Dartington International Summer School 2009

I travelled to Dartington via the Isle of Man Steam Packet and rail from Liverpool, changing at Birmingham for the Cross Country train towards Plymouth which, helpfully, stopped at Totnes (I didn’t have to change at Exeter this year). The rail crossing after Exeter to Totnes was once again spectacular. It follows the contours of the coast and goes in tunnels and all along the edge of the estuary at Tynemouth. There were also spectacular coastal views from the train at Dawlish.

There were many early brass players in week one. Many of whom stayed for week two as well. Week one was centred around learning the Cornetto (and sackbut for the trombones). This was the first time I had ever played the cornetto! David Staff had suggested that I applied to go in week one as well as two this year as firstly, they were undersubscribed and secondly, it would be a baptism of fire on the cornetto – which I think is what I got, but also what I needed! I took to the cornetto very quickly after the initial period of understanding how it works. It is very different to the natural trumpet. The mouthpiece I have is about a quarter of the size of my current baroque trumpet mouthpiece and is made of quite a different material to brass - Buffalo horn! The cornetto itself is a two foot long instrument resembling a recorder which has been bent to the right hand side (as you play it). The fingering is very difficult as it is quite a stretch for the fingers and the system of fingering is somewhere between that of a flute and an ocarina. This is because it is conical inside. This means that it works on length (as a flute does, the sound comes out of the closest open hole) and it also works on volume (like an ocarina), so if you open a hole near the top, that is the sounding length but if you keep one hole open and ‘vent’ the holes further back, you can effect the pitch of that note. This makes it fiendishly difficult at first. The most difficult thing to control are the ‘forks’ so called as you miss one finger out to make a difficult pattern. This really highlights how uncoordinated the ring fingers on each hand can be.

Colleagues on the Early Brass course were very supportive of me being a raw beginner and were seemingly impressed by my ability to keep up. They said it took them weeks to be able to literally hold the cornetto, as it is a very difficulty instrument to hold (without affecting the notes you’re playing and without dropping it! – there are no rests or hooks like on Clarinets and Saxophones). I think it is fair to say I got a good introduction to the instrument over the first week, which I have since built on. I took part in a performance of Gabrieli’s “O Magnum Mysterium” (complete with Chamber Organ, which was at first erroneously tuned in A=415, whereas we needed it in A=440!), a fine piece of music indeed. I also played in parts of the Monteverdi “Vespers” - “Deus in Adiutorium” of 1610, with a full ensemble of professional singers (Stile Antico) and other instrumentalists (Strings and Sackbutts). A great experience and an amazing sound! There is no instrument which has a more vocal quality. The Cornetto has been described as the ‘megaphone of the soul’ and I now understand why.

I learnt about the symbolism of the Cornetto, something I knew very little about prior to Dartington. The Natural Trumpet represents the Angels and Heaven in the high ‘Clarino’ register and War and Earth in the lower ‘Principale’ register. The Cornetto symbolises infinity. The black instrument is octagonal. If you put the number 8 on its side, it is the infinity symbol. Cornettos are decorated with snake-like beading above the thumb hole. This is representative of a snake and snakes can lie in a figure of eight and eat their tail. This represents eternal life in history, and so, does the cornetto in music! There are a whole family of instruments related to the Cornetto, including the Serpent, Contrabass Serpent (nicknamed the Anaconda!) and a range of Cornettos from Cornettino (small) to Tenor Cornett (large). They all have their own snake nicknames!

Early Brass participants at Dartington are famous for getting along with each other very well and getting to know each other very quickly! This year was no exception. Sue Addison (Sackbutt teacher) and David Staff (Natural Trumpet & Cornetto Teacher) took us on a walk on the Tuesday of week 1 to a ‘nearby pub’ called the “Old Sea Trout Inn”. It was a great walk, but the pub we walked to must have been about six miles away though the dense terrain of the Dartington Hall estate! It was such a great way to get to know everyone by walking and having a good laugh all the while! Especially as one of the trombonists (Pat Kenny) was losing his flip-flops in the mud! In the weekend between week one and two, we also had a Barbeque at Sue’s rented apartment (for all of us who were staying for the second week) in a nearby hamlet. We went into Totnes to get some Barbeque supplies and had a great meeting of Early Brass minds.

