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174 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

16 January 2020

A Life Lived and Seen: a tribute to Anna Teasdale

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The Bath-based landscape artist and long-time art tutor Anna Rose Frances Teasdale, has died aged 88. For those fortunate enough to have studied with her, or to have spent time with her (as I did, when I recorded her life story for Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories), she was a magical, extraordinary woman whose loss makes the world a meaner place.

Black and white photograph of Anna Teasdale holding a painting

Anna Teasdale, 1962, photographed by Anthea Sieveking. Courtesy Denny Family Collection

Anna Teasdale never received proper recognition for her painting practice. She certainly enjoyed sharing her pictures, but she was driven to paint not by career ambition, but by an innate need to practice, and she viewed the art market with unease. Anna was honest about the project of living, and her art, she used to say, came out of her life. Reflecting on the trajectory of her work, she observed that ‘it was almost as if I had made a covenant with the future’. Indeed, her life story recording is all the more compelling because, as a social document, it offers rare insights into the condition of being an educated, working-class, figurative, woman artist in mid-twentieth century England—when none of those attributes gave you a start in life. Because Anna was visually astute, her observations often have a sharpness of focus: ‘It’s not what a thing looks like, it’s what it is, and when you find out what it is, you know what it looks like’. She saw the order underlying the landscapes she painted, and this understanding ran alongside her Catholic faith—a close concert between the seen and the unseen that imbued her landscapes with myriad emotions. In her view, the process of painting takes the painter through the gamut of emotions, and, like an afterimage, the memory of these emotions remains within the painting; she experienced life from the solitude of the easel, ‘because it all happens’ in the process of seeing.

Anna Teasdale’s decision to become a painter, C466/379, Track 18 [00:01:38 - 00:03:31]

Anna’s life intersected with many of the century’s important British artists and movements, yet she proudly remained out of step with them all. She was unusual for a woman of her generation and means because she sustained her painting practice throughout her life. For Anna, painting was not a choice, but a fundamental necessity—‘the only thing I could do’. Anna was unconcerned with, and suspicious of, contemporary art; its quest for new forms of expression and conceptual underpinnings seemed to stray from the ‘true faith’ of figuration. For her, painting was almost a spiritual act, her own inner resource that gave shape and meaning to her life. As she wrote a few months before her death: ‘I am jogging on trying to be kind and helpful! My painting is going well but slowly and is still the joy of my life. I look at my painting and climb into it and tranquility (and terror) take over.’

Anna Teasdale on being a landscape painter, C466/379, Track 9 [00:59:02 - 01:00:42]

Anna ran away from a penurious and abusive childhood home as a teenager to follow her dream of attending art school. Enduring poverty and sometimes homelessness, she enrolled at St. Martin’s School of Art, where she displayed a rare facility for drawing and subsisted by working as an art school model and living (illegally) in a semi-derelict bomb site. By the end of the 1950s, Anna had met and married fellow student and rising art star, Robyn Denny, and for a time, Anna became an integral part of the Swinging Sixties art set. Among her closest friends in the early days were Pop painter Peter Blake and abstract Pop painter Richard Smith, as her bohemian life settled into a more secure round of art world gatherings. Beside her husband’s glamourous accolades (Denny represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966), her achievements were modest, but they were real: by the mid-1960s her paintings were included in exhibitions at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery and the ICA among others.

When Robyn Denny was lured to the West Country by the offer of a lucrative teaching position at Corsham, Bath Academy of Art, in the mid-1960s, Anna and Robyn bought a Georgian town house in Bath which was frequented by a coterie of successful artists who relocated from London to Wiltshire (their friends included Howard and Julia Hodgkin, Joe and Jos Tilson, Richard and Betsy Smith). Anna continued painting when she could, supporting her famous husband and juggling the domestic demands of motherhood.

