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The Apostle of Retrogression

The Dolmetsch Family, 1919

The Dolmetsch family (left to right: Cecile, Mabel, Carl, Arnold, Natalie, and Rudolph) playing a mixed consort, Haslemere, England, 1919. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the Dolmetsch family

Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940) is widely acknowledged as the father of the modern-day early music or historical performance movement. Playing repertoire of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods on instruments like those that composers knew during their lifetimes brings the essence of these very different soundscapes to life. This week marks Dolmetsch's birthday, and one can celebrate his legacy by attending a period-performance concert in order to appreciate the artistry, scholarship, and innovation of this performance style. Sparked by Dolmetsch's work, an increasing number of soloists, consorts, chamber groups, and orchestras around the world now focus on historically informed performance practices.

Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch

Max Beerbohm (British, 1872–1956). Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch, 1917. Watercolor; sheet: 11 1/4 x 8 5/16 in. (28.6 x 21.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Roger Kennedy, 1978 (1978.590.5)

Working without the abundance of historical performance resources available to us today, Dolmetsch devoted his life to making and restoring old instruments—hunting down sheet music and teaching himself to play long-forgotten repertoire on them at his home and workshop in Haselmere, England. His all-consuming passion for early music—which even extended to the wearing of period dress—caused W.J. Henderson of the New York Sun to dub him "the apostle of retrogression."

Dolmetsch's fascination with old instruments was in many ways a counter-reaction to the increasing loudness and mechanical complexity of modern instruments during the late nineteenth century. The London music pundit George Bernard Shaw nostalgically wrote, "How much pleasanter it would be to live next to Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch with his lutes, leg viols and love viols, than to an ordinary string quartet." For Dolmetsch, period performance was not just about historical verisimilitude, but was a musical expression of the ideology and aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement and its espousal of traditional cottage industry over the rising tide of nineteenth-century industrialization.

Harpsichord, Chickering & SonsAfter a successful tour of the United States in 1902, Dolmetsch left London and settled in Boston from 1904 to 1911 to head up a department of period instrument-making at the piano factory of Chickering & Sons. There he made harpsichords, clavichords, lutes, and viols while continuing to tour. Dolmetsch's groundbreaking work gave him celebrity status across American musical and social circles. He was even invited into the nation's most prominent music room when President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to the White House to play his clavichord.

Left: Chickering & Sons (American, New York), under the direction of Arnold Dolmetsch. Harpsichord, 1909. Wood, various materials. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Richard H. Dana, 1981 (1981.374)

The musical instrument collection at the Met includes a harpsichord and clavichord that Dolmetsch made during this heady period. The financial downturn of 1911 ultimately prompted Dolmetsch to return to Europe, but he inspired an appetite for historical performance in the United States that continues to grow in popularity.

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