From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

In Memoriam: Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997)


It was with a great deal of sadness that we received notice in mid-July of the death of Carl F. Dolmetsch, the noted English recorder player and maker, in Haslemere, Surrey, England, at the age of 85 years. Carl had been in declining health for some time and, at the time of his death, was undergoing treatment in hospital for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With his death and the death less than a month earlier of his lifelong friend, traveling companion, and accompanist Joseph Saxby, the early music world lost two of its most pre-eminent figures from the middle decades of the twentieth century.

A communication from Dr. Brian Blood, Carl's son-in-law and managing director of J. & M. Dolmetsch, Ltd., and our reply to Dr. Blood were as follows:

Dear Friend,

I would like to let you know that Dr. Carl Dolmetsch died peacefully after a long illness on 17th [sic - actually the 11th] July 1997 in Haslemere. He was aged 85. The funeral takes place on Thursday 17th August [sic - actually July] at St. Bartholomew's Church, Haslemere.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Brian E. Blood

Brian,

I am greatly saddened to hear of your father-in-law's death. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have known him personally and met with him here in the States and in England on any number of occasions going back some thirty-eight years. I extend my deepest sympathy to you and the entire Dolmetsch family. Carl Dolmetsch, like his father Arnold, was indeed a seminal figure in the revival of the recorder and early music in general in the course of the twentieth century. We can all take some comfort in knowing that the fruits of the important work that he accomplished in his long and productive lifetime will continue to resonate in the early music world for many years to come.

David H. Green, director
Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd.

Carl Frederic (born Charles Frédèric) Dolmetsch was born in Fontenay-sous-Bois, France, a suburb of Paris, on August 23rd, 1911. He was the youngest of four children of the famous, brilliant, and mercurial early music pioneer (Eugène) Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) and the latter’s third wife Mabel Johnston. At the time, the Dolmetsch family had just arrived in France after having lived for six years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While living in the United States, Arnold Dolmetsch had worked in a special department created for him within the piano factory of Chickering & Sons in Boston, where he produced a remarkable number of harpsichords, clavichords, lutes, and viols. These American period instruments are generally considered to be among his finest creations, and many still survive and are in use today. When a trade recession caused Chickering some financial set-backs, Arnold and his family moved to Paris, where he accepted a similar position with Gaveau. It was there that he began work on his famous book, The Interpretation of the Music of the XVII and XVIII Centuries (London, 1914), which was to have a great impact on the future development of the early music revival later in the century. In 1914, the itinerant Dolmetsch family returned to England and, in 1917, finally settled in Haslemere.

In 1918, Arnold Dolmetsch, at the age of sixty, produced a recorder for the first time, in order to replace an original Bressan instrument lost by his young son Carl. In 1920, a workshop for the production of historical musical instruments was founded with contributions from friends and other interested parties. In 1925 the Haslemere Festival was founded for the performance of early music on historical instruments; this annual summer festival has continued to the present day. By the next year, Arnold Dolmetsch had constructed an entire set of recorders; these were employed in performance at the 1926 festival for the first time. In 1929, the Dolmetsch Foundation was established to promote the study and performance of early music. Carl Dolmetsch took part in a family viol consort at the tender age of seven and was a soloist at the first Haslemere Festival in 1925 at age fourteen. His last appearance was at the 72nd festival in 1996, having participated in every festival in between as well, an astounding record and credit to his longevity. He played a variety of instruments including the viola da gamba, which most other members of the Dolmetsch family also played, but he is known today largely for his solo recorder playing.

From 1926, Carl was responsible for the research in and production of recorders in the family workshop. In 1938, the workshop was incorporated as Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., to continue the work of its founder into the next generation. Until the mid-1970s, Carl was managing director of the workshop. Since 1947, he had also been the musical director of the Haslemere Festival and the Dolmetsch Foundation. In 1937 Carl married Mary Ferguson, a Scotswoman of some family means who possessed considerable business expertise and common sense, commodities singularly lacking in the Dolmetsch clan. She was the individual who was largely responsible for putting both the annual festival and the workshop on a firm financial footing and keeping them there for over four decades, even after her divorce from Carl in the 1960s. Mrs. Dolmetsch died in September of 1996 in Scotland after a long illness.