When Denny left his young family, Anna was again plunged into self-reliance and financial straits, but always used her art to sustain herself and her two children: entrepreneurially if informally, establishing an art school in her own home—‘The Seymour Road Academy’, as she wryly referred to it. Anna understood the fundamental differences of approach behind her and her husband’s approach to art making: ‘I drew and he thought’, she demurred. In her reflection upon these different modes of art making, Anna defines the schism that shaped contemporary art in the second part of the twentieth-century.

A close friend reflected on Anna’s life with the clear-eyed observation that ‘she lived a rackety life’. But a bit like the rhythmic structures that order and shape her landscape compositions, her life’s outward racket concealed an inner order, strengthened by the twin pillars of faith and humour. She did not withdraw from her artistic commitment even when pinned by duty; she took heart in an aesthetic view of life that allowed her—almost incomprehensibly today—to see motherhood not as an obstruction but as an extension of the creative life. Considering one of her landscapes, she noted what is a fitting epitaph: ‘it was a whole life painting this picture’.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Anna Teasdale for Artists’ Lives in 2016-2018. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/379 at sami.bl.uk

23 December 2019

Recording of the week: painting Winston Churchill

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This week's selection comes from Cathy Courtney, Project Director for Artists’ Lives, and Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Elsbeth Juda (1911-2014), was born in Germany. She and her husband Hans Juda (referred to as ‘Hansie’ in this audio extract) settled in England as the threat of Nazism grew in Europe. Elsbeth became a respected photographer, under the name ‘Jay’, mainly known for her fashion images, many of them taken for Ambassador magazine. She and Hans were at the centre of a closely knit group of international friends and her Artists’ Lives recording is full of lively glimpses of many of these figures. Among them are the painters Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Graham Sutherland (1903-1880).

At Lord Beverbrook’s suggestion Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill in 1954, to celebrate the former prime minister’s 80th birthday. Churchill was by this time in poor health and Sutherland’s sittings with him at his home, Chartwell in Kent, were difficult. In desperation the artist asked Elsbeth Juda to accompany him on one occasion, to help cheer Churchill and also to photograph him so that Sutherland had reference material to use back in his studio. When the portrait was ready Sutherland took the precaution of inviting the art historian Kenneth Clark and Churchill’s wife, Clementine, to view it at his home, Trottiscliffe in Kent. Both visitors were happy with what they saw.

Winston Churchill
         British Government [Public domain]

The portrait was unveiled at Westminster Hall in front of a large audience. Churchill hated it and it was later destroyed by Clementine. Along with Juda’s photographs, her account in her Artists’ Lives recording is also of special value as evidence of a vanished work of art. Tantalisingly, her account tells how she and Hans tried to save the portrait by buying it themselves and for a short time it seemed they had rescued it. There are varying accounts of how the painting was destroyed and whether Clementine did it herself or asked an employee to carry out the act.

Juda refers to Churchill wearing a ‘zoot’ suit for his sittings. The National Portrait Gallery information clarifies this was a siren suit, a deluxe peacetime version of his war outfit. Also mentioned in the extract is the Churchill's London home at 28 Hyde Park Gate, where they were neighbours of the Judas.

Elsbeth Juda on Churchill

Elsbeth Juda was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2001-2003. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney. For more information about this recording see the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This clip features on the British Library website Voices of art, as part of an article by Helena Cuss that explores the links between Artists’ Lives oral history recordings and the collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 December 2019

Recording of the week: PTOOFF!

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This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Apologies, this may be our shortest ever 'Recording of the Week'. It does however provide an excuse to highlight a colourful product of the late 1960s countercultural arts scene centred in and around Ladbroke Grove, London.

PTOOFF! was the debut album by The Deviants, a bluesy psychedelic rock band led by singer Mick Farren (1943-2013). Our copy of the LP came to the Library in 2013, as part of the Barry Miles collection. Miles, as he was usually known, helped found the influential underground newspaper International Times, to which Farren also contributed. In the 1970s, Farren became a regular staff writer for the weekly New Musical Express, and then a novelist and also non-fiction writer. He continued to pursue music on the side throughout his life.

