Matthew Wadsworth: When hearing is believing

Matthew Wadsworth's audience is drawn by the brilliance of his lute-playing. That he's blind merely adds to his achievement, finds Michael Church

Friday 14 February 2003 01:00

Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, is also patron saint of the blind: nice confirmation that blindness and music have always gone comfortably hand in hand. As the pianist Bernard D'Ascoli, whose sight was destroyed by a virus when he was three, once told me: "I have no memory of sight: the idea to me is entirely abstract. Losing it was not traumatic. I'm told I asked my mother when I would be able to see, and she replied, 'Never'. Apparently, I made no reply – I just took it on board. There was no heroism in it. It just made me develop my 'inner ear'."

Think of Stevie Wonder and the Blind Boys of Alabama; of Art Tatum, Ray Charles, and the blind guitarists who spread the blues; of the blind organists who dominated church music in turn-of-the-century Paris. In villages across Africa and Asia, blind musicians are so common as to be scarcely worth remarking on; in an area of Imperial Japan where eye-disease was rampant, a hereditary guild of blind women lutenists held sway for three centuries.

Matthew Wadsworth is our home-grown blind lutenist. "I can see light and dark," he says. "And colour if it's very strong. But basically I'm blind, and always was. Having no sight is absolutely no disadvantage for a musician." Was music always his ambition? "Not at all. I was obsessive as a child – I still am – and what obsessed me at six was motorbikes. The sound, the idea – they seemed really magical, and if there was one parked in the street, I would go out and sit on it. So my parents bought me a crash helmet and a little machine on which I scrambled round a field at 30 miles an hour. I was probably the only person that didn't fall off it, because with my disability you develop a good sense of balance, and, like all kids, I didn't have much fear."

Born 29 years ago in Manchester, he's a forthright, down-to-earth chap. He had e-mailed me to arrange our meeting, and turned up at the Tube station bang on time; the burly briskness with which he gets out his instrument to illustrate his story dispels any thoughts I might have had about making allowances. Though having heard his masterly new CD of 17th-century music for the 6ft theorbo lute – 14 Silver Strings (Deux Elles) – I had already happily banished those thoughts. Wadsworth radiates resourcefulness. He has adapted his computer so that it talks to him; he has adapted his CD-box by superimposing on its cover a contents list in Braille. He has also developed his own system of Braille tablature, which other blind lutenists will use worldwide.

But we're getting ahead of the story. He asked for, and got, a guitar when he was six: "I had small hands, and didn't want to play the piano: I liked this thing on your knee that vibrated when you played it." He had the good fortune to be taught classical technique by a first-rate teacher: "I learned everything by ear. We would record the lessons, so that I'd have some kind of reference afterwards. Standard repertoire – Segovia stuff – though my biggest influence, even then, was Julian Bream. I was crazy about his playing, and much later I had lessons from him at the Royal Academy."

After six years at a school for visually impaired children, he was delighted to be allowed to attend a normal comprehensive, by which time he was keener on his canoe and his snooker table than on his guitar. But on that he was already a junior star, having taught himself to read Braille music. "I got some books on it from the library, and they became my bedtime reading for a year. At first it was difficult, because, as I'd learned everything by rote, I didn't have any concept of written music. This new way of learning made demands on a different part of the brain, but as I can now learn a whole opera, something must have happened in those years. But I've always known that parts of the brain develop more strongly when they are needed to compensate for other parts."

At 16, he became the first blind student at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, where he had to head off initial doubts about his ability to survive. "They were worried that I'd need a lot of Braille scores provided, so I explained that I had already done a global survey of what guitar scores existed in Braille and where – they were arriving at my door by the box-load." In those pre-internet, pre-computer days, he had to depend on friends spending hours reading out scores for him to transcribe on to his Braille typewriter: now he can do it automatically with software.

Graduating to the Royal Academy, he also graduated to the lute. "I was asked to play the theorbo in Blow's Venus and Adonis, and I found that that sort of music really spoke to me – it reminded me of my days playing electric guitar. I loved the freedom that baroque continuo gives you – requiring you to improvise over a fixed bass line. Not having been attached to the printed page when I started, I had always memorised music, so, for me, it all fitted perfectly."

In fact, what drove him away from classical guitar, he says, was that he simply got sick of being told how to play. In the 17th century, when composers were also players, the score was never sacrosanct, and that is the informing philosophy of the chamber group, Ricordo, that he set up four years ago.

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He made his solo debut last year in the Purcell Room, and his concert next week will be in the Wigmore Hall: "The lute is an intimate instrument that draws you in – it was never meant for big venues." The repertoire will be by Kapsberger and Piccinini, two 17th-century composers who deserve to be much better known. His next CD will be of music by Robert Johnson: "There's a mass of 17th-century lute music still unrecorded. I was attracted to it because there aren't a hundred recordings of every piece already, as with guitar music. I played the Rodrigo concerto at one point, but I didn't want to add my recording to the already huge pile. Here, I've found a musical area in which I can do something useful."

The other area is education: Wadsworth does a lot of work for Live Music Now, particularly with children with special needs. "Often they are deaf, which is ironic: each of us has the other's most important sense missing. But they like seeing my fingers move, and they can feel the instrument vibrate." Presumably, they find him a useful role-model? "Well, I've been very lucky – I was given self-belief, the conviction that you can find a way round any problem" At present, Matthew Wadsworth is the only professional blind lutenist in the world. He hopes that will not be true for much longer.

Matthew Wadsworth's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141) is on Friday 21 Feb at 7.30pm

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