All images on this page are by kind permission of Dr Jim Walsh, Chief Executive Officer, Conway Hall, London
This is a birthday celebration podcast for the unsung composer Eliza Flower who was born on April 19th, 1803. Its a snippet of a much longer conversation between our ELECTRIC VOICE THEATREartistic director, Frances M Lynch and music historian, Oskar Jensen – NUAcT Fellow in Music at Newcastle University and BBC New Generation Thinker for 2022.
We met in the libary at Conway Hall,Red Lion Square, London, where we were overlooked by the beautiful images of both Eliza Flower and her sister, Sarah Flower Adams which hang in pride of place above the enormous fire place. We were also surrounded by scores and books, letter and magazines featuring Eliza Flower’s music and life which the Conway Hall Ethical Society kindly gave us access to. Our discussion focused on the music we were considering using to create our Zoom Concert on April 4th 2023 – “Flowers of Spring – Politics, Power & Poverty”.
None that we have found so far except for the very tangential coincidence that her beloved sister’s husband – William Bridges Adams – was a civil engineer. His fish-joint which made railway lines safe and allowed for express travel, was universally adopted, though he made no money from the invention.
Title: Now Pray We For Our Country Scientist: BERYL PLATT Words by: Sarah Flower Adams
Written in: C.1845
For: SATB a capella chorus and solo quartet
Performed by: Electric Voice Theatre singers Alice Privett, Jenny Miller, Margaret Cameron, David Sheppard, Julian Stocker & Gwion Thomas
Film: Jack Cornell Published in: The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 1, No. 20/21 (Jan. 1 – Feb. 1, 1846)
First Performed: Probably at South Place Unitarian Chapel in London by the 2 choirs the composer had established to sing at services
This intriguing and stirring short work speaks of pride in her country with the music emulating a national anthem which is well suited to wartime sentiment. Thus we used this to illustrate the story of aeronautical engineer Beryl Platt whose work contributed to the victory of the Battle of Britain in WW2.
Eliza Flower and her sister, Sarah, both sang in the chapel where this piece was more than likely first performed and indeed it seems probable that they would have been 2 of the original soloists.
The score is very detailed – showing very steeply changing dynamics and tempi between phrases – it is clearly a work of an early romantic composer who is breaking away from classical norms.
There is a version of the words (just the first verse) attributed to American Prelate A. Cleveland Coxe but it is published much later than this and seems to follow his visit to England where he may well have heard it sung.
Title: “Songs of the Months” Composer: Eliza Flower Words by: Sarah Flower Adams, C. Pemberton, Anne Hume, Catherine Partridge, Harriet Martineau and Mary Howitt
Written in: 1834
For: Voices – mainly solo with piano, but includes a duet and an acapella chorus
Performed by: Electric Voice Theatre singers Frances M Lynch, Jenny Miller, Margaret Cameron, Samantha Houston, Laurence Panter with Maxence Marmy, Kezia Robson, Inna Husieva, Isabel Benson, Ruby Caddick Lawrence, Phoebe Coco and Garreth Romain from the EVT Young Singers Programme
Published in: December 1834 by A J Novello and serialised throughout 1834 in the Monthly Repository – a publication associated with South Place Unitarian Chapel, Finsbury, London, where Flower’s life and work was based.
First Performed: Probably privately by the Flower sisters for their guests. Several have now been performed by EVT live on zoom and most notably, the March and August songs in a live performance (the first featuring the composers work in 177 years) on 27th October, 2023 by Frances M Lynch and Laurence Panter at Conway Hall Library, Red Lion Square, London.
During 2023, ELECTRIC VOICE THEATRE are also serializing the songs as Flower of the Month – releasing recordings of them monthly, beginning on February 14th 2023, and ending on Jan 1st 2024 – part of our Eliza Flower Project for 2023 – find out more here
Title: Hymns and Anthems – a selection Composer: Eliza Flower Words: “Now Pray We For Our Country” probably by A. Cleveland Coxe; “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter” by Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott (1781 –1849); “O Lovely Voices of the Sky” by Felicia Hemans (1793 –1835) Written: probably between 1830 & 1841
For: Choirs with piano or organ, some solos & acapella
Performed by: Electric Voice Theatre singers: Alice Privett, Jenny Miller, Margaret Cameron, David Sheppard, Julian Stocker & Gwion Thomas, Samantha Houston and Frances M Lynch
Published in: 1841 by William J Fox
First Performed: South Place Unitarian Chapel at the New Sunday Concert Series established by Flower c. 1835 which continues at Conway Hall to this day.