The LP was released independently on the band's own label, Underground Impresarios. It was distributed by mail order through adverts in International Times, and by underground retail outlets.

PTOOFF! album cover art

The vividly coloured cartoon sleeve (by ‘Kipps’, aka Pete Broxton) unfolds to become a six-panel poster. Our copy is the original issue, with brown ink used for the inside print (subsequent issues used blue ink). Reissues of the album shouldn't be hard to find but for copyright reasons we can provide only a short audio excerpt here.

So please enjoy the first five (sardonic) seconds of a true underground classic.

Listen to the first few seconds of the LP

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 November 2019

Recording of the week: 'Power' by Adrienne Rich

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

This week’s recording of the week features American poet Adrienne Rich reading her poem ‘Power’. Rich is performing at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair, London, 1984. The poem was first published in 1977 in Rich's acclaimed collection The Dream of a Common Language.

Rich introduces ‘Power’ saying it's a poem about power (women’s power), considering both true and false power...

The poem also examines the quality of endurance, with reference to the life of scientist Marie Curie.

Adrienne Rich reading 'Power' at the 1st International Feminist Book Fair London 1984 (C154/2)

Marie Skłodowska Curie (7 November 1864 - 4 July 1934) was a Polish-born physicist and chemist.

She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the only woman who has won it twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields.

Marie and her physicist husband Paul Curie did research on uraninite, a radioactive uranium-rich mineral and ore. The Curies isolated the uranium from its radioactive elements, which they named radium and polonium. The latter after Marie’s homeland in Poland.

As a result the Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (shared with physicist Henri Becquerel). Later in 1911, Marie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her services to the advancement of chemistry.

Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia. This was reportedly caused by her exposure to chemicals and radiation.

Marie Curie working in her laboratoryMarie Curie in her laboratory. Photo credit: National Archief on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

The 1st International Feminist Book Fair took place 7-9 June 1984 at the Africa Centre in London.

This was a public event with presentations on politics, class, race, gender, sexuality, social equality and women's place in the literary world.

Speakers included: Audre Lorde, Suniti Namjoshi, Toni Cade Bambara, Alifa Rifaat, Joan Barfoot, Susan Griffin, Nicole Brossard, Maureen Watson, Grace Nichols and others.

The  event was recorded by the British Library and the collection has been recently been digitised by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @BL_DramaSound, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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24 October 2019

Private Montford's army record

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Those of you who visited last year's British Library exhibition 'Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound' will remember a small display of one-of-a-kind voice-recording discs originally made by the public in coin-operated automatic booths.

Among these was a single 'Voices of the Forces' disc, loaned to us, like the other discs in this section, by the broadcaster Alan Dein.

The 'Voices of the Forces' scheme, which was inaugurated in April 1945, enabled members of the Forces to send messages home to their families. Each recording cost one shilling and ninepence, and the sender spoke into a microphone resembling a hand telephone, while the record was cut at a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) club by a Sergeant recordist. The discs were 5" (12.5 cm) in diameter and played at 78 rpm, so were quite limited in duration.

Voices of the Forces disc
Until this year, the Library had no good examples of these discs (although there must still be many out there in private hands) so we were delighted to be contacted by Piran Montford, who offered as a donation an original 1945 disc featuring his father Adrian Raphael Montford (aka 'Monty'), complete with its original mailing envelope. Although the disc was damaged, our head audio engineer Robert Cowlin was able to digitize and restore the recording.

Adrian Montford, now aged 96, had not heard the recording since he was a young man. He didn’t remember the contents, but suspected he still retained a strong Australian accent (he was born in London, but raised in Melbourne, Australia, before he returned with his family to live in Sutton in 1938).

The disc was recorded in either North Africa or Palestine in September 1945 and was posted home to his mother in Sutton.

Voices of the Forces disc envelope
The son of the sculptor Paul Raphael Montford, Adrian studied at Sutton Art School and then entered the Royal Academy, London, to study painting, and later sculpture

After the war broke out, Adrian joined the Home Guard in Sutton. He was called up on his 18th birthday, and served the entire war as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment.

