A school of total harmony

It has a global reputation as a creative hothouse of musical endeavour, but the summer school at Dartington is also about having fun, writes Hilary Wilce
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The Independent Online

Dartington International Summer School has become an institution for music-lovers from around the world. Or, as the brochure puts it: "An annual festival and celebration of music-making, for professionals and amateurs, in the utopian surroundings of the Dartington Estate."

Dartington International Summer School has become an institution for music-lovers from around the world. Or, as the brochure puts it: "An annual festival and celebration of music-making, for professionals and amateurs, in the utopian surroundings of the Dartington Estate."

The idea for it sprang from the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, when artists from all over the world came together to try to heal wartime rifts through a common love of culture. However, the pianist Artur Schnabel felt that a teaching element was lacking, and floated the idea of a summer school to one of his students, William Glock.

Glock then started just such a school at Bryanston, the boarding school in Dorset, where it quickly took root. Five years later, it moved to Dartington Hall, in south Devon, and began to acquire what the artistic director Gavin Henderson now calls a "celestial" list of tutors and students - Copland, Britten, Stravinsky, Barenboim, Du Pré, Fischer-Dieskau, Birtwistle, and many more.

In fact, when Henderson was asked to run it, in 1984, taking over from Peter Maxwell Davies, he thought the call was a joke. "Dartington had an awesome reputation as the hothouse crucible of just about every musical endeavour to be hatched in the previous 30 years." The Academy of St Martin in the Fields formed around the old Dartington String Quartet, for example, and the Amadeus Quartet gave its first concert there.

Among the many highlights of its history are the staging of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia in the Barn Theatre, for which it was originally composed, with Ilan Kolvov, aged 11, conducting an orchestra for the first time; and "eclipse day", which featured performances and a procession to observe the total eclipse of the Sun.

The school is seen as a seedbed for composers, an important centre for early music, and a major force in the development of young artists in chamber music, conducting and singing - although Val Winslade, a participant last summer, describes it more evocatively as a place "where Monteverdi comes before coffee, African gospel before lunch, Italian madrigals before tea, recitals before dinner, and concerts before bed".

It takes place over five weeks and attracts 400 participants, about a quarter of whom are professional artists and a quarter students, mostly on scholarships and bursaries. The rest are regular punters, paying "full whack" for the privilege of a week at the school (anything from £280 for non-residential to £935 for top accommodation) and ranging from beginners to gifted amateurs. The school is underwritten by the Dartington Hall Trust and the Arts Council, among others, and it includes activities for all-comers; specialised courses that have to be auditioned for; and performances that the public can enjoy. Participants are all ages, and more than half come from abroad.

Many join in the summer-school choir, which gives a public concert each Friday evening, and which, over the years, has been conducted by some big names, including Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle. This summer's repertoire will include Handel's Jephtha and Brahms's German Requiem. Others come to sing early music - or perhaps, simply, as Henderson says, "to discover: for instance, the remarkable Louis Berger Ensemble from Buenos Aires, who play 17th- and 18th-century South American music of the Jesuit Reductions on their unique period instruments made in the Peruvian jungle." Specialist courses cover composition and opera, and there is also RockShop, directed by Herbie Flowers and friends. This allows people to write, play and record rock and jazz tracks "in an environment of absolute acceptance and encouragement".

Everyone is put up on the Dartington Estate, and the smooth-running of the school is helped by the so-called "trogs" - interns who are often trying to get on the first rung of the arts-management ladder, and are thrilled to have the opportunity to work at the legendary summer school.

Each week is self-contained, although some themes run throughout the summer. One of the themes this year is the work of W H Auden in song, theatre, opera and translation, and includes, among much else, Hans Werner Henze's opera Elegy for Young Lovers, and a composition course setting Auden's poetry to music.

Another theme is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and there will be a composition course culminating in a concert in the medieval Great Hall, including one piece, Dark Sun, which uses wartime radio broadcasts alongside regular instruments. Other themes are the Trafalgar Bicentenary, Jewish music, and a celebration of Dartington-related composers such as Sir Michael Tippett.

Dartington International Summer School expects hard work from its students, but at the same time they have lots of fun, make new friends and take part in and attend some spine-tingling performances. It is, says Neil Jenkins, who taught a vocals masterclass last year, "a place where musical miracles can happen".

Dartington International Summer School: 23 July to 27 August ( www.dartingtonsummerschool.org.uk)

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