John Woolrich on Dartington Summer School

John Woolrich – photo by Kate Mount

As it celebrates it sixtieth anniversary Christian Morris talks to Artistic Director John Woolrich about the past, present and future of the Dartington International Summer School.

Tell us a little about the history of the Summer School and especially how it came to be founded.

It started in the late 40s. It was part of the desire to get Britain moving again after the Second World War combined with other cultural factors such as the invention of the Arts Council. What happened was that Artur Schnabel, an Austrian pianist, was at the Edinburgh Festival – it may have been the first – and he said “Great. Britain’s got a major international music festival, now what it needs is an international summer school where the audience can be helped to understand about music and you can have masterclasses and all of that kind of thing.” He also said he knew the man who could run it, William Glock, who had been a pupil of Schnabel. Glock had been the Observer Music Critic and would go on to be the Controller of the Third Programme, Controller of the Proms and so forth. Glock started it at Bryanston public school, where he ran it for three or four years before moving to Dartington Hall. 

At Dartington there was this extraordinary couple, an American called Dorothy Elmhirst, who was fantastically wealthy and her husband Leonard, who was English. They were interested in experimentation in agriculture and education in the arts so it was the perfect home for a summer school. The idea was to get some of the greatest names from Europe and America to Britain because Britain, because of the War, had been isolated. It was to try to open up connections. So very quickly Glock got people like Hindemith, Enescu and Menuhin to teach in this place in remote Devon. Glock ran the Summer School into the late seventies, for 25 or 26 years. He got incredible people to come: in three or four years in the sixties, for example, Barenboim, Brendel and Ashkenazy came to Dartington and Fischer-Dieskau gave his first concert in Britain there. The composition teachers were extraordinary too: he got everyone except Messiaen and Boulez. And Stravinsky came in 1957. So at a time when you wouldn’t have got within 15 feet of Stravinsky in New York or Los Angeles you could have a cup of tea with him in Devon. He was there for two weeks. Berio, Maderna and Nono taught for three consecutive years in the early sixties. And so on. The unique thing that Glock invented was the mixture of amateurs and extraordinary students such as, for example, Tom Adès.

And in the Stravinsky year there was Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Goehr, Wood and Rodney Bennett as students.

All as students. Glock had friends and by that time he was controller of the Third Programme, though he didn’t say: if you come to Dartington for a week in the rain I’ll give you a Prom. It wasn’t like that; he was much too scrupulous. He just knew people. Neither is it a financial thing; you don’t earn big money by teaching at Dartington. These extraordinary people still come like, for example, Stephen Kovacevich, who has been coming to the Summer School since the mid sixties. In a sense the artists are paid with the opportunity to try new things, to make connections with other musicians and that kind of thing. 

Going back to Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Goehr et al, to what extent would you say that the summer school helped to nurture such important figures?

Maxwell Davies would have met Elliott Carter and Copland was there too. Copland helped him get out to the States on a Harkness Fellowship; he was his referee. There’s the teaching element – Carter taught Maxwell Davies, Maxwell Davies taught Oliver Knussen – but also it’s the long-term connections that are hatched in the bar. Robin Holloway as a schoolboy turned up at Dartington wanting to study with Luigi Nono and Luigi Nono, who was writing a very different kind of music from Robin’s, said “No, I’m not going to teach you but the only man in England who could is standing there.” He pointed at Alexander Goehr. And then of course Robin went to Goehr for lessons, to Cambridge University and became a Fellow, teacher and Professor and has spent his whole career – his whole professional life – in Cambridge. The relationship with Alexander Goehr is absolutely pivotal in his life. It’s not just within the week, it what comes afterwards. When I think of Dartington I think of Aldeburgh. It’s a bit like seedbeds. It’s where ideas are sown, even if they flower somewhere else. 

Tell us a little about your role as Artistic Director

It’s been a three-year appointment. This year is my last. Three glorious years! I’ve had total artistic control. Within the constraints of the budget I have a free hand to control the program in terms of the artists we have invited and what they’ve taught and played. Because the fees are low part of the job is just listening to what the artists, composers and the players want out of a week at the Summer School. This is interesting to me because then this gets their enthusiasm going. 

Are there bursaries for composers attending? What is the typical cost?

There are bursaries available for any student because attending the course is quite expensive. Students, by and large, can’t afford it. Students who attend summer schools in New York tend to be totally subsidised. Britain has less of that kind of money, but we do have bursaries that vary from roughly 40% to 90%. Composers have always been rather well looked-after. 

How are the composers selected? Does the interest of the teacher have an impact upon who is selected?

There are a number of courses this year. We’ve got Johannes Maria Staud, the advanced course tutor. A great young Austrian composer. We’ve got Harrison Birtwistle in the same week. He’s not teaching, but composition course members will be surprised to find that he is in the room. I didn’t want to make him teach in a classroom every morning, I wanted it to be a looser arrangement. We’ve got Philip Cashian doing a course for music teachers who may feel a bit nervous about having to teach composition. He’s done that for a couple of years and is brilliant at it. We’ve got Dominic Muldowney and Ray Davies from The Kinks doing separate song-writing courses. People apply and the tutors look at any material that is sent in and pick who they want to teach. They also decide how many they can teach; it’s up to them. 

Thinking particularly of Advanced Composition, what would be the typical experience of a composer on the course? 

