Saga of a Twentieth-Century Lute Pioneer

by Suzanne Bloch

At this time my salvation came, in the person of Diana Poulton. I had heard about this "other lute player" who had studied with Dolmetsch for about three years but so far had not played at the festivals as a soloist. I was curious and a bit apprehensive, for in those early days we each felt that we were the "only one" truly to revive the lute. But when we met, we had an immediate rapport. At once she righted me about lessons with Dolmetsch, saying that for three years he had kept her on "All of Green Willow" and at times had made her weep. She and her husband Tom had done their own research in London, and Diana had inherited a sheaf of lute tablatures copied by Peter Warlock. They lived in Heyshott in a wonderful little thatched-roof cottage with a garden full of herbs and flowers and a tame magpie named Jack. Diana kept goats that she milked and she made her own cheese. This extraordinary down-to-earth way of living made a great impression on me. it was like a dream, away from the materialistic way of life that threatened to get worse and worse. After a meal, Diana would play her lute, reading fluently from all sorts of tablatures, or accompany Tom who sang in an extremely musical way. At last I heard the lute as it should sound.

As I advanced in my playing, Diana told me of the wonderful duets in "Jane Pickering's lute book." She had some of them copied, and one good day for the first time in probably three centuries, they came to life in the little cottage in Heyshott.

We then began to work seriously on some of the duets and played a set of them in an informal performance at the Haslemere Festival, to the delight of everyone and the high praise of Rudolph Dolmetsch, the oldest and most gifted musician of the Dolmetsch family. Our performance had not been known of by Arnold Dolmetsch, who would have vetoed our playing. Rudolph then insisted that we play at the following Haslemere Festival in 1935.

That winter I had many chances to play the lute. My real debut was, of all places, in Carnegie hall to illustrate the instrument in Ernest Schelling's children's concerts. I was skeptical of an audience being able to hear a lute in so large an auditorium, so Schelling plunked me on the stage, told me to play, and ran to all the different parts of the hall, even upstairs, while I played my "safest" pieces. Every so often I would yell, "Vous m'entendez, Monsieur Schelling?" to which he would shout, "Mais bien sur."

I already sensed, however, that this instrument had qualities that were not for a huge hall such as Carnegie. By then the lute had begun to represent something of great spirituality to me. At first I was not aware of it; I just wanted to play. Now, however, I can see that the young generation of today feels what I felt so many years ago--that same reaching out for a subtlety, a purity, a simplicity, a delicacy, and a rhythmic vitality. I felt so rich when I could play a short piece perfectly. To own a treasure is to be able to do justice to a piece of lute music. I discovered something else when I joined Carl Dolmetsch on a short American tour. I had to learn the virginals in three days and also play the recorder, but the real thing was to test myself as a lute soloist. Then I discovered the miracle of playing a simple piece well on the lute, of feeling the magic created by the sound of the instrument--this wondrous hush, a spell on the audience. It was as if suddenly the breath of the past were upon us all, making us forget the noises, the tensions of our times.

The next summer when Diana and I began to rehearse the lute duets we were to play at the Festival, we decided to work especially hard and show what the lute really could do. Arnold Dolmetsch had capitulated by then to Rudolph's and Carl's demands that we play the duets. Not to be outdone, he decided to do the four-lute pieces of Nicolas Vallet, and he would play the most difficult part, the treble, on a little lute that he had constructed for the occasion.

Oh, those rehearsals for the four lutes! Dolmetsch had great difficulty with the runs in the Vallet; after all, the man was eighty-two years old, and it was remarkable that he could play as well as he did. He insisted on the use of gut strings, so we would go over yards of surgical gut, flicking a length the way Mersenne advises to make sure the string would not be false. At rehearsals on those hot July days, Dolmetsch would have us all tune separately, listening to us and directing us--much to my disgust, as I knew we could all tune perfectly well. By the time all four had tuned (4 x 19 strings!!), somebody's treble would "pop," and we would have to start all over again. One day, exasperated with the breaking of the strings, I went to London and bought several trebles at the shop of a stringmaker who made silk lute strings. At the next rehearsal, Dolmetsch began to express surprise that my treble stood so well. He had been violently against the use of silk strings, but he was not to be outdone. That night he stayed up, constructing a winding machine for making silk strings, insisting his strings would be better than those I had bought. The next day he came with a string and gave it to Diana, who was obliged to use it, and since it was not as strong as the others it also went "pop"--and so it went.

The day of the concert when we were to play the duets, Diana and I were very nervous for we had chosen some difficult duets and had worked hard to bring out subtleties of rhythmic expression and some lovely coloring in the "Spanish Pavan." We walked onto the stage, set our music on the stands, checked our tuning, and were ready to start when a voice came from the front row, "Lower your music stands so we can see you." This was Dolmetsch, timing his comment perfectly. Diana and I lowered our stands, looked at each other sending a mutual message, "He won't shake us; no, he won't." The duets went off as well as we had hoped. The next day when Gerald Hayes wrote in his review, "At last the lute was given due justice at the Haslemere Festival," we felt that we had accomplished our goal. From then on, Dolmetsch gave in and allowed others to play lute at the festival. I felt a bit sorry for him that day--he looked beaten--but Diana said, "I am not a bit sorry; after all, he made me cry for three years."

This is not a success story--just the beginning of the long, wondrous, hard road that can never end for any lutenist. Some have gone way beyond what Diana and I have done. But in those early years there was a great magic in pioneering that sometimes I feel has been lost with the recent commercialized interest in the lute, for which playing fast and loud seems to be the one criterion. Yet, there are still so many young people who seem to be searching as I did so many years ago for this subtle beauty that is beyond all things to enrich our spirits. A minute of beauty can be a complete universe.

from the Journal of the Lute Society of America, Vol. II (1969), pp. 37-43.