I first visited Dartington back in the mid-1980s when I was a student at Exeter, reading English with Medieval Studies. The Medieval element of my degree course included a module on Medieval art and my tutor group visited Dartington to see the splendid 14th-century Great Hall. I recall a special atmosphere on the Dartington estate and in the courtyard in which the Great Hall is an imposing feature. The place was imbued with tranquility, undoubtedly enhanced by the beautiful setting, but also a sense of purpose.
For four weeks during the summer, that sense of purpose is chanelled into making music as young professional and amateur musicians, leading artists and tutors come together at the Dartington International Summer School (DISS). The Music Summer School was founded in 1947 at Bryanston School, Dorset, by William Glock, and moved to Dartington in 1953. It has been host to some of the greatest musicians and composers, including Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, Imogen Holst, Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ravi Shankar, amongst many others, and continues to attract leading artists.
The Summer School arrived at a place which was already rich in innovation, experiment and vision. In the 1920s Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst purchased the neglected 14th-century Dartington estate and set about restoring the buildings and regenerating the land. Their pioneering ‘Dartington Experiment’ saw the creation of a wealth of farming, forestry and education projects, and early initiatives included the progressive Dartington School, Dartington Tweed and later Dartington Glass. The place quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, poets, architects and musicians, and was a hub for creativity, innovation and learning. The Elmhirsts believed that people thrive best in an environment which nourishes the whole self and Dartington Hall Trust continues to promote this ethos with a broad learning programme including courses on the arts, ecology, food and crafts with an emphasis on cooperation, collaboration and ‘learning by doing’.
Now in its 71st year, the Dartington International Summer School sits comfortably with the philosophy of the Dartington Experiment: in the idyllic tranquil surroundings of Dartington Hall, musicians hungry to explore new musical landscapes come together to collaborate, create and learn by doing. Since its foundation, thousands of participants have shared in Dartington’s magic, from renowned musicians such as Imogen Holst, William Glock (the first Artistic Director), Peter Maxwell Davis, Nadia Boulanger, Richard Rodney Bennett, Anne-Sophie von Otter, Alfred Brendel, Natalie Klein, and Tamara Stefanovich (to name but a few) to keen amateur musicians who go to learn, be inspired to play at the highest possible level, mingle with other musicians and like-minded people, and thoroughly immerse themselves in its compelling and diverse community of performers, composers and thinkers. For many it is a wonderful musical “retreat”, and they return year after year. The summer school is unique in that it brings together amateur and professional musicians, particularly young professionals, who are taught by world-class artists (including, this year, Joanna Macgregor (outgoing Artistic Director), Tom Randle, Adrian Brendel, Skampa Quartet, Florian Mitrea and Sarah Gabriel). In addition to over 30 taught courses each week, there are more than 90 concerts and music-related events, with most taking place in the wonderful Medieval Great Hall. Each of the four weeks of DISS has a specific theme, including early music and piano (week 3, which I attended for a few days).
Everyone I spoke to during my all-too-brief stay at Dartington mentioned the “special atmosphere” and it is very palpable – yet also quite hard to explain! The setting undoubtedly helps, but there is something else, a sense of common purpose and intent, a desire for self-improvement, to learn, and forge friendships, the unifying thread of course being music.
Music is also a great leveller and at Dartington there is little sense of demarcation between amateur and professional players, no “them and us”, for we are all equal in the face of the music. Nor did I encounter any of the hero worshipping I have observed at other piano courses. Instead, there is a mutual appreciation and respect between students and teachers, and I observed some of the most inspiring and generous teaching in the workshops and masterclasses I attended. Florian Mitrea, a young Romanian concert pianist and a regular at Dartington, teaches in such a way as to give each student some useful nuggets to enable further independent practising/self-teaching, but also encourages the student to think in terms of personal artistry, intepretation and performance rather than simply focusing on technique. This approach is too often lacking in the realm of the amateur pianist and I felt Florian’s approach gave each student, regardless of ability, the confidence to explore their own personal approach to their music. Joanna Macgregor is an equally generous teacher, whose infectious energy and commitment resulted in some incredibly transformative playing on the part of the young professionals she was coaching.
The opportunity to explore other music is also a hugely important part of the DISS experience. One is not confined only to one’s chosen course and all the classes are open so that one can drop in on conducting, chamber music, percussion and singing. Learning from other instrumentalists is so important and gives a broader, more informed approach to one’s own music making.
By 5pm a small queue has formed outside the Great Hall for the first concert of the evening (usually about an hour long). The concerts are open to the general public and it was very encouraging to see the Great Hall full for both of the concerts I attended (a fascinating Liszt lecture-recital by Florian Mitrea and Rev. Iain Lane, and Haydn and Beethoven trios by Trio Opal). There is a deliberate effort on the part of DISS organisers to ensure the local community is made to feel welcome too, and at next year’s summer school, in addition to public concerts, there will be a greater emphasis on participatory projects to bring people together, including listening clubs, family-friendly workshops and open choirs, initiatives by the incoming Artistic Director, Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who stressed the need to ensure those outside of the wonderful enclave of Dartington feel included.
Talking to Sara in The Green Table, a friendly café close to the gardens, she expressed a strong desire to build on what Joanna Macgregor has put in place during her five-year tenure as AD, to remain faithful to the original concept of DISS, while also bringing fresh initiatives, including public materclasses in the Great Hall, opportunities for conversations about music, including concert presentation and programming, and the listening experience, and the creation of daily ‘open space’ session within the course programme to give participants time to step back and reflect on what they have been doing, to generate new work, create taster sessions and curate their own time. With Sara’s own keen advocacy for new music, there will be a new course on composition, with Nico Muhly as composer in residence. Sara feels this will also reflect DISS as a “laboratory” where attendees can experiment, explore and collaborate in a safe space. With artists such as Iestyn Davies, Stile Antico, Dunedin Consort, Rachel Podger, Joseph Middleton, Tom Poster and Aidan O’Rourke on next year’s roster of artists, DISS 2020 promises to be busy, vibrant and inspiring.
Course participants can opt to stay on site on a full-board basis, with meals taken in the White Hart next to the Great Hall. There is a choice of accommodation, which is allocated on a first come, first served basis. The meals at the White Hart are very good and there are other places to eat on site, including The Green Table.
Dartington is easily accessible by car off the A38 Exeter-Plymouth road. There is ample parking on site and participants are entitled to free carparking. Totnes is the nearest railway station (direct service from London Paddington).
Thank you to DISS staff for making me so welcome, to Damson PR for organising my trip, and to my piano friends Neil and Julian who have been urging me to visit Dartington for the past two years. I look forward to returning next year as full participant.
Better get practising……!