Week one had a lot of opportunity to play the Natural Trumpet, as well as the Cornetto. I met Matthew Manchester at Dartington and he was similarly there for two weeks doing Cornetto in week 1 and Natural Trumpet in week 2. We got along very well and played a lot together. He was great to share tips on playing the Cornetto and I reciprocated with my knowledge of the Natural Trumpet (of which he also knew a fair amount!). Myself and Matt did a concert together (6th August 2009 at 1.10pm) in the nearest town of Totnes. It was at a place called the “Bogan House” where there was a museum which someone lived in and operated a small room of it as a concert hall. Matt’s wife, Anna Sandström (operating by her maiden name) is a professional singer (Soprano), also from Australia (but living in London) and we had a continuist Jonathan Watts (Organ) who was quite a character! We performed a programme of music by Handel, Torelli, Scarlatti, Henry Purcell and his son, Daniel Purcell. The concert was based around Trumpet and Soprano Arias (on which Matt wrote his Dissertation, so he is a font of knowledge!) and other works for the Natural Trumpet. I played the Concerto with Trumpet by Torelli (from the Basillica of San Petronio in Bologna) in my introduction to the piece I told the audience that the Basillica had had an impressive 16 second echo and I looked around our very small surroundings (it has got to be the smallest concert hall in Britain!) and joked that I wasn’t expecting to get 16 seconds of reverb out of that room today, which raised a chuckle! I also performed “Con voce Festiva” by Scarlatti with Matt’s wife, which had a beautiful flowing vocal and Trumpet part. Matt nicknamed me “super-chops” as I seemed to be able to keep going with my playing and I relentlessly in our rehearsals – I didn’t want to finish (as I wasn’t tired!) when it was time to lock up! By the end of the two weeks, everyone on the course was calling me that!

On that same day (Thursday 6th), having just performed one concert in the Bogan House myself and Matt had to rush back to Dartington to take part in our Early Brass concert, which we had been preparing for over the two weeks. The programme was long and varied and as Staffy said if you’d been booked to play any one of those pieces on the programme you’d spend a week preparing for them if they were in normal circumstances. I started the concert on Cornetto for the Monteverdi, then had to crook my trumpet into Db without holes for the Dresden Cavalry Fanfare (Zelenka) for which I directed and played first trumpet without the aid of the modern compromise of finger holes. Then I had a short rest before I played first Cb Trumpet (with holes) in the  Vejvanovsky “Sonata a X”. (Vejvanovsky is Dartington International Summer School’s Artistic Director’s (Gavin Henderson) favourite composer – as he was famously a Trumpeter who was quite a character!). This was an amazing piece. After the Vejvanovsky came a piece where I was to play a different instrument altogether! 

Henry VIII wrote “En vrai Amore” for two cornetti, 4 sackbutts, continuo and drums. Unfortunately we were unable to get hold of a tenor drum, but we were able to get hold of a tambourine (which Nick Wright played) and a plastic rubbish bin, which I played as a tenor drum! I provided silly hats (Hey Nonny, No!) and an Australian style hat complete with corks on strings, for Nick – on Tambourine! This was just what the audience needed at this point where they could have been dropping off to sleep! The audience loved it and there was a lot of banter with the audience when this finished, including my remark of “Trashy Music” and Staffy saying that Henry VIII was a “has bin!”. It was agreed that myself and Nick would finish the piece with a drum flourish, which we did. I acted (very Monty Python inspired!) that I had accidentally overrun by a bar and shouted “Oh!”, which caused a great stir in the audience, and I looked around the band and everyone was smiling and laughing uncontrollably! It was a brilliant moment, which unfortunately doesn’t transfer onto paper so well!
Finally, the concert finished with more singing from the fabulous group, Stile Antico. From Leipzig, Bach’s “Jesu Christ mein Lebens licht” (BWV 118) is a beautiful piece of music originally written for Funerals. It is a piece that is very close to my heart and many other brass instrumentalists. Written for two Lituus Trumpets. I learnt all about Lituui my recent trip to Edinburgh – they are wooden trumpets which were used for Funerals as the Trumpeter’s Guilds did not allow metal trumpets to be played outside of the guild (As the Trumpet was a signalling instrument, this was not allowed. The modern day equivalent of taking a Radio from the Army and taking it down the pub to have a mess around on it!) Unfortunately the only two reconstructions of a Lituus are now back in Basel in Switzerland so we had to suffice playing on Bb Natural Trumpets (known in the profession as “Catastrophones” as they are hard to control), which seem very low when you have been playing in Db! I played 2nd Lituus to Katie Hodges, and Staffy and Matt shared the one Cornett part (which is really difficult) and then there were three sackbuts parts (1st Sue Addison and Daniel Serafini, 2nd Martyn Sanderson and Bass: Guy Morley, Continuo (Jonathan again) and Choir (Stile Antico).