Adrian was injured by a mine in the first battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, and developed gas gangrene. He had penicillin injected directly into his leg, a very early use of the medicine. In an Evening Argus interview from 17 September 2006, Adrian described his war experiences as '...traumatic, but all wars are traumatic. I didn't expect to survive.'

The end of the war in 1945 found Adrian in Palestine. While in Palestine, he took two flights to Florence, Italy, to study the art there. It was around this time he made the postal record of his voice.

Listen to Adrian Montford in 1945

Adrian was retained in the army for at least a year after the outbreak of peace. He was moved to Greece (see photo below of him taking a break from directing traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge near Athens). He ended up driving for a sergeant who patrolled the local brothels throwing out soldiers.

Adrian Montford resting from conducting traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge  Greece  1945

After being demobbed, Adrian returned to study at the Royal Academy in London.  

In 1951, he was awarded a 1st Landseer Prize of £20 and silver medal for a composition in sculpture. His first attempt to win the Prix de Rome led to a Picture Post magazine cover photo of the sculpture being cast. He attempted again, and in 1954 won the Prix de Rome for Buddha’s Sermon on the Flower.

Adrian went to study at the British School in Rome for two years. He returned from Italy to London, riding his Lambretta scooter over the Alps. Upon his return, he applied for a driving licence. A period of teaching at Sutton Art School and at Folkestone Art School followed.

Adrian taught sculpture for over 30 years at St Martin’s School of Art, with colleagues such as Anthony Caro and David Annesley, under the headship of Frank Martin; at this time, it was the one of the most famous sculpture departments in the world.

In August 1962, he married Selma Hope Nankivell (1934-), an artist and art lecturer. She became involved in preserving Brighton’s heritage, and was granted an MBE for this in 2006. They moved to Brighton in July 1965 with a young family to a house with a large garden. His life passion has been gardening, planting many of the trees to be found in the street. They still live in the same house 54 years later in 2019.

Adrian came out of retirement to teach life drawing at the Royal College of Art, London, ca. 1990, for some years, and he appeared on ITV’s South Bank Show around the same time, and in an article in The Times of 5 February 1991. He exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, continued to paint and make prints, and in later life, has been increasingly drawn to pottery.

Adrian has been a keen gardener, and although now more frail, he still takes great pleasure in the beautiful garden he has created. The photo below, taken by his son Piran Montford, shows Adrian in his garden studio, surrounded by both his sculpture and plants.

Adrian Montford in his studio  2019 - photo by Piran Montford

With grateful thanks to Piran Montford for the biographical information incorporated in this piece, and to Robert Cowlin for making the digital transfer of the disc.

21 October 2019

Recording of the week: turning down Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

In his life story recording the artist Michael Rothenstein related a remarkable story about an encounter between his teacher A. S. Hartrick and the artist Vincent van Gogh.

Michael Rothenstein (1908-1993) was a painter, printmaker, and teacher. He taught at Camberwell School of Art for many years and is known for using experimental printing techniques in the 1950s and 1960s. He was recorded for the National Life Stories project Artists' Lives in 1990. While Rothenstein was studying at Chelsea Polytechnic (now Chelsea School of Art) he was taught by several artists, including A. S. Hartrick (1864-1950).

Rothenstein had fond memories of his teacher, ‘Well, he was a delightful man. He seemed very much a human being to me, and he liked talking about his past, and he loved talking about van Gogh…’

In the late 1880s, A. S. Hartrick, a painter and talented draughtsman, was studying in Paris. He became friends with the artist Toulouse-Lautrec – who drew a portrait of Hartrick from memory in 1933 – and the painter Vincent van Gogh. One summer Hartrick had no need for his rented room and decided to offer it to van Gogh. In Rothenstein’s recording he describes how this place was ‘just the job for van Gogh’, as the room had a window overlooking the street and ‘he loved making notes of anything that excited him, you know, a woman carrying a bundle of faggots, or an old horse trotting down the street with sacks of coal, or whatever it was.’ Apparently when van Gogh felt inspired by something he had seen, he would begin to hiss… while reaching for something to draw with.

