Arnold Dolmetsch was a pioneer in the late 19th- and early 20th-century revival of interest in the study and performance of early music and the manufacture and restoration of historic musical instruments.
Dolmetsch came from a family of musician-craftsmen, and studied violin privately with composer-virtuoso Henry Vieuxtemps before receiving conservatory training in Brussels. In 1883 he went to the Royal College of Music in London where he pursued a growing enthusiasm for early music. Wishing to perform this on early instruments, he began to make his own, beginning with a lute in 1893 (Horniman Museum no M11-1983). Dolmetsch’s friends and supporters included some of the most eminent artists, musicians and literary figures of his time, including Edward Burne-Jones, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound and Hubert Parry. He even performed in the White House for the US president Theodore Roosevelt.
Dolmetsch’s growing reputation in both performance and instrument manufacture eventually took him to the USA where he collaborated with the Boston piano makers, Chickering (1904-1911), working on keyboard instruments, including clavichords, harpsichords and spinets, and early stringed instruments such as violas da gamba. When the 1910 economic downturn caused Chickering to close its early instruments division, he left America to work with another piano maker, Gaveau, in Fontenay-sous-Bois outside Paris. Returning to London in 1914, he completed and published his ground-breaking work, The Interpretation of the Music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, the following year.
Driven by the air raids of the First World War to seek a safer home for his family, now made up of his third wife Mabel and their four children, Cecile, Nathalie, Rudolph and Carl, Dolmetsch settled in a house called Jesses in Haslemere, Surrey, in 1971; it remains in the Dolmetsch family to this day (2019). Dolmetsch’s family played an integral role in all musical activities, including performance and instrument production. The Haslemere Early Music Festival, first held in 1925, became an annual event in which early music could be heard on newly made or restored historic instruments. The house and workshop attracted and trained many of the musicians and craftsmen who went on to develop and advance the ‘authentic performance’ movement in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Horniman Museum acquired its core Dolmetsch Collection, consisting of 131 instruments, in 1983 through grants, principally from the National Art Collections Fund. It includes significant or representative examples of Dolmetsch’s own work and historic instruments which he studied, restored and/or used as prototypes: for example a recorder by Bressan (Horniman Museum no M10-1983) and his first harpsichord, the ‘green harpsichord’ (Horniman Museum no M72-1983), made at the suggestion of William Morris for display at the Arts and Crafts exhibition of 1896. The Museum is still active in collecting instruments that complete the picture of Dolmetsch’s working life and one of its new acquisitions is a clavichord of 1906/1910 made by Dolmetsch during his association with Chickering.
instrument maker, violinist and collector (1858 - 1940)