We have a group this year of five players attached to the Advanced Composition Course. It’s a two-week course, so the players turn up in the second week. The first week is whatever the course tutor decides, which might be talking, getting the group listening to each other’s pieces. Then he’ll set them a composing task. That piece, which will be performed in a concert at the end of the fortnight, will be started, perfected, finished and rehearsed within the fortnight. I’m always happier for people not to bring along their pieces so that the thing is intensive and it’s all happening within the fortnight. A sort of separate world from their usual world, a sudden injection of a different kind of energy from what they’ve had in the past. 

And you are responsible for all of the other programming. What is available for other musicians?

Yes. I programme all of that too. It’s a fine art! For example, if you have a choir of 140 for a week, what can they do? What you don’t want to give them is something that they could do with the local choral society. It needs to be ambitious but not so ridiculously ambitious that they are going to feel awful and sick in concerts! So, for instance, William Glock at one stage in the early seventies commissioned John Tavener, Harrison Birtwistle and Morton Feldman in consecutive years to write for the Summer School choir. They produced really wonderful pieces. So in the early seventies an amateur choir was singing Morton Feldman in Devon! I’ve revised them and got the choir singing them again. They were hard, but they did do them. 

So there is interaction between composers and amateurs at Dartington.

The kind of courses that my colleagues and I don’t like are those where people just go into a room and don’t connect with the rest of the Summer School. So, if you’ve got Harrison Birtwistle there you want other people to know about it, so he will give a talk and his music will be performed in concerts. Obviously he will be working with six or seven possibly postgraduate composers who know his music, but I want everyone to be aware that he is there. Just as in 1957 everyone would have heard a lot of Stravinsky and have seen the man. Obviously some people go to Dartington just because they like playing string quartets. My view is that I want everyone to try something new or to listen to a new composer, even if that means less familiar works by dead composers. Just as you want the students to be extended and for professionals to do new repertoire I’m quite interested, without being too fascistic about it, for everyone to have the opportunity to try things out. So we have open workshops: anyone for example can come along and try the viol, or gamelan instruments. Also we’ve had open electronic workshops, where you can go into a room and be guided by a tutor. I like the idea that there are things you don’t have to have prior knowledge of. Also this year we’re introducing an enormous amount of stuff for families and children. 

Is there an effort to get children composing?

It’s something I’ve done professionally all of my life. It’s incredibly important. Although I finish this year, I think that if Dartington is to have a future it needs to look at that kind of thing. One of the problems is that when Dartington started it was doing stuff that the colleges and conservatoires in London weren’t doing. But if you look at the Royal Academy, these conservatoires have caught up, so Dartington has to do things that aren’t covered elsewhere. If there’s any point in something like Dartington it’s to look at the musical culture of Britain and Europe and the world and say “that’s missing.” One thing that has occurred to me is that it is very hard if you are a young British string quartet to get going. One of the things I was interested in is that 18-20-year-old string quartets do get a lot of attention but maybe for a 16 or 17-year-old quartet, who perhaps come from an area without access to good conservatoires, how can we support them too? We’re trying to build connections with Aldeburgh and give platforms to them. 

Tell us a little about Johannes Maria Staud, this year’s Advanced Composition tutor.

I’ve done three years, and each year I’ve wanted someone who wasn’t a familiar composition teacher in Britain. In the first year I got Gerald Barry. I may be wrong, but I think he hadn’t taught before and he certainly was extremely nervous. Then, of course, he was completely brilliant. The point is though that if you were at the Royal Academy you’re probably not going to meet Gerald Barry as a teacher. The next year I got Detlev Glanert, whom I am pretty certain has never taught in Britain, and this year Staud. All of these are major and important European composers who are, possibly, slightly neglected in Britain. I’m pretty interested in professional composers who do not specialise as teachers. There are wonderful composers who are working three days a week teaching but these are extraordinary compositional minds not usually available to students. And in Dartington we can provide the kind of support to them – the how to organise your classroom type stuff – in the form of support teachers, if needed. So I go for people who are very powerful composers who maybe aren’t used to teaching and certainly aren’t used to teaching in Britain. And Staud is such a wonderful composer. Have you seen what is going on is his life? He’s writing for the Vienna Philharmonic and I think he’s got a Salzburg Festival Opera commission and so on. He’s just on the cusp, where Berio was when he was coming to Dartington. 

For audiences interesting in attending and taking in some contemporary music, when is the best time to be in Dartington?

Week 4 is the is the time to see Philip Cashian, Harrison Birtwistle and Johannes Maria Staud but there’s a thread running throughout. So Dominic Muldowney is doing song-writing in week 1, Ray Davies is doing the same in week 3 and John Richards is doing an electronic course. There’s a bit of new music all of the time. We are open to local people, who can just come along and buy a ticket. Week 4 is the big new music week. 

Though you are moving on, are you able to tell us anything about future plans for the Summer School and also about your own plans now you are leaving Dartington behind?

I dearly, dearly love programme planning, but between Aldeburgh and Dartington I’ve had the two best jobs now. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do, if I’m going to have any platforms to do that in the future. There are some things that may work out but, actually, I’m going to do a bit of composing, because that’s taken something of a back seat for seven or eight years. I can’t answer the question about the Summer School – that will be for Dartington and the new Artistic Director to decide – but change will happen.

For more information: 

Dartington Summer School
Dartington Advanced Courses

John Woolrich Personal Website
John Woolrich at Faber Music
Johannes Maria Staud at Universal Edition

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology