The Dolmetsch workshop

It can be hard to imagine that “Early music” is quite a recent invention. It started in the late 19th and early 20th century. Somewhat along with the Arts and Crafts movement people started to rediscover the music of the past. This had been done before, but the music was always adapted to the current taste and instruments. The new movement wanted to know how it had sounded back in the days. So they bought old instruments and restored or copied them in order to play.

A central figure in all this was Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940). Who involved his whole family in this endeavour.

Nowadays people look upon Dolmetsches attempts with a little pity (or is it compassion?). The same sentiment people show when a small child find a beautiful stone or gives them a drawing. Or they regard it hopelessly amateurish. Because a lot of his work has been outdated by modern research. For example: in his enthusiasm Dolmetsch gathered instruments together for his consort that never played together in the old days. But when we look at his work that way, we don’t give him enough credit. We disregard his achievements.

Dolmetsch stood at the cradle of the modern Early Music movement. He was one of the first to wipe the dust from these instruments and trying to play them. Beside playing he did a lot of research and published his findings (I have a copy of his book about the Viola da Gamba). Working on the foundations of modern musicology and organology.


His concerts weren’t always liked by the public. In a review one reporter described a piece for two gamba’s as “toothache calling unto toothache”…

He gathered craftsmen and learned them to make copies of the instruments in his collection. A maker like David Roubio started in the Dolmetsch workshop.

Last week I found these two short films on YouTube. They were shot in the Dolmetsch workshops in the fifties. Look at the way they made flutes, lutes, hurdy gurdy’s and harpsichords. It may occur to modern harpsichord makers how much lead there is used in the keys and jacks. I once got the opportunity to try one of these harpsichords and the action was heavy, more like a modern piano than a harpsichord.

Beside copying the workshop also tried to ‘improve’ some things they didn’t like in the old instruments. Like the little ‘back click’ a harpsichord jack makes when returning to base. They tried to find a solution for this, because they couldn’t believe players in the past could live with this ‘imperfection’.

This second film also shows an English music trade fair. Beside Fender’s there is a great variety of electronic organs. The diminishing voice over is priceless. Just like the film of the Burns factory, made around the same time…

Nowadays we sometimes hear the term ‘Dolmetscherie”. Often used for historical music played out of its context or in a modern fashion. Richie Blackmore’s “Blackmore’s Night” project can be seen as an example of this. Playing a mix of old music and rock, often heard at ‘renaissance fairs’.

Often people in the early music field don’t like this. They see it as popularizing and selling out the work of the old masters. But on the other hand it is reaching out to people. Most of my friends aren’t interested in early music, but they like Blackmore’s night. Last week one of them walked into the workshop, hearing a piece of a Julian Bream lute cd: “Hey, that’s that song from Blackmore’s night…” Ehhmmm… No, that’s a variation on the original he based his song on. “Oh, so it is really based on something old? Cool!”

Like I said it is too easy to disregard Dolmetsch work as ‘child’s play’. I think it’s admirable what he achieved, interesting people for music that wasn’t played for hundreds of years. Starting a new movement and field of research.

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1 Response to The Dolmetsch workshop

  1. alexholdendotnet says:

    You might enjoy the Gadarene band.


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