A selection from the radical hymns, art songs and street songs of Eliza Flower (1803 – 1846)recorded by ELECTRIC VOICE THEATRE. Find out more on this link
ZOOM performance by Electric Voice Theatre 4th April 2023 – Flowers of Spring – Politics, Power & Poverty A BSL intertpreted zoom concert of songs by radical activist and celebrated, yet forgotten, composer Eliza Flower (1803-1846)
Title: Rebecca’s Hymn from Musical Illustrations of the Waverley Novels Scientist: MARY SOMERVILLE Words by: Sir Walter Scott from “Ivanhoe” Written: circa. 1830
For: Voice and Piano
Performed by: Julian Stocker (Tenor) & Frances M Lynch (piano)
Published in: 1831 by Joseph Alfred Novello
First Performed: Unknown
Flower dedicated her very impressive edition of 14 songs based on characters and themes from the Waverley Novels, to Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, and was careful to add that the dedication was with his permission.
The title page also includes these lines from Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”:
“Though harsh and faint, and soon to die away,
And all unworthy of thy nobler strain,
Yet if one heart throb higher at its sway,
The wizard note has not been touched in vain..”
Rebecca’s Hymn is No. 9 and she sets the context from the novel with a short quote at the top of the manuscript:
“It was in the twilight of the day, when her trial, if it could be called such, had taken place, that a low knock was heard at the door of Rebecca’s prison chamber. It disturbed not the inmate, who was then engaged in the evening prayer recommended by her religion, an which concluded with a hymn” “Ivanhoe”
This hymn is the most straightforward of the collection – there are several which a reviewer (South Place Magazine, May 1897) mentioned must be sung dramatically and from memory and pontificates that they should mostly be sung by women in the drawing room – but they will always be welcome there!
John Stuart Mill – a philosopher who fought for women’s equality – praised the collection in the Westminster Review in 1831
“There are not only indications of genius as indisputable as could have been displayed in the highest walks of art, but there is also a new ascent gained, a new prospect opened, in the art itself, which we welcome as a pledge of its keeping pace with the progress of society.”
And the connexion with Mary Somerville? Well all the men mentioned above were in Somerville’s closest circles. The publisher, Joseph Alfred Novello, was the son of Vincent Novello who claimed that Eliza Flower was his favourite female composer. When you think his daughter was one of Somerville’s favourite singers – Clara Novello – the connexions clearly go on and on!
“Joseph Alfred Novello…. brother also to Madame Clara Novello (Countess Gigliucci), whose clear and thrilling tones, of European reputation, many of us still remember, under the same management, in the Galatea of Handel’s opera, “Acis and Galatea ” . (South Place Magazine October 1896)
Eliza and her sister were educated by their father at home with the help of tutors he was able to find locally in Harlow. He followed his own radical ideas about education, reflecting his political views and possibly the work of his equally radical, schoolteacher wife, Eliza Gould, who died when Eliza was only 7 years old.
There must have been a shortage of music teachers in Harlow at that time as it seems she received no music training in composition, but probably would have had piano and singing lessons – more easily available to young ladies.
Manuscript of Nearer My God To Thee from the original draft by Sarah Flower Adams owned by Eliza Bridell-Fox, from Conway’s Centenary text, 1893
Eliza was a musical genius, wholly spontaneous, who composed from childhood. (The Monthly Record, 1952)
Her skills as a composer were channelled daily through her work at the Unitarian Chapel, so what may be her best work forms part of the Hymns and Anthems created for use by her own double choir. This important volume included the original setting of her sister’s words- Nearer My God to Thee – which is not the music you may be familiar with. However, although the texts of the publication were sold widely it seems Eliza thought her unconventional living arrangements may have prejudiced people against using it – as she complained to her sister –
… ‘tis possible a prejudice against my name may exist in many quarters so as to seriously damage the sale
There may have been other reasons too:- the wide range of poetic and musical authors may not have appealed to more conservative congregations; the music required professional musicians which would not always have been available; she never completed the work, and those who could have helped publicise it did little after her early death.
As well as her setting of Now Pray We for Our Country which we have recorded, she also wrote songs for the parlour and concert platform. One large work, Musical Illustrations of the Waverley Novels, was published by Novello, an indication of how highly she was regarded.
The Westminster Review said of it:
The whole history and previous character of the poor victim, … , seem all to have been vividly present to the composer’s mind… The composition is a strange and touching melange of wildness, beauty, and pathos.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill also published positive reviews of Eliza Flower’s music in his journals, and some of Eliza’s music was published in Fox’s journal, The Monthly Repository.
