MUSIC / Classical education lives: Michael White joins amateur and professional musicians at Dartington Summer School

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SUNDAY MORNING on the lawn at Dartington, and its serenely medieval precincts have erupted into pandemonium. An English middle-class interpretation of a body market. Several hundred people, classified and badged according to their musical potential, are on offer. They are lawyers, doctors, civil servants in real life, but for the next week they are 'Cello, Intermediate, Romantic' or 'Viola, Moderate, Baroque': enthusiastic amateur musicians taking time off from reality in one of music's more extraordinary phenomena, the Dartington International Summer School.

Sunday is Day One of its weekly cycle of events: the morning of the bartering of talents into instant chamber groups; the time of crisis when you do or don't track down a pianist for the Trout Quintet you've come to Dartington to perform; the moment when the notice-board turns white with scraps of paper saying 'Baroque bassoonist, Tuesday' or 'Does anyone play Bartok?'

Meanwhile, along the lawn sits Emma Kirkby - star soprano of the Early Music circuit - supervising a creche of Early Music children who belong to the singers, dancers, players and composers who are the professional input of the school. For the moment the professionals are self-contained. But 24 hours on, the civil-servant cellists will know all the children's names; the Medici Quartet will be showing off more than their string technique in the swimming pool; and the ambition of Dartington will be realised, with amateurs, professionals and music students joining into a shared community you don't associate with a world where the amateur's role is normally to sit still and applaud at the end.

At one level, Dartington is Butlins with culture: a participatory festival where, once you've paid the entrance fee, the rides - a frantic schedule of masterclasses, workshops, writing courses, madrigals, and the presiding institution of the Summer School Choir - are free. But it also has a seriousness of purpose that dates back to the 1920s when a married couple called the Elmhirsts - he an English gentleman, she an American heiress - bought Dartington Hall with its South Devon estate and established an experiment in rural living.

The objective was enlightened feudalism: a community whose interests would embrace progressive education, arts and crafts, and be supported by the land and local industries. For more than half a century this vision of Utopia endured, only to crumble in the 1980s when the industries were sold off and the school collapsed. But there is no denying the influence that Dartington exerted on English cultural life.

The Elmhirsts' patronage was princely; and it drew to Dartington a princely gathering of painters, craftsmen, writers and musicians. Half an hour in the Dartington archive reveals, before you reach the letter C, a file of correspondence from Benjamin Britten thanking the Elmhirsts for their cheques, and another from the American composer Marc Blitzstein. By the time you reach S for Bernard Shaw and Stravinsky, you begin to wonder who didn't enjoy the Elmhirsts' hospitality in those years.

The Summer School is now the main surviving remnant of the Dartington ideal, although it actually began at Bryanston, and moved to Dartington in 1953. William Glock was its director, and in his hands it became a receiving house for the great and the good of European music: the spearhead of an attack on English provincialism which he carried over to the BBC as its director of music. It was said that Broadcasting House was the 'winter HQ' of Dartington; and that was partly true - to the distress of conservative musicians who saw Glock as an apostle of the avant-garde. In fact his regime at Dartington was quite balanced. It welcomed the lions of new music; but remained a home for classic chamber repertory, and attracted its greatest exponents: the Amadeus Quartet, Pierre Fournier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

It was Peter Maxwell Davies, succeeding Glock, who tipped the balance in favour of the new and towards a more professional focus, with the result that Dartington regulars go quiet if you breathe his name. When Gavin Henderson, the flamboyant director of the Brighton festival, assumed control nine years ago, his brief was to restore co-existence; and Dartington is no longer so pristine a musical environment. It's chummier, more family-conscious, and maybe the standards aren't so high - although the atmosphere is still exhilarating as people try to do things in a fraction of the time they'd take in any other circumstance.

By Monday morning Dartington is visibly cohering as a group experience. The choir is settling down, and the half dozen of us in the second tenors are holding our own nicely against 70 sopranos. Ivor Bolton, our conductor, is a model of encouragement. Remember, he reminds, to start your trills off on the upper note and not the lower. That we fail to start our trills on any note at all seems not to worry him unduly.

Monday lunchtime, and the course leaders are adapting themselves to the human material they have to work with. The baroque allcomers orchestra has no trumpet, three violins and seven flutes. Monday afternoon, and to prove there is no escape from active involvement at Dartington, I make my celluloid debut in Death of a Critic, a three- minute epic. Stabbed with my own pen by a disgruntled composer, I die slowly in the Verdian manner.

Tuesday, and the second tenors are robustly trilling, more or less on the suggested notes. Emma Kirkby has discovered a potentially impressive mezzo in her vocal masterclass. And madrigal ensembles sprout spontaneously in the gardens when the rain stops.

Wednesday, and I discover the electro-acoustic music course secreted in a fortress of technology away from the main buildings. You don't see much of the electro-acoustic composers because they work so hard; but you see their lights burning into the early hours, and today I meet a 62-year-old grandmother making music from the processed sounds of dripping water.

Thursday, and the baroque opera course, run by Antony Rooley, moves into the Great Hall for the focus of its week: a staged performance of Stradella's L'Anime del Purgatorio. I lunch with a lugubrious bass who's singing Death. I empathise (see Monday afternoon). Elsewhere, the authoress from Canada who flies in every year to organise the chamber music marriage- broking has reached the part of the week where her job turns into marriage guidance. People come to her in tears to say they can't play any more with cellist X or pianist Y. 'Sometimes I get all four members of the same quartet,' she says, 'complaining that the other three aren't up to standard.'

Otherwise, they fall in love. Whole families are spawned at Dartington; passion breeds with every breakfast. There are famous stories about Peter Maxwell Davies being chased round the estate by a determined woman.

But the presiding passions of a week at Dartington aren't amorous at all. They are intensely, fiercely musical; and in the genial chaos of the Dartington regime, there is a genuine, creative energy. Few audiences are so attentive as those at the nightly concerts in the Great Hall, squeezed like toothpaste into every inch of space. Few rehearsals are so keen. Few culture camps so productive. As Marc Blitzstein wrote to the Elmhirsts in 1934, Dartington 'hit us with unexpected force. I think we vaguely feared to find it just a toy'. He feared wrong.

The Dartington Summer School and concerts run to 28 Aug (0803 865988).

(Photographs omitted)

Comments