Books & Manuscripts

The collection of Arnold Dolmetsch, an appreciation

by Stephen Roe
“…Stephen [Daedalus], in reply to a politely put query, said he didn’t sing it but launched out into praises of Shakespeare’s songs, at least of in or about that period, the lutenist Dowland who lived in Fetter Lane near Gerard the herbalist, who anno ludendo hausi, Doulandus, an instrument he was contemplating purchasing from Mr Arnold Dolmetsch, whom Bloom did not quite recall though the name certainly sounded familiar, for sixtyfive guineas and Farnaby and son with their dux and comes conceits and Byrd (William) who played the virginals, he said, in the Queen’s chapel or anywhere else he found them and one Tomkins who made toys or airs, and John Bull…”
James Joyce, Ulysses, “Eumaeus” episode

T hus, the musician, scholar and instrument manufacturer Arnold Dolmetsch makes an appearance in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a passage more piquant in the knowledge that on Bloomsday itself, 16 June 1904, the very day the book is set, Joyce had written to Dolmetsch asking him to make a lute for him. If W.B. Yeats had a Dolmetsch psaltery, why not Joyce a lute?

This telling anecdote reveals the popularity of Arnold Dolmetsch and his new old instruments at the turn of the 20th century. Dolmetsch himself was a walking Arts and Crafts movement: encouraged by William Morris, the French-born musician sought to recreate the forgotten instruments of Renaissance and Baroque eras, hand-turning them himself, finding the means and resources to do so, and also to play them, with his wife, friends, children, and grandchildren at public concerts and events in their house in Haslemere, Surrey. A number of these musical occasions, showing Dolmetsch, his performers and dancers in home-made period costume, are recorded on film, resembling an exuberant Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life.

Dolmetsch’s diaries and address-books, now in Cambridge University Library, reveal the range of his acquaintances, particularly in literary circles, including D’Annunzio, Tagore and Ezra Pound (“…Lawes and Jenkyns guard thy rest/Dolmetsch ever be thy guest…”, Canto LXXXI). Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce and Lady Gregory are also found: the Celtic Revival required instruments and Dolmetsch could provide them. He was also a friend of the novelist George Moore, whose Evelyn Innes (1898) was based on Dolmetsch’s life, work and house (called “Dowland’s” in the novel). He was lionised by the musical and artistic world: Percy Grainger, Lord Berners, Hans Richter, Parry, Stanford, Busoni (who received a few harpsichord lessons from him), Wanda Landowska, Ansermet, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Burne-Jones, Roger Fry, Stanley Spencer, and numerous others. He was a welcome guest in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House and in many of the finest houses in the United Kingdom. Dolmetsch became an establishment figure and was helped out financially by rich friends when necessary.

His work coincided with the great monumental editions of the complete works of Bach, Handel and Mozart which appeared in the middle and later years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. At the same time, the music of Couperin, Rameau and the French clavecinistes was also re-published and the madrigals of the English and Italian schools began to be available in print. Dolmetsch gained inspiration from examining the original scores in print and in manuscript and his astonishing library was formed when such treasures were still available at auction or in private collections in the late 19th century. The last time some of the items appeared at auction was in 1901, when Dolmetsch became bankrupt and was forced to sell many of his early instruments and other musical treasures. But thanks to the generosity of friends many of these items were restored to his collection in Haslemere.

The printed music, early editions, manuscripts and books on music and dance offered here comprise a substantial part of Dolmetsch’s library. These volumes were not allowed to rest on the shelves but were used by Dolmetsch and his family throughout the years in their musical research. A few indeed are annotated by him and many contain details of their provenances, many of which are illustrious, including Cummings, Hipkins, Taphouse and Fétis.

Dolmetsch was especially interested in lute music, and one of the high points in the collection is the extraordinary early 17th-century manuscript containing music by his hero, John Dowland (lot 63), including his famous pavan Lachrimae, together with works by the most famous lutenists of the day. This really is a most exceptional source. Another is an important manuscript containing 18th-century works by perhaps the greatest lutenist of all time, Silvius Leopold Weiss, whose music was beloved of Johann Sebastian Bach (lot 64).

Dolmetsch resurrected long-forgotten instruments such as the viola da gamba and other members of the viol family. Though we know from Thomas Hardy that the bass viol retained a place in Dorset village churches during the 19th century, its use in the concert hall, alongside other members of the viol family in consorts, had largely died out. Dolmetsch and his family breathed new life into this music and was among the first to examine the intricate beauty of 17th-century consort music. In his collection is a highly important English manuscript from the 17th century of divisions for the bass viol by Daniel Norcombe, Christopher Simpson and others, a compendium containing many items which exist nowhere else (lot 123).

Amongst other items which Dolmetsch collected, and which he and his family reconstructed, manufactured, and played, are the harpsichord, clavichord, virginals, recorder, transverse flute, Celtic harp, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and viola d’amore. The library contains several extremely rare treatises on a number of these instruments, many of which have scarcely appeared on the antiquarian market before. There are of course celebrated treatises by household names, such as Praetorius, Morley, Mace, Mersenne, Quantz, Couperin, Pierre Rameau, Diderot, Adlung, Geminiani, Türk and Sanz. There is also a very important collection of early prints of Marin Marais, Domenico Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and, most interesting and rarest of all, Girolamo Frescobaldi. It is unlikely that such a collection of early editions of Playford and music for 17th-century dance will ever appear on the market again.

Arnold Dolmetsch was a mighty force in the early days of historically informed music-making, a tradition carried on by his son Carl, who manufactured recorders for schools. A Dolmetsch recorder was a prized possession of many a schoolchild in the second half of the 20th century. Many of these were made in the workshops in the Dolmetsch home in Haslemere. It was Arnold Dolmetsch’s engagement with family and friends, on both professional and amateur levels, that characterised his output. He managed to make the abstruse and arcane appear relevant and exciting to a wide circle of artists, amateurs and enthusiasts, something modern writers and scholars might profitably emulate. Although Dolmetsch’s work has been criticised somewhat unjustly in the twenty-first century, in part because so little of his musical activities survives on disc, his name will be indelibly engraved on the roster of Early Music pioneers and will outlive some of his flashier successors. It is difficult to disagree with the words of the late scholar Howard Mayer Brown, who in 1988 wrote: “Even today almost everyone involved in Early Music in England has been touched in some way by Dolmetsch, by his students, or by his students’ students.”

The emergence of a substantial part of his working library reveals the intensity of Dolmetsch’s work as an explorer in the history of instruments and of their repertoire. It was a pioneering endeavour. The rediscovery of the sound worlds of earlier centuries is one of the great achievements of musicology in the last half century. But much of this work was explored even fifty years before by Arnold Dolmetsch.

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