Diana Poulton, pioneer lutenist & Dowland expert – the biography


Diana Poulton in her 70s

by Guest Blogger: Thea Abbott

Sadly I never knew Diana Poulton (1903–95). She died just one year before I ‘discovered’ the Lute Society and began to understand the crucial role she had played in the revival of the lute and in developing a modern audience who understood the instrument and the sensibility of the music which had been written for it.

Of course it is true that Arnold Dolmetsch himself is the figure most remembered for the renaissance of interest in early music performance in the early 20th century, but without the link provided by Diana Poulton I suspect that it would have taken much longer to establish the wide circle of makers, players and musicologists that we have today in the UK. [See also here]

I have recently published a biography of Diana Poulton, and this short overview gives a few of the details of her life contained in the book, some of which are surprising. For instance, people who felt that they knew Diana quite well (as a teacher and fellow musicologist) have been amazed to read about her membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain and her relationship with a refugee from the Spanish Civil War.

When she was a child Diana showed no sign that she would make a name for herself as a musician; she was originally expected to follow her mother, Ethel Kibblewhite, and her aunt, Dora Curtis, and become an artist. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Arts from 1919 to 1923, but was spirited away from the visual arts when she began to accompany her mother to Arnold Dolmetsch’s recitals in London.

Please subscribe to this blog – in the top right corner – and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Dolmetsch’s first lute student

She was entranced by the sound of the lute and determined to learn to play it herself. She became Arnold’s first lute student. Her lessons with him were not happy, but when she later began to teach herself her experience of Arnold’s teaching led her to seek out many the original tutors and instruction books which were to be found in the British Museum and elsewhere.

In 1926 she made her first broadcast for the BBC, live from Battersea Public Baths! She never forgot the terror of playing on gut strings in the humid atmosphere of the boarded-over swimming pool.

Peter Warlock

Two years later, when she was preparing for a recording session with the tenor John Goss, he took her to meet his friend, the modernist composer Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), at his home in Eynsford in Kent. At that time Warlock was interested in John Dowland and he and his partner Philip Wilson had begun to collect music and information towards a possible “Life and Works”.

Warlock had never heard the lute played and was intrigued and captivated when Diana played for him; in exchange he played the Dowland Lachrimae for her on his piano and she was moved by the beauty and melancholy of the music.

As she and John Goss were leaving, Warlock reached under the bed at the side of the room and pulled out a large box containing his transcripts of Dowland tablature, and gave it to Diana. It was a treasure trove of material which must have taken years to assemble, and which could have been found nowhere else outside the British Museum, certainly not in any published edition.

Fascination with John Dowland

Diana’s biography of John Dowland, though out of print, is still the only one available, and her edition of Dowland’s complete works for lute is unsurpassed even today.

Her fascination with Dowland amounted almost to an obsession, and Paul O’Dette told me a story about a conference in the Netherlands: when he came down to breakfast he overheard a conversation between Diana and the German lutenist Michael Schäffer.

Schäffer was telling Diana a dream he had just had in which Dowland had been performing when one of his lute-strings broke. Schäffer immediately offered him a spare nylon string. Sadly he had woken up before Dowland had been able to give any opinion of the strange material. O’Dette said that Diana had become very excited and kept asking Schäffer, “What did he look like?” Unable to accept Schäffer’s answer that he just didn’t remember, she went on asking, “But how tall was he? What colour were his eyes? Surely you remember something!”

The lady with the lute

Most of today’s most influential lutenists studied with Diana at some time, from Anthony Bailes to Chris Wilson and from Jakob Lindberg to Paul Beier. They all tell delightful stories about their lessons in her Islington house, recalling the cats, her generosity with instruments and manuscripts, and above all her wonderful food – garlic-studded lamb, beef in red wine, chocolate and prune cake are often mentioned.

When Anthony Bailes was a young and very hard-up student travelling to London from his home in South Wales, he was particularly grateful for the meals which enabled him to extend his lessons with Diana for several hours, rather than just the one or two hours for which she charged him.

In 1956 Diana Poulton and Ian Harwood (who was 28 years younger than her) co-founded the Lute Society. The association began with just 20 members, including Carl Dolmetsch, Desmond Dupré [lutenist of Alfred Deller], Michael Morrow [director of Musica Reservata] and Robert Spencer, and today has over 1,000 members from all around the world.

© Thea Abbott 2013

Thea Abbott, Diana Poulton: the lady with the lute, is available in hardback, direct from the publisher, Smokehouse Press, £15.00 plus postage and packing.


Also of interest:

The Dolmetsch Family with Diana Poulton: Pioneer Early Music Recordings, volume 1 (See blog post) Recordings, mostly from the 1930s, of Arnold, his third wife, Mabel, their children and musical friends playing small ensembles and viol and recorder consorts by the Lawes brothers, Purcell, Dowland, Marais, Leclair and others. This CD is not available in record shops, but you can order it here.




1 comment to Diana Poulton, pioneer lutenist & Dowland expert – the biography

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>