At that time, when reaching for something to draw with, van Gogh would have been likely to fish out a homemade wax crayon from his pocket ‘…he'd get hold of candle ends, and he'd melt them down in a metal spoon, and he liked to use either red, scarlet, or blue powder, and that gave him a big chunk of wax crayon that he carried in his pocket…’ Rothenstein puts this inventiveness down to van Gogh’s poverty: ‘He really did have no money, and he wanted to use big, big things to draw with…’

When presented with the newly whitewashed walls surrounding the window in Hartrick’s room, van Gogh apparently couldn’t resist filling this blank canvas with scenes from the street below. By the time Hartrick returned to Paris the walls of his room were completely covered in van Gogh’s drawings, created, of course, using candle wax.

Van Gogh, as a thank you to his friend (and one can assume, perhaps as an apology for the state of the walls) turned up with a selection of his canvases and offered one to Hartrick. This selection happened to include one of van Gogh’s paintings from his ‘Sunflowers’ series. However Hartrick ‘couldn’t stand his work’ and politely declined, later explaining to his student Rothenstein that ‘It would have been agony to me, to have to walk away, or hang up one of them, or to live with it.’ Hartrick encouraged van Gogh to ask his brother to sell the paintings, perhaps anticipating their value. Little did he know that in 1987 one of van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ paintings would sell for $39.85 million.

Michael Rothenstein on Hartrick and van Gogh (C466/02)

Vincent van Gogh's 'Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers', painted in 1888Vincent van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, 1888. Image courtesy National Gallery (NG3863)

Visit British Library Sounds to listen to Michael Rothenstein's  10-part life story recording which was conducted as part of Artists' Lives, an ongoing oral history project which documents the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

01 October 2019

Classical Podcast No. 4 Feodor Chaliapin with Simon Callow

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Chaliapin in the 1930sChaliapin in the 1930s

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Welcome to another in the occasional series of podcasts showcasing treasures from the classical collection of the British Library Sound Archive.

Actor and author Simon Callow shares his passion for the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) whose recordings convey much of his unique stage presence and charisma. 

We discuss Chaliapin's early years working with his compatriot Rachmaninoff.

Chaliapin and RachmaninoffChaliapin and Rachmaninoff

We also talk about and hear him in some of his famous roles including Boris Godunov and Salieri.

Chaliapin as Boris GodunovChaliapin as Boris Godunov

Chaliapin as SalieriChaliapin as Salieri

Cartoon by ChaliapinCartoon by Chaliapin of Sergei Diaghilev (Simon Callow collection, used with permission)

Thanks to Ward Marston and Marston Records for use of the recordings.  All images in the public domain except where noted.

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow@BL_Classical

25 September 2019

Sounds from Bohemia: exploring the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings of Dvorak and Smetana

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Bohemian Quartet drawingBohemian Quartet (Tully Potter collection)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Rosalind Ventris, a concert violist and teacher of viola and chamber music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music

Listen to these two examples of the opening of Smetana’s String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my life’. First, the Bohemian Quartet recorded in 1928

01 Smetana mvt 1 opening

and now the Pavel Haas Quartet

Here we have two interpretations by Czech quartets separated by almost ninety years, each passionate and invigorating, but how different they sound!

I first became aware of the Bohemian Quartet (or Ceské Kvarteto) in a fascinating talk Robert Philip gave at the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music in 2013, in which he played their recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet. This initial encounter made a strong impression on me and I have since spent time at the British Library as an Edison Fellow delving into the Sound Archive's collection of early recordings of Czech quartets playing Czech repertoire. The Bohemian Quartet’s recordings are especially revealing, and exemplify an approach to expressivity and ensemble that differs markedly to some performance styles today. In particular, their use of variation in bow technique, portamento, vibrato, tempo and rhythm all stand out as noteworthy. Perhaps surprisingly, performance practice of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czech music has received less scholarly attention than other national schools, and the work that has been done in this field is not often reflected in performance today.

