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The singing revolution: International Music Festival, Dartington

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is main site Editor of openDemocracy.

You could see how New Labour had made such a mistake. There they were for years, in outer darkness, beached by their own dinosaur left or treacherous right: reduced to guesswork or superstition. Then suddenly, rocketed to power, and drowned in a rising chorus of focus groups and Excalibur print-outs. Wasn’t it inevitable that a new and grateful Government would look at the growing mountains of evidence before it and utter that ill-fated promise – ‘Delivery, delivery, delivery!’

lemon meringue pie
These were my thoughts as I queued up for lemon meringue pie, clutching my stub of orange luncheon ticket in the third week of the five-week 2002 International Music Festival, in Devon. They were prompted by the discovery that if you take a few hundred people away from their homes and put them in a clearly circumscribed and therefore limited environment (the beautiful Dartington Hall Estate set in the rolling wheat-fields of Totnes) in which a certain number of goodies are on offer – (en suite bedrooms in the five halls of residence, lemon meringue pies as opposed to fruit salad, copies of Purcell’s Hear My Prayer from the Festival ‘shop’ or library, or front row seats in the choir bringing you face to face with this week’s inspiring choirmaster, Scott Stroman) – certainly the native English making up half the residents have a remarkable tendency to immediately act as if nothing is as important to them in life as the conspicuous acquisition of the limited goods, accompanied by the inevitable emergence of in-groups (and outside gaggles) which result from such personal panics.

I say ‘native English’, because it does seem as if the large Dutch group drawn to Dartington by the very talented lady who takes the voice workshops are just happy to be there. Meanwhile my new friends from Munich – a headmistress and a literary critic (it’s difficult to explain why this is not a profession one tends to admit to in England...) – shyly profess themselves ‘Anglophiles’, which I suppose means that they just don’t hear all the griping going on, and which gives me the opportunity to say that I’m very fond of Germans myself...which makes them giggle.

At the beginning of the week, you may think that you don’t care much about lemon meringue pie. It is strange, by Thursday, how you catch yourself being immensely gratified at having taken a walk around the sumptuous gardens in which you met no-one until well after you had reached Henry Moore’s magnificent Seated Woman, and finished listening to your favourite tape of Verklarte Nacht on your headphones... Like the Blob in science fiction, you have been grabbed, unwittingly, by this need for reordering, and terribly small, not to mention, small-minded achievements. Anyone looking on at this strange furore could be forgiven for thinking that there would be several homicides, if not some kind of revolution in Devon, if enough copies of Hear My Prayer were not, by hook or by crook, made available.

Of course, the problem is that on arrival, you discover that there is more good music ‘on offer’ in this little week than most of us encounter in several years of what passes for normal life. This year, Dartington alumni Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor and Stephen Kovacevich return to mingle with first-time visitor, jazz man Mike Westbrook, who gathers everyone not already snaffled up by courses in African drumming and the Balinese gamelan, into a big band. There are master classes and workshops to join, rehearsals of Philidor’s opera Tom Jones to sit in on and at least two concerts every evening. In my week, the festival choir and orchestra are performing Puccini’s Missa di Gloria, Stravinsky’ Canticum Sacrum and Vivaldi’s Magnificat after five rehearsals, while a smaller choir tackles Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and others wrestle with the choice between jazz and gospel choir or Italian madrigals and Tudor anthems...

Harmonic magic

And there is a lot of talent around to learn from. Apart from seasoned professionals and startlingly good youngsters just embarking on their careers, anyone I find myself singing alongside seems to belong to the Sussex Bach Choir, the London Orpheus, or one of three choirs in Kent. They may not take to Stravinsky’s 12-tone intervals – but they can sight-read them! The core idea of Dartington since its inception in 1947 is that amateur and professional musicians should have a chance to get together over the summer, to perform, listen, enjoy and learn. It is like one of my favourite lines from Christopher Marlowe, ‘Infinite riches in a little room’. Imagine all the ‘i’s’ in that phrase bobbing about like ping-pong balls on a wooden floor – and only a tea-strainer to catch them in. That’s the feeling that greets you as the first daily programme of classes, rehearsal times, lectures, films and concerts, not to mention musical invitations to self-organise, are pasted up in the porch of the Great Hall. So perhaps it is not so surprising if there is a certain amount of panicky one-upmanship...

Not surprising, but not at all the point. Because what is really going on in a week like this, is the pursuit of something quite beyond the grasp of any individual, however assiduously they may be willing to strive on their own behalf. There is a certain magic which we all came for and which even the worst of us recognises when it manifests itself.

It may build imperceptibly – in the recognition that English and Dutch-speaking singers share the curse of stubborn jaws blocking the column of air... in the discovery that you can start an Italian madrigal you hardly know with fourteen people you don’t know, without a conductor, if you pay due attention to your in-breath...turning off the path to find golden brown wheat fields stretching as far as the eye can see, ripe for harvesting... meeting a man at lunch who seems to understand the problem with jaws, and who turns out to be the resident flautist tutor... the privilege of hearing singers, men and women, young and old, discover their own voices.

Then there are the unforgettable moments. There are frustrations involved in organising madrigals with far too many sopranos. There are hard beds, narrow beds, and loud cellists next door. But all this is as nothing when four women find a piano and have a go at William Byrd’s Looke Downe, O Lord. Something about the way the second soprano line soars over the first which leans into it, both falling back onto the trampoline of the first alto, who has meanwhile thrown a lifeline b-flat to the second alto, so that we all round the corner on the home stretch together, ‘Freede from my sinne’ – makes us nicer immediately. Puccini’s Messa di Gloria is amazingly vulgar in parts. But I defy anyone not to exult in two hundred surrounding voices peeling through the ‘Gloria’ – ‘g-loria’,’g-loria’,’glori-a-a, i-in-ex-cel-sis -de-e-o’ – or to remember which row they’re sitting in. I shall never forget the whole of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – what a pearl! Nor the full moon hovering next to the medieval church tower as Scott Stroman got his international Jazz and Gospel Choir heaving and swaying his paean to life and peace, until we were all warm and laughing. How happy my new Munich friend looked in those ranks – as happy as I felt. Amen to Dartington, say I...which is why I have come back to work more than ever convinced that New Labour have got it all wrong...

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