Arnold Dolmetsch – the greatest early music pioneer of the 20th century?

Arnold Dolmetsch with his family in 1932.

Reproduced by kind permission of the University of Melbourne, [Percy] Grainger Museum. For full details see here.

I mentioned in my last post that Mary Potts is remembered only in her obituaries, the most complete of which was published in The Bulletin, the house journal of the Dolmetsch Foundation, which did not gain wide circulation.

Arnold Dolmetsch taught Mary the harpsichord from 1927, while she was still at the Royal College of Music. And Mary kept in touch with Arnold until at least 1938, when she wrote him a note – in perfect French – regretting that he had had to cancel a lesson with her due to illness.

I think that most people in the UK are familiar with the name Dolmetsch, if only as the name stamped on the plastic recorders we all squawked through at primary school. But how famous is Arnold Dolmetsch today, and to what extent is his contribution to the development of early music appreciated by the average concert-goer?

Arnold Dolmetsch brought much music and many instruments back from the dead, including the recorder – see article  – and used both originals and copies he made himself in concerts in which he and his family usually dressed up in the costume of the period from which the music came.

Dolmetsch often gave concerts and instrument demonstrations when he lived in London, and was a part-time violin teacher at Dulwich College. His friends and admirers, at that time, included such famous names as William Morris, Selwyn Image, Roger Fry, Gabriele d’Annunzio, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, to whom he sold a clavichord, and George Moore, whose novel Evelyn Innes celebrates Dolmetsch’s life and work.

What he did was not always to everyone’s taste, and he was regularly slammed by the critics. In one review, the performance of a piece for two viols was described as sounding like “toothache calling unto toothache”.

Despite this, he continued to have a strong following, established the Haslemere Festival in 1925, started an instrument-making dynasty, and ended up with a state pension for his services to music. Although there’s now a substantial website, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch, by his third wife, Mabel Dolmetsch, wasn’t published till 1958 and Margaret Campbell’s comprehensive biography, Dolmetsch: the Man and his Work, didn’t appear until 35 years after his death.

Here (press the play button after “Plage 12 : duree= 00:03:13”)
you can hear Arnold, obviously recorded in just one take, playing a Bach Prelude & Fugue on his own clavichord – with quite some force – back in 1930 (complete with chips frying in the background).

I have spoken to one person who, as a small boy, was taken to Arnold’s 80th birthday party, but I wonder if there are any other people who remember meeting him, or seeing him at concerts or elsewhere. He didn’t die till 1940, so it could just be possible, couldn’t it?

If you were there, then, or have any Dolmetsch memorabilia, please do get in touch!

Here’s the only known film of Arnold – with the beard – and his family. The young man playing the spinet is Rudolph Dolmetsch, who also gave Mary lessons, and was killed at sea in 1942. Mary remained close with Millicent, Rudolph’s widow (1906-1988), who played the viola da gamba. Apparently, they transcribed much unknown repertoire from the British Museum and other libraries, and gave many concerts together.

The dancing lady in the film is Mabel, Arnold’s third wife. She survived him by 23 years and was still living at Haslemere when Layton Ring came there as an apprentice in the 1950s.

Full details of this film here.

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.

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6 comments to Arnold Dolmetsch – the greatest early music pioneer of the 20th century?

  • Nothing can possibly detract from the great achievements that Arnold Dolmetsch brought forth, but there are other worthy spirits of his age, who are unduly neglected, but whose achievements in many ways paralleled and, indeed, surpass them. Christian Döbereiner (1874-1961) should be brought to our attention. (in German: //öbereiner) (a few references in English: // He was a professional cellist, orchestra conductor, viola da gamba virtuoso, whose keen interest in historical music impelled him to found in 1905 the “German Society for Old Music”, the first in teutonic lands. He championed – at great personal expense – the performances of Bach, Vivaldi, Händel on historical instruments, to the universal praise of the contemporary critics; one should note that only professional musicians worked under his direction. Döbereiner devoted himself intensely to the viola da gamba and the baryton (he commissioned the first modern copy of one in 1934: //, performing works by not just Bach and Telemann, but also by Ortiz, Simpson, Marais, Couperin and Rameau all over Europe. In fact, in the first performance of the unabridged Matthew Passion in modern times, 1906, the two arias for viola da gamba were played by him, no doubt on the viol by Joachim Tielke of 1683, which he owned at that time. (//
    He edited a large number of works for these instruments, wrote a manual for the viola da gamba and recorded a substantial body of music at a time, one should remember, when the possibilities to do this were rare, the market miniscule.

    And there were other pioneers of note, too, performers and musicologists in Paris, in Berlin, in Cologne, in Vienna and in Switzerland, who are now equally neglected. Perhaps others among us can write about them, as well. These were principally the moving forces behind the surge of early music between the two world wars, which led to the foundation of, among others, the Schola cantorum basiliensis and the magnificent achievements of August Wenzinger in the middle of the 20th Century.

    • bnadmin

      Thank you very much for this information about Döbereiner. As I said on the introduction page, any information, photos, documents, recordings or even films about other forgotten pioneers would be very welcome.

      I’m planning to post about Wenzinger and his SCB colleague Eduard Müller, who was the harpsichord and organ teacher of Gustav Leonhardt, though there’s not much available about either of them.

  • Surprisingly enough Arnold was born in 1858 and spent the first years of his life in Le Mans, long before the car race made this city famous world-wide. He lived there until his first marriage, after which he went to Brussels to study with Vieuxtemps and finally in 1883 settled in London. Le Mans was my home town for 20 years and it is where I discovered early music and bought my first records by Walter Gerwig, The Early Music Consort of London, The Clemencic Consort and others, some time before Hesperion XX, Jordi Savall, Hopkinson Smith or Paul O’Dette…. The shop where I bought these records also sold and repaired pianos. I learned, long afterwards, that it was the shop where Arnold’s father had settled and he lived in the flat above the shop and that is where Arnold was born! Sort of a powerful retrospective emotion when I realized that!

  • Jannis Wichmann

    I wrote an article [in German] about Helene, Elodie and Mabel Dolmetsch. Perhaps it is of interest.

  • j. Young

    I attended a concert with the family members playing in approx 1960 in Guildford. Have not heard of concerts being performed since. Any news of when the last one took place?

    • bnadmin

      Arnold Dolmetsch died in 1940. His children, Carl, Nathalie and Cecile, continued to give concerts and run courses with their colleagues until each of them died, the last two Carl and Cecile both dying within a few weeks of each other in 1997. Carl’s children, Jeanne and Marguerite, continued performing with their colleagues until about 2016. Jeanne died in 2018. Then came Covid, and all performances, course teaching, etc came to a halt. My wife, Marguerite and I (Brian Blood) still conduct recorder society meetings but as we are now both in our 70s, the concert platform no longer beckons.

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