A particular interest in Dvořák led to my proposing his lesser-known quartets for a recording cycle with my former string quartet (the Albion) for Signum Classics. One of the CDs also features Josef Suk’s short Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn 'St Wenceslas' for String Quartet, Op. 35a. Two discs coincided with initial visits to the British Library. The Edison Fellowship has since provided a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into questions that arose when listening to the Bohemian Quartet and recording Czech string quartets.

Experts in historical recording are united in their praise of the Bohemian Quartet, and particular for their achievement of a genuine equality across the four players. Chamber music specialist Tully Potter describes them as ‘by common consent, the first great modern chamber ensemble’ (liner notes to The Czech Quartet Tradition, Biddulph), and Robert Philip calls them ‘the string quartet acknowledged as the first modern “ensemble of equals”’ (Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 21). Celebrated violin pedagogue Carl Flesch first encountered the Bohemians in 1894, writing in his Memoirs:

Hitherto, one had been accustomed to see in quartet ensembles chiefly a foil for the dominating leader, as was the case above all in the Joachim Quartet... here for the first time one heard ensemble playing by four congenial individualities who were on the same technical level. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 122-123)

Their career spanned forty years of chamber music making from the early 1890s to the 1930s, with few changes of membership in that time. By the time the ensemble reached its tenth birthday they had already performed a thousand concerts, and they kept up this pace for most of the quartet’s existence. They toured extensively throughout Europe and collaborated with the likes of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1906), violist Lionel Tertis (1906 and 1929) and many other illustrious musicians. Great composers such as Elgar and Janáček were among their many admirers. On hearing them rehearse his String Quartet Elgar exclaimed, ‘The reason I have lived so long is so as to experience your performance’ (Tully Potter, unpublished chapter). Czech composer Janáček was similarly enthralled by their playing, writing to his muse Kamila Stösslová, ‘I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the way the Bohemian Quartet played my work’ (Tully Potter unpublished chapter). When Czechoslovakia came in to being in 1918 the group changed their name to the ‘Czech Quartet’, although in practice the name ‘Bohemian’ stuck.

Bohemian Quartet 1895The Bohemian Quartet in 1895  Karel Hoffmann, Hanuš Wihan, Oskar Nedbal, Josef Suk

The quartet’s members knew Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) personally and were closely associated with the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). When the violinist Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926) became Director of the Prague Conservatory in 1882 he, alongside the cello professor Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), began encouraging more chamber music at the institution. In 1891, at Wihan’s suggestion, the Bohemian Quartet was formed. The original membership consisted of violinists Karel Hoffmann (1872-1936), Josef Suk (1874-1935), violist Oskar Nedbal (1875-1930) and cellist Otakar Berger (1873-1897). The upper three were pupils of Bennewitz, and Berger studied with Wihan. After Berger’s illness and early death he was subsequently replaced by Wihan, who then became the group’s cellist for the bulk of their career.

The quartet’s teachers were also closely connected to Dvořák and Smetana. Both professors worked alongside Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory (Dvořák later succeeded Bennewitz as Director). Bennewitz gave the public premiere of Quartet No.7 Op.16 in A minor (29th December 1878, Prague). Wihan premiered the ‘Dumky’ Trio with the composer himself at the piano, and was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s B minor Cello Concerto, the arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano, and the Rondo in G minor. The Bohemian Quartet’s original members also all had close personal relationships with Dvořák. Three of the group’s founders: Suk, Nedbal and Berger were also Dvořák’s composition students, and Suk was also his son-in-law. The quartet gave the world premiere of Dvořák’s G major quartet Op.106 (9th October 1896), having given the first Prague performance of the A flat Quartet Op.105 earlier in that year on 21st January.

