The musicologist and Dolmetsch student, Robert Donington (who himself was a member of the group, 1950–1961), once referred to the London Consort of Viols (LCV) as a “semi-official BBC team”, and they certainly might well have been called the BBC Consort of Viols, as their primary focus was performing for the then Third Programme, now BBC Radio 3.
Their leader, Harry Danks (1912–2001), left school at the age of 14 to work in a factory and, shortly after, graduated to playing the violin in a cinema ensemble, having been taught by two of his uncles. His musical life is nicely summed up in this extract from Tully Potter’s obituary:
Of all the pupils of the great viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, Harry Danks, who has died aged 88, enjoyed the most multi-faceted career – as orchestral principal, viola soloist, chamber musician, leader of a viol consort and authority on the viola d’amore.
Below, Harry Danks describes the early days of the Consort:
One day in 1948, Sir Steuart Wilson [BBC Head of Music] asked me to meet him in his office and invited me to consider forming an ensemble of viols. No promises were made, but it was implied that if the ensemble became successful the BBC Third Programme would be interested.
I discussed this with three of my colleagues in the [BBC Symphony] Orchestra: Jacqueline Townshend, who at that time shared the first desk of violas with me; Stanley Wooten, the number three player in the same section; and cellist Henry Revell. […]
We rehearsed most days, always finding a free half hour while at the Maida Vale studios during our normal working life in the Symphony Orchestra.
We soon began to make a decent sound under Elizabeth Goble’s instruction, and felt the time had come to devise a programme of music that could be offered to the BBC. We chose the music of Byrd, [Simon] Ives and Jenkins in a programme intended as an audition trial.
In fact, it was accepted for transmission and went out on the Third Programme on 19th May 1949 with a repeat on 5th September 1949.
We were very soon invited to play consort music for five and six parts.
Elizabeth Goble, wife of the harpsichord maker Robert Goble, had been a harpsichord and gamba student of Arnold Dolmetsch, and was an influential teacher who played in the English Consort of Viols, established in the 1930s by Marco Pallis and Richard Nicholson.
Veteran music journalist and writer Tully Potter suggested that Wilson “wanted to broadcast the riches of the English viol consort repertoire without bringing August Wenzinger’s group from Basel every time”, and certainly their BBC radio appearances were considerably reduced shortly after the LCV was formed.
One of our first engagements outside the BBC was from the Arts Council. We were invited to join the Westminster Abbey Choir in the Abbey to record “This is the record of John” [by Orlando Gibbons] for the Columbia Record Company under the direction of Sir William McKie.
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Until December 1949, according to documents held at the BBC Archives, the LCV played on borrowed instruments, which had been organized for them by Alec Hodsdon, the harpsichord maker. We don’t know which instruments these were or from whom they were borrowed.
The BBC supported an application to import a “matched set” of viols from the then American Zone of Germany (probably from Eugen Sprenger Sr. in Frankfurt), but the Board of Trade refused permission and advised them to obtain the viols from Messrs. Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd of Haslemere, Surrey.
There were some discussions about whether the BBC should buy them, but it seems that they were bought from Dolmetsch by the individual musicians concerned. It’s not clear whether these viols were actually made by them (in which case, Dietrich Kessler could have been involved), or if they came from their stock of second-hand and antique instruments. As a pay-back for the players’ personal investment they were contracted for 24 broadcasts in 1950 – almost one every two weeks.
According to Ysobel Danks (who herself played occasionally in the Consort from 1958), her father’s treble was old. Thomas MacCracken has suggested that this instrument, with its flame-shaped sound-holes and carved head, may have originally been a viola d’amore, which perhaps had been cut down for conversion to a viola, then re-necked to be used again as a viol, but without building the ribs back up to their original depth.
The unusual white pegs on Robert Donington’s bass, seen in the photo above, suggest (to MacCracken) an instrument attributed to Martin Hoffmann of Leipzig, that once belonged to him. Desmond Dupré obviously brought his own (modern) tenor, perhaps made by Maurice Vincent, when he joined the group.
The heyday of the LCV was in the 1950s, and by July 1956 they had already made more than 100 broadcasts. Thereafter, they performed only once or twice a year on radio, as the original members retired or moved away.
Their repertoire consisted overwhelmingly of English music, and the programmes often included choral music, in which the viols were only rarely involved, or keyboard pieces, played on the organ or harpsichord by the likes of Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Lady Susi Jeans and Ralph Downes.
By the time a ‘Studio Portrait’ of Harry Danks was broadcast in February 1965, the Consort was already long in decline. Consequently, for this programme, Danks’s daughter Ysobel was drafted in and Ambrose Gauntlett – who had never played with them before – took the bass part. Their final radio performance was of a programme of ‘Early Scottish Songs’ on 24 May 1966, contracted for the Scottish Home Service.
According to Ian Gammie, in his 2012 article on the LCV in The Viol, many of their concerts were given at music clubs, which explains why so few are mentioned in newspaper archives. Here are some of their documented highlights:
In the summer of 1951 the London Consort of Viols gave three concerts in the Wigmore Hall series “Music by English composers, 1300–1750”. According to The Times, they demonstrated a “suppleness of phrasing rarely achieved with viol bowing”, in contrast to previous “jerky” attempts.
They also played at the memorial concert for E.H. Fellowes in the Livery Hall of the Goldsmiths’ Company, on 28 April 1953, using music edited by him. The other performers were the BBC Singers, directed by Leslie Woodgate; the highly successful one-to-a-part madrigal group, the Golden Age Singers (est. 1951), directed by Margaret Field-Hyde; Peter Pears and Julian Bream, songs with lute; and Thurston Dart, harpsichord.
In May 1953 they performed at the Bath Festival.
In October 1954, Denis Stevens, writing in the Musical Times, wondered “whether there ever was such a thing as an a cappella choir; certainly the London Consort of Viols, in the Gibbons programme from King’s College, Cambridge, made these fine verse anthems sound more convincing than I have ever known.”
They played at the Commemorative Festival to mark the tercentenary of the death of Thomas Tomkins, held at St. David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, South Wales from 13 to 17 August, 1956. Some of the proceedings were relayed by the Welsh Home Service, and a 55-page Souvenir Brochure was also issued. Apart from the Consort, with “the full ensemble of six [which] collaborated in fine style”, Alfred Deller (counter-tenor), Desmond Dupre (lute), Thurston Dart (harpsichord), and the Deller Consort were involved, along with organist Harry Gabb and the cathedral choir, under their director, Peter Boorman.
The London Consort of Viols were important pioneers who bowed underhand on unaltered viols with frets – a practice which was far from universal in their day. They certainly fitted in well with the ethos of new BBC Third Programme, which was promoting the introduction of previously unknown repertoire on original instruments. Their work, though, was only ever a sideline for the four core members, whose “day job” was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and they did not teach or establish a tradition, as was the case with Wenzinger’s group in Basel. Perhaps if they had made more than that single commercial recording, accompanying the Westminster Abbey Choir in Gibbons, their name might still be known today.
Thanks are due to Ian Gammie, Ysobel Latham (née Danks); Thomas MacCracken; Kate O’Brien (BBC Archives researcher) and Tully Potter.