Obituary: Carl Dolmetsch

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The Independent Online
If anybody deserved the nickname "Mr Recorder", it was Carl Dolmetsch, for the world-wide popularity of the instrument in schools is largely due to his influence. At the age of seven, after a family concert, he left a bag containing a unique 18th-century recorder belonging to his father on the platform at Waterloo Station. The loss inspired his father, the pioneer in early music Arnold Dolmetsch, who had made measurements of the instrument, to make the first of the modern recorders.

As a young man, Carl Dolmetsch became one of the foremost recorder virtuosi. After the Second World War, he drew on the expertise of the family instrument-making firm's wartime work in making aircraft parts to design the first plastic recorder. He also edited series of music, wrote tutors, and gave concerts and lectures the world over, including many for schoolchildren.

But it was not only as a recorder player that Dolmetsch excelled. He studied the violin and played all the instruments in the viol family. He admitted several times that the English music written for viol consort was his favourite music. Indeed, it was the discovery in the Royal College of Music of some of this music that had encouraged Arnold Dolmetsch, in the 1880s, to begin his lifelong work of research into the interpretation of early music and the construction of the instruments for which it was written. Carl was proud to remember that the name "Dolmetsch" (the family was Swiss in origin but migrated to France and then to England) means "interpreter".

Born in 1911, in Fontenay-sous-Bois in France, Carl was the youngest of four children. They were all encouraged by their father to learn several instruments. By the age of seven Carl was participating in family concerts, and in 1925 played in the first Haslemere Festival of Early Music and Instruments.

In 1932, when asked to provide the music for a production of Twelfth Night, he was introduced to a young keyboard player, Joseph Saxby. Saxby subsequently became Dolmetsch's accompanist and this amazing partnership lasted nearly 60 years. Their concert tours took them to many different countries and, nearer to home, annual concerts were given in the Wigmore Hall. For each of these Dolmetsch commissioned works from composers such as Gordon Jacob, Alan Ridout, Lennox and Michael Berkeley, Arnold Cooke, William Matthias and Edmund Rubbra.

A keen ornithologist, Dolmetsch loved to play Couperin's "Le Rossignol en Amour" on the sopranino, the smallest in the family of recorders. Inspired by a performance of this in a Sydney television studio, the Australian composer Nigel Butterley in 1965 wrote a characteristic piece describing an Australian bird, "The White-Throated Warbler". In the United States, Dolmetsch and Saxby performed regularly with the violin and cello duo Alice and Eleanor Schoenfeld. Many recordings were made, with them and with the Dolmetsch Consort, in Haslemere.

On the death of his father in 1940, Dolmetsch took over the directorship of the Haslemere Festival, and directed every one until 1996. Even during the war the annual festivals did not stop. After a strenuous day making intricate aircraft components, there was nothing Dolmetsch liked better than to go home, get out the instruments and music, and play.

After the war, the festival, which had begun as a family affair, expanded to include many eminent artists. Such performers as the oboist Leon Goossens, the soprano Elizabeth Harwood, the pianist Ruth Dyson, the lutenist Robert Spencer, and the violinist Rachel Podger have all played at a Haslemere Festival.

The Golden Jubilee in 1974 was celebrated in a delightfully original way. A band of strings from Japan, whose conductor had translated Arnold Dolmetsch's The Interpretation of the Music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries into Japanese, performed at the opening gala concert. But for many years Carl Dolmetsch led the home-grown string band himself from the violin.

Dolmetsch and Saxby were particularly keen to encourage a younger generation to make music. Apart from developing the plastic recorder (which became popular world-wide), they gave concerts and workshops to schoolchildren long before the idea became commonplace. The Dolmetsch Summer School, which was established in 1948, has gained an international reputation.

Dolmetsch was a dear, loyal friend, but he did not suffer fools, and abhorred disloyalty. He hated the politics that so often go with music- making. His concern was for authentic performance, but authentic according to the spirit, not according to the letter. For this reason he found it difficult to see eye to eye with some younger exponents of early music, and could be outspoken in his criticisms. His lively correspondence with the BBC a few years ago on the pitch of the Greenwich Time Signal was entirely in keeping with his character.

Dolmetsch was noted for his thorough scholarship, writing for many musical journals. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than the recognition of his work by the Art Workers Guild, who elected him Master in 1989, enabling him to follow in his father's footsteps. He received fellowships from Trinity College of Music and from the London College of Music and an honorary DLitt from Exeter University, and was appointed CBE in 1954.

In addition to his enthusiasm for natural history, Dolmetsch was a keen walker. No doubt he would have attributed his fitness to his strict vegetarian diet and his eschewing of any kind of "junk" food. He fought his final illness with determination, and tried to ignore it as much as he could. It was poignant that his death should have occurred just a week after the funeral of his dear friend Joseph Saxby.

Shelagh Godwin

Carl Frederick Dolmetsch, musician: born Fontenay-sous-Bois, France 23 August 1911; Musical Director, Society of Recorder Players 1937-97; Director, Haslemere Festival of Early Music and Instruments 1940-96; CBE 1954; chairman and managing director, Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd 1963-78; Musical Director, Dolmetsch International Summer School 1970-97; chairman, Dolmetsch Musical Instruments 1982-97; married 1937 Mary Ferguson (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1961), 1997 Greta Matthews; died Haslemere, Surrey 11 July 1997.