Bennewitz premiered Smetana’s Trio in G minor, and was a founder of the Kammermusikverein in 1876, a chamber music society whose nationalist principles spurred Smetana to write his first string quartet later that year. In the British Library Archive there is a very interesting radio programme from 1995 (H5456/2) by Duncan Druce on ‘From my life’, in which he talks of the initial resistance to this piece in some quarters. The Bohemians, however, made it their own: they first performed it in 1892, and so it was part of their repertoire from the beginning. Nedbal’s delivery of the opening viola solo— turning round to face the audience and playing it from memory— was much commented on by many illustrious witnesses, such as Sir Arnold Bax and Eric Coates.

By the time the Bohemians made their recordings in the 1920s, Hoffmann and Suk were still in the group, but in rather acrimonious circumstances in 1913 Wihan had been replaced by the younger Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957) and Nedbal by Jiří Herold (1875-1934). (Happily, though, the British Library also has a couple of short recordings of Oskar Nedbal. Nedbal’s departure caused a scandal as he ran off ran off with first violinist Karel Hoffmann's wife in 1906!)

Given its members’ personal connections to Dvořák, the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings should clearly be a starting point for anyone interested in performance practices for this repertoire. With their pedigree it is perhaps particularly striking that the expressive devices that this group used—with one foot still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—have largely been overlooked, especially when we think of the interest in period performance and the rise of this with regard to the music of nineteenth-century composers. Dvořák seems to have been particularly neglected. As Martin Jemelka has commented in a recent article (‘Antonin Dvořák’s Music made on period instruments’ Czech Music, 2012), only a small handful of chamber music discs of this repertoire touch on historically informed stylistic awareness.

Although the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings date from the 1920s, they clearly embody a fundamentally nineteenth-century performance style. They played on gut strings throughout their careers, there is considerable flexibility in their approach to tempo and use of rubato (they are far from metronomic), ensemble is less tight, rhythms are more gestural than exact, and obviously portamento is much more audibly prevalent than vibrato. There are some lapses of intonation in these recordings, which perhaps should be put down to the players’ advancing years. Since vibrato and portamento have been discussed in studies of historical recordings elsewhere, albeit not greatly in relation to this repertoire, I would like to draw attention here to some different features—those involving the players’ use of the bow.

In a sense it is surprising that the bow has received so little attention, since any string player would agree with Louis Spohr’s proclamation that the bow is the ‘soul of playing’ (Milsom Theory and Practice in late 19th-century violin performance, 34). Robert Philip provides some clarity as to the Bohemian Quartet’s general style, and comments that the

old ‘German’ way of playing extended far beyond Joachim’s direct influence. Different versions of it can be heard in recordings of the Rosé, Bohemian, Capet and the original Budapest Quartet. . . . The so-called German school was therefore not just a narrow group associated with Joachim, but a wider culture of violin playing, which, for a time, resisted the trend towards more powerful and assertive styles. Its preference for a broad style of bowing, and little vibrato, was a continuation of early nineteenth century practice. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording 192-3)

Earlier Philip describes the old German grip 'with the low elbow, the fingers are close together, and roughly at right-angles to the bow.' 

Articulation markings seem to carry implications for bowing that are not exemplified in performances of this repertoire today. Where staccato dots are marked, the stroke is much more varied and often on the string (which is to say that the bow is not lifted off the string at the end of the note, as would be more common in modern performance). Moreover, any figure marked with a dot at the end is sometimes stopped rather than lifted. There are many examples of this in the Bohemian recordings, such as in the second movement Polka from Smetana’s Quartet No.1.

02 Smetana Polka BQ opening

In the score all the un-slurred notes are marked staccato. In this clip these are definitely more on the string before loosening up at the very end of the recording in bar 11.

We can compare the Bohemians with another contemporaneous version available in the British Library, which is similar in its approach to articulation.

03 Smetana Polka Sevcik Lhotsky opening

This recording is by a slightly younger Czech group—the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet—which was made just a year after the Bohemian Quartet’s own. Again we hear the more on-the-string style that we encountered with the Bohemians. In the Ševčík-Lhotský’s rendition occasionally the bow will be thrown as an effect (e.g. violin 1 second movement bar 11), whereas the Bohemians were a little more controlled here.

