A few weeks ago I attended a course at the Dartington International Summer School. Here are some thoughts on the week.
It’s about nine thirty on a warm mid August evening and I am standing outside the Great Hall at Dartington in South Devon with two friends, Monica and Ruth. The music of Elgar floods through the Hall’s open windows and we are transfixed. The Dartington String Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner is playing the Introduction and Allegro. The String Orchestra comes together for five days during the Summer School to rehearse and perform a major piece of music. The opportunity of performing with Neville Marriner has been a big draw – there are about a hundred players and the sound is strong and clear. When the music draws to a close, there is a noticeable pause. Then the applause rises and we head to the bar, it is now our turn to play.
We are part of the next event on the programme, the English Roots Gig, the culmination of another week’s course in the Dartington International Summer School. A group of about twenty of us have been learning and playing folk tunes, mostly from the UK. There were twelve fiddlers (myself included), six cellos, four guitars and a mandolin. Some were also in the String Orchestra; others like myself were of lower standard but with some folk experience. The course was lead by fiddler Pete Cooper and cellist Richard Bolton, two highly respected folk musicians. We spent 90 minutes each day on the formal part of the course and learnt half a dozen tunes. We learnt by ear; no printed music was allowed!
In the bar, chairs have been arranged in a circle so that the musicians will have a better chance to see and hear one another. As the Great Hall empties, the bar fills up and, by the time we start, it’s pretty full and quite noisy. I wonder what those who were at the classical concert will make of our music.
Pete leads and we begin with “Wednesday Night”, a tune found in the books of 19th century Shropshire fiddler John Moore. It’s quite a simple tune even when played at speed, as we do now. It goes well; the sound is good, we seem to be playing together and there is a good response from the audience. Next we play a pair of tunes, “Dribbles of Brandy” and “Bang up”; “Dribbles” comes from the manuscripts of Thomas Hardy and “Bang Up” from the manuscripts of John Clare. The pace gets up a bit. “Dribbles” is fine at this speed but “Bang up” is a bit of a challenge for me but we are a big band and if I miss a few notes it doesn’t matter. Again, the response is good and I notice a group, mainly young women, by the bar who are beginning to move with the music which is accented and very dancy. We continue with a mixture of slower and faster tunes, some played by the band and some by Pete and Richard and the would-be dancers are hooked.
They move in to the space in the middle of our circle and begin to dance. On this small, makeshift dance-floor they are close together. Despite this, they manage to move about with accentuated footwork, sometimes waving their hands in the air and sometimes clapping in time to the music. The one male in the group dances rather like a matador facing the bull; one young woman picks up her skirts as if this was Irish step dancing.
They are also dancing close to us and we sense their energy, excitement and bravado – they dance for themselves but they know they are also putting on a show. The music and the dancing feed off one another and I find myself moving with the rhythm even as I play.
We continue with two Polish Tunes we learnt during the week. These are “Brigands Dances” and sound very different compared to the English tunes, but they go down very well, especially as some of the women are from Eastern Europe. The atmosphere is now electric. The unexpected arrival of the dancers has turned this from a performance in to an exciting event.
After one or two more English tunes including “Jacob”, one of Thomas Hardy’s favourites, we attempt to finish. The dancers demand more and, as an encore, we play the two “Brigands Dances” again. We start fast and at this pace the dancing is frenetic – they do, indeed, “dance more wildly”. Occasional shrieks of delight come from the group and Pete responds by playing faster still – more shrieks, higher pace, it’s difficult to keep up. And then suddenly, it’s all over; the dancers limp off and the musicians pack their instruments away.
For me, playing tonight has been an amazing experience which I enjoyed greatly. When I try to leave, it’s difficult to navigate out of the crowed bar but a woman sees me struggling with my fiddle and bow and beckons to show me a way through. As I thank her, she says to me “I enjoyed that more than I expected”.
The title is taken from a Chapter heading in Thomas Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree” where he describes a Christmas dance in the fictional village of Mellstock in the early 19th century.