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Postgraduate Music student uncovers the earliest-known Church-of-England hymn by a woman composer

Posted on 15 December 2020

While researching her dissertation, postgraduate Music student Rachel Webber recently unearthed the earliest known Anglican hymn by a woman composer.

Rachel discovered the anthem by Georgian composer Jane Savage – the daughter of one of Handel’s friends and colleagues – while researching the musical life of charity hospitals. The hymn, Whilst shepherds watch'd their flocks by night, sets the text of the well-known Christmas carol of the same name. It appears in a 1785 hymn collection for the girls' choir of the chapel of The Asylum for Female Orphans. Rachel realised the significance of the attribution to a ‘Miss Savage’ in the British Library’s digitised version of the collection while investigating charitable organisations in London such as the Foundling Hospital, the Lock Hospital and the Magdalen Hospital. These eighteenth-century institutions catered specifically for women or girls. Their associated chapels were popular with London’s high society as they provided them with the opportunity to hear the high-quality music making of their donatees. (You can find out more about the musical life of these hospitals by reading Eric Jeal's article in The Guardian about Rachel's discovery.)

Rachel – who recently finished her MA in Music (Musicology pathway) at the University of York – then went on to edit the anthem, and her edition has now been published by the Church Music Society, which is available to buy on Oxford University Press’s website.

The girl choristers of Ely Cathedral will be performing the hymn as part of their carol concert on Monday 21 December. Book tickets now. This performance will also be live streamed on Ely’s Cathedral’s YouTube channel