As a performer, Carl was a tireless traveler, advocate, and proselytizer for the recorder as a serious concert instrument. He and Joseph Saxby made numerous world-wide concert tours over a period of more than four decades, including an astounding twenty coast-to-coast tours in the United States alone. The focal point of their performances together, occasionally assisted by other musicians, was their series of annual recitals in the Wigmore Hall in London, which began in 1939 and continued unbroken for 45 years.

Carl had the imagination and foresight to realize that the recorder, if it was to have a healthy future as well as a glorious past, had to have a repertoire of music from the twentieth century as well as the extant wealth of earlier music from the middle ages to the mid-eighteenth century. To that end, he made it a practice to introduce at each Wigmore Hall recital a major new contemporary composition; many of these works were commissioned by Carl through the Dolmetsch Foundation. Thus it was that a substantial number of works for recorder, either by itself, with keyboard accompaniment, or in combination with other instruments, were created by such noted composers as Lenox Berkeley, York Bowen, Herbert Murrill, Arnold Cooke, Cyril Scott, Francis Chagrin, Hans Gal, Gordon Jacob, Nicholas Maw, Stephen Dodgson, Jean Françaix, and especially Edmund Rubbra.

As with any great seminal figure in music history, a number of legends have sprung up in the course of the past half century in regard to Carl Dolmetsch and his activities. Indeed, the Dolmetsch family itself would seem to be the source for the preservation and dissemination of these tales, some of which have some basis in fact and others of which seem to be pure fabrication. In order to assess properly the role and importance of the life and work of Carl Dolmetsch and his undeniable influence on the course of the revival of early music, historically informed performance practice, and historical instrument design and construction, it will be necessary to examine critically some of these folk tales and put them in their proper perspective. First, although Carl was widely promoted as a “virtuoso recorder player” by the Dolmetsch organization, his playing at its best was never of a caliber comparable to the finest of today’s many outstanding professional players. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge his playing, which was in retrospect merely adequate, by present-day standards of technical and musical accomplishment. He was at best an advanced dilettante performer in the great English tradition of armchair amateurism; lacking any firm professional musical background and training, he played recorder with a technique that was never entirely secure and which deteriorated substantially in his later years. He played rather nervously, with very little air at a low breath pressure, using a shallow throat vibrato. His general level of musicianship and employment of historical performance practice, while perhaps typical for the earlier decades of the century, increasingly left a great deal to be desired as time went by.

The performances and recordings made by Carl and his children as The Dolmetsch Consort never rose beyond the level of amateur English Hausmusik, although in all fairness it could also be said that some other prominent present-day recorder makers and their offspring also don’t play the instruments they make and sell at any higher level of musical or technical accomplishment. Carl made any number of recordings during the vinyl LP era, mostly issued by small, obscure labels; in all honesty, it must be admitted that those recorded performances, though perhaps representative of their time, do not stand up well to careful scrutiny today. The recorders which he produced as managing director of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., reflected his rather idiosyncratic approach to playing. They were tuned very sharp by present day standards, to compensate for the extremely low breath pressure he used to voice, tune, and play them. Those instruments, which had been designed by Arnold Dolmetsch in the two decades before his death, were beautifully hand-turned on woodworking lathes by highly skilled craftsmen. They were, however, heavily modernized, with very large, non-historical windways and extremely wide, short windows. These changes were doubtless the result of trying to produce an instrument that was less prone to clogging and changes in voicing. Nevertheless, those original Arnold Dolmetsch recorders had a wonderfully rich, full, “plumy” quality, were widely used by professionals in the 1950s and 1960s, and are very much in demand today by collectors.

Carl also edited and transcribed a good deal of early music from original sources for his own performance use, some of which was later published. Again, these editions do not reflect current (or even earlier) standards of musicological achievement. Far from being the Urtext editions favored by today’s early musicians, they were heavily edited and adapted, although in truth probably no worse than the editions produced by many other teachers and performers during the first half of the century. Some of his editorial ideas, however, were decidedly inspired. For example, his transcription of several of the François Couperin nightingale solo harpsichord pieces, such as Le Rossignol en amour, for sopranino recorder (the quintessential “bird” instrument) and harpsichord, which he used frequently as encores in his own public recitals, were thoroughly delightful. These transcriptions, whether he knew it or not, were in fact wholly in accordance with historical adaptive performance practice as well.

