular hymn/carol text of While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night by a 'Miss Savage'.

"I quickly consulted Grove music dictionary and realised that this was Jane Savage, an active composer at the time."




Credit: The Church Music Society

Webber said at the time, cathedral music was an exclusively male preserve, with only boys in the choir, and men playing the organ.

She added: "But women could and did write music for the charity hospitals, to be performed by women and girls. And it's interesting that whereas cathedral music at the time tended to hark back to the baroque style of composers such as Handel, the music for the hospitals was more progressive, looking forward to the classical style."

Credit: The Church Music Society

After being edited by Webber, the Church Music Society has now made the music available for people to buy and sing for £2.55, calling it a "landmark publication" and saying: "the piece is scored for multiple groupings of voices performing a single vocal line, with an organ accompaniment that includes brief 'Symphonies', and is in the graceful Georgian style familiar through composers such as Boyce and Nares."

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