Finally, on the next day (Friday) we had our last Concert. As Staffy said… “It’s just a Christmas Oratorio!” and after the chop-busting concert we had on Thursday he was really right. If we could do that, we could do anything! Staffy also started one of his sentences when we first rehearsed with the Trumpets (which made me chuckle) “I’ve played this a couple of times now”. What an understatement! He’s done over a thousand of them! We had divided up the parts of the Christmas Oratorio so that everyone got a chance to play. Staffy was very pragmatic about how he was going to divide up the parts and he did it on a performance basis. We decided to do part 1 and 3 without holes, which was quite a challenge in itself (but Staffy told us not to practice in the 24 hours before as it’s only going to tire you out and you won’t achieve anything significant in 24 hours!). Part 6 was reserved for Staffy who played with finger holes (as that part is ridiculously tiring and really needs the holes. As Staffy said, if any of you can do it without holes and prove it to me twice in a row, I’ll let you do it. Of course, none of us could even do it once without holes really; with the amount of playing we had been doing that week.

The teams were as follows:

Part 1:  I. Chor: Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, VIII. Arie (Bass): Grosser Herr, o starker König (solo) and IX. Choral: Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein
Katie Hodges 1st Trumpet - Ventless
Russell Gilmour 2nd Trumpet - Ventless
Matthew Manchester 3rd Trumpet - Ventless

Part 3: XXIV. Chor: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen and XXXVb. Chor: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen
Russell Gilmour 1st Trumpet - Ventless
Katie M 2nd Trumpet - Ventless
Matthew Manchester 3rd Trumpet - Ventless

Part 6: LIV. Chor: Herr, Wenn Die Stolzen Feinde Schnauben and LXIV. Choral: Nun Seid Ihr Wohl Gerochen
David Staff 1st Trumpet with Holes
Nick Wright 2nd Trumpet with Holes
Katie M 3rd Trumpet with Holes

It was a fair way of dividing us, and I was felt privileged to be asked to play first Trumpet in Part 3. Staffy picked the first Trumpets and then let the first Trumpet players pick their teams. Katie went first and picked me as 2nd Trumpet (which was also an honour) and Matt on 3rd. I picked my team (including the other Katie so that she got to play) and then Matt on 3rd (as he’d just got a new mouthpiece he was still getting used to it so wanted to play the low parts!), then Staffy picked his team, including to include Nick, who has had some muscular playing problems recently. 

The concert was scintillating and it was great to hear the Christmas Oratorio in it’s entirety with professional singers. The Soprano echo aria (XXXIX. Arie (Soprano & Echo-Soprano): Flösst, Mein Heiland, Flösst, Dein Namen) was beautifully done, as the Echo-Soprano was singing from the balcony and was the twin of the Soprano who was on stage, so the voices were beautifully matched). With that, and the trumpets we stole the show from the poor orchestra who had been running the real marathon of playing that piece!

The atmosphere at Dartington is brilliant. It is possibly the most tired in terms of sleep I have ever felt, but strangely the best I have ever played. There is an eclectic mix of work and play. You feel like you are on holiday because everybody is so relaxed and friendly, but we did so much as well. The Early Brass concert felt easy after nearly two weeks of intensive playing. Anywhere else that concert would have been almost impossible to orchestrate. It was taken in our stride at Dartington, as everyone is motivated by their love of playing, not their love of money!

I have already mentioned Gavin (who is the artistic director of Dartington International Summer School). I got talking to him and told him I was from the Isle of Man, to which his eyes lit up. He has been many times and loves the Gaiety theatre. Whilst I was at Dartington, he announced his retirement (which will happen at Summer School 2010), which came to everyone as a shock, after 26 years of service. As far as I can tell he may be looking for other projects and the Isle of Man is a distinct possibility. It would be brilliant to bring up-and-coming students to the Isle of Man, not least to generate tourism but also to give the young musicians of the Isle of Man something to aspire to and something to be involved in closer to home. 

I would love for the Island to get involved with Music Summer schools. It is an ideal venue, as people have to get here and there is no easy way of leaving (like DISS) this makes for a great community. Also it’s an inspirational place where people can relax and learn (like Dartington). It is definitely worth considering in the coming years.
Dartington is the best playing I have had all year and the people were fantastic. As I finish this report, I wish I was still there playing with all those other Early Brass fanatics! I am well and truly hooked on Dartington!
This report does not come close to describing all of the great wealth of information and skills I have acquired at Dartington, but should serve as an aide memoir when I look back. There were so many great stories which don’t transfer onto paper well and there are so many of them! I really can’t believe how much we crammed into the two weeks!


Above: The Early Brass instrumentalists at Dartington 2009 in concert in Dartington’s Great Hall, playing Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I am situated fifth from the left (playing Cornetto, by the conductor’s left hand). [Week 2: Early Brass Concert]


Prior to providing music from the Great Hall Tower: (L-R) Matthew Manchester, Russell Gilmour and David Staff (Early Brass course leader). We were all mainly playing the Cornetto this week, but decided to play Natural Trumpets from the Tower, as it would be heard from further away. We played fanfares by Dauverné. [Week 1: Tower Music]

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.