Another legend that perhaps needs to be put to rest is that Carl Dolmetsch “personally invented and developed the inexpensive plastic recorder” in 1947. The fact of the matter is that, due to a lack of availability of German-made school-quality wooden recorders during World War II, the first plastic recorders were designed and made by Schott & Co. in collaboration with Edgar Hunt during the war years. The Arnold Dolmetsch workshop, however, did begin the production of their own plastic recorders in 1947. For several decades, these were the instruments commonly used in school music programs around the globe. The instruments were made of bakelite (as were the later Schott instruments) and were both extremely heavy and quite brittle. The thick headjoints tended to make the instruments, particularly the alto and tenor sizes, extremely top-heavy and difficult to balance and hold. If dropped on a hard floor, they would shatter into myriad pieces.

In the mid-1970s, Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., brought out a completely new soprano recorder made of ABS plastic, which was much lighter and more sophisticated in design. Intended as were all Dolmetsch recorders to be played at a very low breath pressure, this new instrument came under attack in the pages of the American Recorder Society magazine by a noted American recorder maker, who accused Carl and the Dolmetsch firm of flagrantly violating the international standard of a’=440 Hz. by producing an instrument that was grossly sharp in pitch. The truth, of course, was that the American maker in question blew his own recorders at a much higher breath pressure and designed them rather flat in pitch by way of compensation. His rather uninformed criticism of the new Dolmetsch instrument arose from his playing it in a manner incompatible with its design and intent. As is usual with such controversies, the truth (as well as the mean breath pressure) lay somewhat between the two extremes represented by these two makers. Carl, however, ever a gentleman, refused to lower himself to the level of the attack ad hominem which had been directed at him.

The life of Carl Dolmetsch was also marked by a series of personal tragedies. His older brother Rudolph, reputedly an accomplished harpsichordist, competent viol player, and budding conductor and composer, was lost at sea while in the service of his country during World War II. Carl’s second son and youngest child Richard, a very unhappy and troubled individual, died in South America in 1966 at the age of 21, apparently by his own hand. It is said that Carl never really recovered from that loss. Perhaps the most unfortunate blow, however, was the tragic turn of events some twenty years ago when Carl was relieved of his position as managing director of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd. A great deal of misinformation about the circumstances surrounding this entire affair and its aftermath has been circulated in the interim. Since I had considerable knowledge of and some peripheral degree of involvement in the matter, perhaps it might be well to set the record straight now. While Carl Dolmetsch was the titular managing director of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd. and in fact supervised the recorder production personally for many decades, control over the financial and business direction of the firm was wisely retained by his ex-wife Mary Ferguson Dolmetsch, who controlled both the purse strings and the board of directors. This was probably necessary because the various members of the Dolmetsch family seemed to lack any financial or business acumen.

During the early and mid 1970s, it became readily apparent that the workshop was becoming swamped in red ink and losing money at an alarming rate. The reasons for this downturn were several: the costs of labor and materials to make their instruments had increased drastically within a short period of time, the sales of their individually craftsman-made instruments were declining due to increasing competition from other makers producing more historically authentic instruments, and the substantial sum which had been invested in the production of the new plastic recorder was not bearing fruit, due to both inept marketing and aggressive competition from Japanese makers.

Carl was told by the board of directors that he would have to start producing more historically-oriented recorders and other instruments if the firm were to remain competitive and solvent. Carl, who was perhaps too slow and reluctant to recognize the winds of change that were sweeping over the early music world in the early 1970s, steadfastly refused to update his father’s increasingly dated instrument designs along more historical lines. The upshot of the controversy was that Carl, together with his twin daughters Jeanne and Marguerite, left the ancestral firm and founded a competing workshop in the same town, J. & M. Dolmetsch, Ltd., which was and still is managed by Brian Blood, Marguerite’s husband. William Heaton, a business man with a musical background, was brought in to straighten out the financial, design, and marketing mess at Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd.

