Sydney Children's Choir performs a forgotten song at Rouse Hill Estate

On a warm summer morning, long before any of us had heard of COVID-19, Lyn Williams, artistic director of the Sydney Children’s Choir, and associate artistic director Sam Allchurch sifted through some of the early 19th-century music scores at Sydney Living Museums, and now you can watch the results of their hunt.

The plan was to pick a song from a collection belonging to one of SLM’s early house museums and to arrange the piece for the choir to perform and film onsite. Over a few hours, Lyn and Sam hummed their way through dozens of tunes, occasionally sharing a giggle as they leafed through some of the sillier lyrics of these 180-year-old popular hits.

They decided on a song that had been discovered in a large collection of sheet music at Rouse Hill Estate, in north-western Sydney. ‘The Letter’ by Samuel Lover (1797-1868) was one of over forty printed music pieces that had been bound together in a single volume in around 1840. Individually purchased in Sydney in the 1830s, the pieces represented the playlist of a young wealthy couple, Lilias and Willoughby Dowling. How this volume of music ended up at Rouse Hill Estate we do not know, but we suspect it has been there for well over a century.

Cover, 'The letter' by Samuel Lover, c1839, from the Dowling Songbook.

Cover, 'The Letter' by Samuel Lover, c1839, from the Dowling Songbook. Rouse Hill Estate, Sydney Living Museums.  Click through to FULL SCORE.

Written for voice and piano, ‘The Letter’ is one of a dozen tunes from a series called the ‘Superstitions of Ireland’ originally published in London in the late 1830s. Raised on Irish folk songs sung to him by his mother, Samuel Lover had been a precocious child and his talents in music, literature, and drawing led to a long and rich professional life both on and off the stage.

Each of these songs opens with a short paragraph describing an Irish superstition that sets the scene. ‘The Letter’ begins:

A small spark, attached to the wick of a candle is considered to indicate the arrival of a letter to the one before whom it burns.

These songs were popular in their day with numerous copies surviving in Australian collections and with editions published in London, Dublin, Sydney, and across North America following Lover’s performances there in the 1840s. The lyrics were also published separately in volumes of the author’s poetry.

Arranging and performing a song for choir and old house

Originally written for voice and piano, ‘The Letter’ was arranged for the Sydney Children’s Choir by composer Jessica Wells as a two-part choral work for 22 voices and accompanied by piano and violin. The choir rehearsed and made an audio recording under the direction of Lyn Williams before visiting Rouse Hill Estate for filming.

Staff at Rouse Hill are used to hosting school students at the property, but this visit felt extra special. Not only was the choir filming its performance, but SLM had offered to take the students on a tour of the site to help them understand the song’s context.

On their tour the choir saw the now decommissioned Rouse Hill Public School, once a school to generations of local children and now a popular place for contemporary students to experience 19th-century school life. Passing between the house’s garden and the paddocks that roll towards the Blue Mountains, the choir made their way to the front door. From here they walked through rooms crammed with the possessions of six generations of family including a drawing room with a piano, a ‘push-up’ piano player, piano rolls, and piles of sheet music.

Sydney Children's Choir at Rouse Hill Estate

Members of Sydney Children's Choir performing in the drawing room at Rouse Hill Estate. Still taken from video by James Murray, Sydney Living Museums.

There are so many music publications surviving in the house that we are still unsure how many individual pieces are represented. As we dig deeper into the collection of sheet music and musical instruments, we are uncovering more information about who made music in the house, who their teachers were and the importance of domestic music making in a world without electricity.

It may be hard to recreate these musical experiences in a house so old and fragile, but the presence of the choir capturing on film a song that echoes a long lost soundscape has created true magic.

Sydney Children's Choir perform outside the stables at Rouse Hill Estate.

Sydney Children's Choir perform outside the stables at Rouse Hill Estate. Still taken from video by James Murray, Sydney Living Museums.

‘The Letter’ by Samuel Lover
London: J. Duff & Co., 1839?

A small spark, attached to the wick of a candle is considered to indicate the arrival of a letter to the one before whom it burns.

FARE-THEE-WELL, love, now thou art going
   Over the wild and trackless sea; 
Smooth be its waves, and fair the wind blowing–
   Tho 'tis to bear thee far from me. 
But when on the waste of Ocean, 
   Some happy home-bound bark you see, 
Swear by the truth of thy heart's devotion, 
   To send a letter back to me.

Think of the shore thou'st left behind thee,
   Even when reaching a brighter strand; 
Let not the golden glories blind thee 
   Of that gorgeous Indian land; 
Send me not its diamond treasures, 
   Nor pearls from the depth of its sunny sea, 
But tell me of all thy woes and pleasures, 
   In a long letter back to me.

And while dwelling in lands of pleasure,
   Think, as you bask in their bright sunshine, 
That while the ling’ring time I measure,
   Sad and wintry hours are mine; 
Lonely by my taper weeping
   And watching, the spark of promise to see–
All for that bright spark, my night-watch keeping,
   For oh! 'tis a letter, love, from thee! 
To say that soon thy sail will be flowing 
   Homeward to bear thee over the sea: 
Calm be the waves and swift the wind blowing, 
   For oh! thou art coming back to me!

About the author

Dr Matthew Stephens

Research Librarian

Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.  He is particularly fascinated by early book, musical instrument and sheet music collections in NSW and the stories they tell.