Earliest known Church of England hymn by female composer found

Another jigsaw piece in the history of female composers has been slotted into place with the discovery of the earliest known Church of England anthem composed by a woman.

At their carol concert on 21 December the girl choristers of Ely Cathedral will sing Jane Savage’s Hymn for Christmas Day, a setting composed around 1785 of the familiar words: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.” In doing so they will be following in the footsteps of the equally angelic choir of the Asylum for Female Orphans, one of the charity hospitals that offered a way out of destitution in 18th-century London.

The anthem was uncovered this summer by Rachel Webber, a postgraduate student at the University of York. Webber was doing research into the musical life of charity hospitals and realised that the significance of an attribution to a “Miss Savage” in the British Library’s digitised version of an obscure 18th-century hymn collection had been overlooked.

These institutions offer an intriguing snapshot of Georgian society. The most famous, the Foundling Hospital, is known for its connection with George Frideric Handel, who gave annual performances of his Messiah there as a lucrative fundraiser. Several organisations in 18th-century London catered specifically for women or girls, and their chapels became fashionable places of worship for the great and good of Georgian London, drawn by the quality of the music-making and by the slightly exotic prospect of hearing the objects of their charity sing. Generally, the more fallen the women, the more of a draw they were – pew space at the chapel of the Lock Hospital, for patients with venereal disease, was particularly desirable. The same went for the Magdalen Hospital for penitent prostitutes, where a choir of residents sang from a gallery that was partially screened off, to preserve the modesty of both singers and congregants – which of course only served to heighten the singers’ mystique.

Savage (1752-1824), the daughter of one of Handel’s friends and colleagues, was a reasonably prolific composer of drawing-room pieces for keyboard and voice, until her marriage rendered such pursuits untenable; what little of her music that has not been lost has yet to be published in a modern edition – except this carol. She was far from alone in writing for a charity institution. Antonio Vivaldi, for example, wrote much of his sacred vocal and instrumental music for a Venetian orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà. Yet the significance of these London hospitals to the history of church music, and specifically to that of women as musicians and composers, is only now beginning to be fully appreciated. “At the time, cathedral music was an exclusively male preserve, with only boys in the choir, and men playing the organ,” Webber says. “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.”

Savage’s anthem has now been published, in Webber’s new edition, by the Church Music Society. Webber, a choral conductor herself, points out that with its single vocal line, backed by a more ornate organ accompaniment, it would be relatively easy to put together on screen from individual home recordings. In any case, she hopes it will be welcomed by choirs looking for something new this Christmas: season’s greetings from one of the Georgian era’s forgotten women composers.

The 21 December carol concert will be streamed live at 7pm on Ely Cathedral’s YouTube channel. Tickets to attend in person are £10. Details here.