Perhaps inevitably, the two competing Dolmetsch firms shortly wound up suing each other in the British court system, the original firm maintaining that the new firm had usurped their designs and tradename, the newer firm asserting that its designs and instruments were fundamentally different and not purloined. The truth, as with the plastic recorder controversy, lay somewhere in between the two legal positions. Although lobbied heavily by both camps to support their claims with “expert witness” testimony, I preferred not to get involved in what I then perceived to be (and still perceive to have been) an internecine family squabble between Carl and his daughters on one hand, and his ex-wife Mary and the Arnold Dolmetsch board of directors on the other. I made it clear to our customers that we would sell instruments from both makers for the foreseeable future and told the principals of both firms that they would be far better advised to spend their money improving their product lines instead of wasting their financial resources on barristers and solicitors. I simply did not want to take sides in this family dispute.

Unfortunately, my wish to remain uninvolved was not respected. One morning, very early, I received a phone call from a very irate and hurt Bill Heaton, wanting to know why I had taken sides with the other firm. I replied that I had done no such thing. He related that his solicitor had just sent him a brief submitted by the opposition in which I was liberally quoted as supporting their claims. Needless to say, I was livid. What had in fact happened was that a now-former customer of our workshop living in the Washington, D.C., area had taken a copy of our customer newsletter, in which we had announced the formation of the new firm and our introduction of their instruments, and sent it off to J. & M. Dolmetsch. They in turn handed it over to their solicitor, who proceeded to excerpt and quote several statements made therein out of context and in a way that seemed to indicate I was taking their side in the matter.

And so it seemed that Antique Sound Workshop and myself had become unwitting players in this entire sordid legal affair. I had our corporate attorney fire off a very pointed letter to the new firm’s solicitor informing her that we had no desire whatsoever to be involved in this family dispute, that the materials taken from our publication had been cited out of context and without our knowledge or permission, and that the offending material was to be excised forthwith or we would be compelled to provide the opposite side with an affidavit supporting their side in the pending court case.

As it turned out, the whole case shortly thereafter became moot due to the fiscal insolvency and subsequent bankruptcy of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., in November of 1981. Bill Heaton had done his best to try to revamp the firm’s instruments to contemporary tastes, with narrower windway designs, etc., but it had apparently been a classic case of too little and too late. Perhaps the deciding factor had been that a great deal of money had been invested in producing their new plastic instruments and the distribution of those instruments had been contractually awarded, in retrospect highly unwisely, to Boosey & Hawkes, which firm did little or nothing to promote or sell them. Tens of thousands of plastic recorders languished in their packing boxes in a storage warehouse. The cash-flow crisis, together with the accumulating legal debts, eventually brought down the firm. The assets of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd., were sold as part of the bankruptcy proceedings; most of the assets, including the Dolmetsch tradename, rights to the designs, and some physical equipment, were acquired by J. & M. Dolmetsch, Ltd., at public sale. It was a very sad ending for a venerable and distinguished firm. While Carl never discussed the matter with me, I suspected that he, too, had been greatly saddened by the events surrounding the demise of his ancestral firm. I noticed that, several years after the Great Schism had occurred, Carl was personally continuing to use instruments he had made years earlier while he was managing director of Arnold Dolmetsch, Ltd. Editor's note: the surviving firm of J. & M. Dolmetsch, later renamed Dolmetsch Musical Instruments, declared bankruptcy in 2010, bringing the whole sad family saga full-circle to its conclusion.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to meet with Carl Dolmetsch and to hear him perform on many occasions. Two such occasions, however, remain very vividly in my memory. The very first time I heard him play was around 1959, when I was an undergraduate music major. Carl and Joseph, whom he invariably referred to as “Mr. Saxby” on the concert platform, came to my university to give a lecture-recital for an audience of music professors and students.

Carl had probably surmised, undoubtedly correctly, that his audience would be composed largely of skeptical individuals who were completely convinced of the superiority of their modern instruments and thought the recorder at best a quaint and limited musical artifact and at worst a primitive educational instrument suited only for use by grade school youngsters as a prelude to learning a “real” instrument. I, as an aspiring young college-age recorder player who took the instrument somewhat more seriously, was probably in an infinitesimally small minority in that audience.

Carl apparently decided to tackle this palpable credibility problem head-on. After playing a warm-up piece or two, he mentioned, in his charming and unassuming manner, that “some people” thought that the recorder was very limited musically and only able to play in “simple” keys such as C, F, and G. He then proceeded to play a series of major scales with considerable speed and dexterity, starting on low F and proceeding upwards by semitones: F major, F# major, G major, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, and so on up to F. A collective gasp went up from the entire audience, most members of which had tacitly assumed that the recorder could not be played in such remote keys or with any degree of technical facility. From that point on, Carl had the entire audience eating out of his hand. It was a masterful bit of showmanship.