I know also of 2 other published collections – Songs of the Months, and Songs of the Seasons.
Arranger Her major work Hymns and Anthems included many arrangements of work by many famous composers as well as 63 pieces of her own. She took great care to provide variety both in her choice of words and the composers who may have already been familiar to the congregation. She worked with the Music Director at the Unitarian Chapel – Collet Dobson Collet – who said of her work:-
In the selection of tunes appropriate to the words, Miss Flower was very successful, …
… setting of Mrs. Adams’s ” 0 human heart thou hast a song” to a trio from Mozart’s ” Magic Flute”, … Mary Howitt’s “The earth is thine and it thou keepest “, to an air of Hummel’s. Thus was the tedium of repetition avoided and the music always “married to immortal verse”.
Pianist & Organist I have not found any record of her work as a pianist or organist so we must assume that this consisted of playing her own music and arrangements with the choir and perhaps to accompany herself and her sister at home.
Singer There are some accounts of the sisters’ vocal capabilities:
They were a pair of singing birds; beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, well-read. (The Monthly Record, 1952)
In the Ethical Record in 1986 Peter Bacos wrote:
The Flower sisters were musically gifted, and were responsible for most of the music performed in the chapel. Mendelssohn was introduced to them during his tour of England and remarked on their talent.
One can only imagine how exciting such praise from the renowned composer would have been for Eliza.
South Place Chapel interior, c. 1890-1926
DID YOU KNOW?
Eliza Flower took up an unconventional living arrangement with the preacher at the Unitarian Chapel – William Johnson Fox. Fox separated from his wife of 14 years, taking two of his children (Eliza and Florance ) with him to set up home with Eliza – ostensibly she was helping with his religious and political work while running the household and taking care of his children.
His lectures and Sunday addresses were prepared in full shorthand notes, and for publication were usually copied out by Eliza Flower, his devoted amanuensis. (The Monthly Record, 1952)
Fox’s eldest son Florance was described as a deaf mute
She devoted herself especially to the afflicted son Florance, with so much success that he was enabled to obtain a place in government service and to hold it until retirement at the normal age. (Ethical Record, 1952)
In 1922 Mr. H. W. Stephenson, published a Memoir of Sarah Flower Adams
…they were like two “Flowers” on one stem, and with the death of Eliza, … Sarah literally pined away
An article announcing the memoir in a South Place Ethical Society pamphlet makes it clear that Eliza’s music was still being performed at South Place in the early 20’s
… whose vibrations still resound to the magic call of the poetry and music, to which Sarah and Eliza gave birth, and whose beauty still echoes within the walls of their old intellectual and spiritual home at South Place. (Wallis Mansford)
AN INSPIRING WOMAN
The Poet Catherine Bromley, one of the many people influenced by Eliza, described her in her diary as
… a bewildering, fascinating, elusive being, the presiding genius in all the the social and musical activities of the chapel.
Eliza Flower was a strong influence on W.J. Fox and how he regarded women, treating them as equal in cultural settings though she also took a more traditional role of secretary, house keeper and surrogate mother to his children. Together they promoted the rights of women, particularly in relation to education and to the right of partners to divource if they were simply incompatible (the reason he gave for leaving his wife).
The natural inference is that the incompatibility was simply Eliza Flower. (A.S. Toms 1924)
In the South Place Magazine, published in January, 1896, this exhortation of both sister’s influence on the society in which they moved shows just how important they were:
They (and Fox) formed the centre of a most distinguished circle, which attracted to itself the choicest and most thoughtful spirits of the day. Under such influences the fine arts, the highest secular literature, the softening and more humane, because more resthetic, products of human activity were wedded to hard thinking and the austerer pursuit of religious and moral science at South Place.
The effect of this infusion of a more universal and human element was a great flowering out, expansion, and refining of the religious ideal. A truer and more complete, because better balanced, union of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True became henceforth possible.
The circle included many radical thinkers, all of whom were influenced by this charismatic & beautiful woman; – poet Robert Browning, writers Harriet Martineau and William and Mary Howitt, Thomas Southwood Smith (physician), philosophers Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, musician and publisher Vincent Novello, artists William James Linton and Margaret Gillies, and academic Thomas Wade
The poet Robert Browning first met Eliza when he was 5 or 6 years old, and was highly influenced by both sisters who encouraged his work throughout his childhood. He had a strong passion for Eliza, and it is said that his poem “Pauline” is about her, and we know that he sent her letters and poems as he was growing up, though he retrieved and destroyed them all.
Browning described Flower as: “… a composer of real genius”