Sunday, April 19, 2009

Eliza Flower

Composer Eliza Flower, born on this day in 18o3, was the older sister of hymnwriter Sarah Flower Adams. However, her music is all but unknown today.

She displayed musical talent from an early age and composed songs under the direction of a teacher who was also the organist at the village church in Harlow, where the Flower girls grew up. In 1831 her first published composition appeared: Fourteen Musical Illustrations of the Waverley Novels (of Sir Walter Scott).

Eliza and Sarah had became the wards of the Unitarian minister
William Johnson Fox following the deaths of their parents. They sang in the choir at Fox's South Place Chapel, and when Fox planned a hymnal for his congregation, both girls made contributions to it. Eliza, in fact, became the musical editor of the book, Hymns and Anthems, writing sixty-three original tunes (out of the 150 hymns) and arranging some of the others. Sarah's hymn Nearer, my God, to thee, appeared here, with a tune by Eliza. Sadly, the only edition of this hymnal that is available online does not include the tunes. I am continuing the search.

So what happened to all of those tunes? The Church of England Quarterly Review, in 1842, pronounced Eliza's work in Fox's hymnal to "exhibit genius of the highest order," "finely harmonized, and vividly depict(ing) the feeling of the words." Another (unnamed ) critic says that, "in musical composition, (she) attained a higher rank than, before her time, had been reached by any of her sex." Were the tunes simply too out of fashion for later generations?

I have only found one of them which appeared in the Bristol Tune Book (1891), though it's not quite a hymn -- more of a national song: Now pray we for our country (scroll down to the bottom of the page). It's also possible that the five tunes in
Christopher Wordsworth's hymnal The Holy Year (1864) credited to "E.F." were Eliza's, but that was nearly 20 years after her death. The only tenuous connection I have found is that the Flower sisters were friends of Wordsworth's more famous cousin, the poet William Wordsworth.

One possible explanation for the disuse of Flower's hymn tunes stems from her personal life. In 1835, following the marriage of Sarah, Eliza returned to William Fox's house, reportedly to manage his household. But Fox also separated from his wife around this time, and Flower continued to live with Fox and his children until her
death in 1846 (of consumption). In A Historical Dictionary of British Women (2003), we read that "although their relationship was platonic, the connection brought a degree of social ostracism upon her." It seems that that disapproval (the situation was widely known and appears in a number of contemporary accounts) might have kept hymnal editors from considering her tunes.

One Year Ago: Anna Laetitia Waring

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