Arnold Dolmetsch

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Anyone who enjoys early music today owes something to Arnold Dolmetsch. Master instrument-builder, performer, scholar, teacher, and promoter, Dolmetsch did perhaps more than any single person to revive…
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Anyone who enjoys early music today owes something to Arnold Dolmetsch. Master instrument-builder, performer, scholar, teacher, and promoter, Dolmetsch did perhaps more than any single person to revive serious interest in early music, and inspired the search for authenticity in its performance.

Of Swiss origin, but relocated to France, the Dolmetsch family manufactured musical instruments under the name Maison Dolmetsch-Guillouard. Working in his parents' factory in Le Mans, young Arnold mastered the craft of instrument-making early on. Later he found an escape from obligations to the family business by marrying a wealthy widow, Marie Morel. The union gave him freedom to pursue musical studies in Brussels -- piano, violin, and composition -- where he was first exposed to early music. After completing further studies in London, where he settled with his wife, Dolmetsch was appointed violin master at Dulwich college.

Around this time Dolmetsch began to collect and reconstruct early instruments. He was also becoming popular as a performer through concerts of early music he gave with his students and members of his family. Some of the concerts became legends of a kind of Epicurean musical society, praised in writing by people as various as G.B. Shaw, Ezra Pound, and George Moore. They were also ideal occasions for advertising his lutes, clavichords, and viols. His instruments eventually became such status-symbols that practically every member of the London cultural illuminati owned at least one. When in 1919 Dolmetsch lost his antique recorder, he was spurred into building a basic consort of the instruments anew, which led directly to the mass recorder revival of the twentieth century.

Part dandy, part hard-nosed musical taskmaster -- he often reduced his students to tears and yet won their lasting devotion -- he was able to communicate to many, by the fervor of his devotion, quality of his work, and lasting value of his ambitious project. Many of his pupils, as builders, performers, and scholars, went on to make their own invaluable contributions to the field. Composer Percy Grainger, in a letter to Dolmetsch, summed up the major lesson he inferred from Dolmetsch: "...true art has no oldness or newness...all periods of human life produce great art, and artistic culture depends upon knowledge, understanding and love of the past...." It's a lesson which, in a time of disposable art and cultural ennui many would do well to remember.