Similarly, in the opening of the ‘American’ quartet of Dvořák both Hoffmann and Herold from the Bohemians prefer a more ‘on-the-string’ approach.

04 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ opening

This prevalence for more on-the-string strokes might in part be a result of the old ‘German’ style of bow-hold described above, lending itself more to these kinds of on the string strokes. Clive Brown (in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and David Milsom (in Theory and practice in late nineteenth-century violin performance) have also both commented that in the nineteenth-century German school the upper-half of the bow was used more frequently for off-the-string strokes.

It is also noticeable that the Bohemians are not always consistent with their strokes: they sometimes vary articulation on a repeated passage on a second hearing. Often this is clearly for musical variety, but there are also examples where differences in articulation could be down to age. This is illustrated in the accompaniment in the first movement in this passage in the Dvořák ‘American' Quartet.

05 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ acc fig

Clearly Hoffman’s bow control is not the same—or perhaps this could also be put down to different priorities. If you listen again to the very start of the movement in the previous extract you can audibly hear Hoffmann put the bow to the string and the sound is slightly shaky.

It is worth pointing out that the Bohemian’s articulation and right-hand choices often link to emphasising rhythmic shapes and gestures. For instance, double-dotting is apparent in the extracts above in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ and the Smetana ‘From my life’ opening. In the Smetana Polka we heard earlier the ‘quasi Tromba’ theme is double-dotted in the viola and violin, and is particularly striking when it reaches the first violin in terms of rhythmic gesture: the first two quavers of the bar are marked slurred with a dot under the second, and Hoffmann and Herold play with the beat-placement here to make the rhythm particularly dance-like.

06 Smetana Polka BQ rhythm

Hear the opening of third movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ for the same effect

07 Dvorak mvt 3 BQ rhythm

In fact, wherever there are a couple of repeated rhythmic values together they are often played with a lengthening of the first of the group. One good example is the evocative harmonic turning point in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’

08 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ flex (2)

Often this rhythmic flexibility will be led by the first violinist, and there are many examples of this throughout the recordings. For me, the Bohemian Quartet’s rendition of the second movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ offers a masterclass in rhythmic flexibility.

In line with nineteenth-century practice the group significantly slows down into more restful passages of music and then rushes through more excited bits: listen again to the opening of the polka extract from the Smetana ‘From my life’ second movement above, and here again is a fuller version of the last extract to show how the group first pushes through, followed by an extreme winding down into the second theme.

09 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ winddown

Portamento is used by the players to emphasise the dissipating of energy in this passage—a device which is used with similarly effective results elsewhere.

The Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet also use rubato and portamenti in the manner of the Bohemians. As a final example, listen to this beautiful, swooping rendition of Osakar Nedbal’s Valse Triste played by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet recorded on 28th May 1929.

Disc label Valse TristeDisc label (1CL0074346 BL collections)

10 Nedbal Valse Triste 1CL0074346

Although the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet clearly had their own very different interpretations of Czech masterpieces, the fact that they also used similar expressive devices as the Bohemians bolsters the argument that these were fundamental to the character of this repertoire and not just the product of an unusual idiosyncratic ensemble.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which the time spent with these recordings during this Fellowship has influenced my approach to this repertoire in my playing. I am looking forward to building on the work undertaken during my Fellowship with a Research trip next month to Prague, as a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Amplify Grant. This visit will then feed back into my chamber music teaching at the RIAM, to help the students develop a performer-oriented understanding of stylistic traits and broaden their expressive palettes.

I am very grateful to the British Library and to Jonathan Summers for his guidance throughout this Fellowship, and to Tully Potter for sharing his fascinating materials and insights into the world of the Bohemian Quartet with me.

During my fellowship I also wrote an article on Ševčík’s teaching for The Strad magazine.

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