The last time I heard Carl play live in Boston, some twenty years later, was under decidedly different but equally challenging circumstances. One night about midnight in 1979, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a phone call. The following comical conversation ensued:

DHG: (mumbled ) “Hello?”
CFD: (brightly) “David?”
DHG: (groggy) “Yes?”
CFD: (warmly) “This is Carl.”
DHG: (annoyed and suspecting a wrong number) “Carl, who?”
CFD: (undeterred) “Why, Carl Dolmetsch, of course!”

Of course. Carl and Joseph had just flown into Boston after having played yet another one-night stand on what must have been their umpteenth American concert tour. I hadn’t even known that they were in the country, but Carl had had the courtesy to call up and say hello, even if it were midnight. I suspected then that the man never slept. We hadn’t seen each other in several years, but he greeted me as if we had just spoken the previous day. I suggested that we get together, perhaps for lunch or dinner on the following day. Carl related that he and Joseph were in town for only a half day, to do an interview and play a brief recital in the studios of WGBH-FM, the local PBS radio station, at 11:00 a.m. the next morning They were booked to fly out of Boston at 1:30 p.m. that afternoon to their next engagement. I, no stranger to the life of a touring musician, got absolutely exhausted just thinking of the whirlwind pace that this dynamic duo were still leading in their late sixties.

The only way we could get together, we decided, was if I were to go over to the radio station, fortunately just a few miles from my home in Brookline, and meet with him before he did the live broadcast. Most musicians like to have a bit of time to warm-up and relax before playing a performance, but Carl and Joseph were old hands at these hit-and-run affairs and could probably have fallen out of bed and played a program without even waking fully.

Carl and I had a cordial meeting at the radio station, during the latter part of which Joseph retired to tune the little portable spinet harpsichord that was his usual touring instrument. As the appointed hour for the interview and performance came, we went into the radio studio and I got to watch the entire performance as an audience of one.

The classical music emcee who interviewed Carl was a pompous, musically ignorant ass in love with the sound of his own voice. He, knowing next to nothing about his guest, the recorder, or early music, asked a long series of ineptly posed questions. Carl would politely rephrase each fumbling query into some sort of meaningful form that could be intelligently answered, then proceed to answer his own question. He and Joseph occasionally managed to get in a subtle little dig at their clueless tormentor. The interview was vintage Carl Dolmetsch, charming, polite, and totally unflappable.

At the end of the program, a taxi awaited them; they dashed out the door on their way to Boston’s Logan Airport and yet another gig, God only knows where. The performance, I mused on the way home, had been almost like listening to an old 78 r.p.m. recording from decades earlier. It was clear that Carl’s playing, never rock-solid either musically or technically, had deteriorated over the years. Undeniably, the intervening years and the current strenuous concert tour, probably his last to the States, had taken their toll. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm and love for the recorder and its music, as he told his well-worn, thrice-familiar tales yet one more time, was still very much in evidence. Carl Dolmetsch was never bored or boring.

It is tempting to say that the deaths of Carl Dolmetsch and Joseph Saxby in the past two months marked the end of an era in early music performance. The truth, however, is that that era had ended a good quarter of a century earlier. Carl and Joseph carried on in the finest British tradition, vestigial remnants of a much earlier phase in the history of the early music revival, one when standards of playing, musicianship, and instrument making were perhaps less stringent and less historically-informed than they are today. In his later years, Carl served to show us where we had come from, and how far we had come in the interim.

The early music world will undoubtedly continue to remember Carl Dolmetsch primarily as a recorder player and maker, but his real legacy to those of us in the next generation lay elsewhere: his foresight in bringing into existence and performing a whole body of contemporary literature, showing us the recorder had a present and a future as well as a past; the many ingenious innovations in recorder making, such as the echo key, the bell key, and the tone projector, which were important steps toward the creation of a modern recorder; and, perhaps most significant, his life-long, devoted, and untiring promotion of the recorder as a serious concert instrument, which paved the way for the many fine younger professional recorder players of our own time. Carl Dolmetsch was a remarkable individual indeed, and I consider it a privilege to have known him.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1997. All rights reserved.


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