In Britain the adoption of period instruments and historically informed practices (HIP) for the performance of ‘early music’ (generally understood to encompass music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods) dates to the 1970s, with some ensembles, such as the Deller Consort, blazing a trail earlier still.
Looking through the concert files in the V&A Archive I was struck by the central role that the V&A played in providing spaces and opportunities for musicians to test performing techniques and explore new historical (if that isn’t too paradoxical) repertory in public. Indeed, the concert flyers constitute a veritable who’s who of the British early music scene: James Bowman, Denys Darlow, Alfred Deller, John Eliot Gardiner, David Monrow, Trevor Pinnock, Anthony Rooley, Colin Tilney and many others.
In the 1950s and 60s, music by the Baroque masters (Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi) was frequently programmed in the concerts given by chamber orchestras and ensembles playing on modern instruments that took place on Sunday evenings in the atmospheric location of Raphael Gallery. What does come as a surprise, however, is the frequency with which the now familiar warhorses, such as the Bach Brandenburg concerti, play second fiddle to works that even today we might consider concert rarities.
In the late 1960s, John Eliot Gardiner brought his Monteverdi Orchestra (playing on modern instruments, the transition to period instruments occurring in 1978 when he formed the English Baroque Soloists) to the V&A. On 28 January 1968, they performed Handel’s dramatic oratorio Hercules (1744) – John Eliot Gardiner would record this work in 1982 for the Archiv label with a different cast of singers and the English Baroque Soloists – but ardent Handelians might have attended previously the Handel Opera Society’s production at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1960. On 26 January 1969, the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra returned to play music by Rameau, Charpentier, Handel and Mozart.
1969 also saw the performance of another Handel oratorio rarity: the Handel Opera Society Chorus and English Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Charles Farncombe, gave a concert performance of Handel’s Susanna (1748), which tells the story of two lecherous elders (‘But when the blood should scarce attempt to flow, / I feel the purple torrents fiercely glow’) who have the virtuous Susanna arrested on trumped up charges of sexual promiscuity after she rebuffs their advances.
This particular performance is not recorded on Händel-Opernaufführungen seit 1705 (Handel Opera Performances since 1705 database), perhaps because its coverage does not extend to oratorio concerts, although it does list the performance given by the same group at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 9 July 1969. A couple of weeks later, another Handel oratorio, La Resurrezione (1708), was performed by the same choir and conductor but with a different orchestra (The Chandos Orchestra). It was billed as the ‘First public performance in London’.
A number of concerts marked significant anniversaries. In March 1960, the London Bach Group’s concert to celebrate the tercentenary of the birth of Alessandro Scarlatti included the first British performance of his Mass for St Cecilia’s Day while in October 1968, Isabelle Nef gave a harpsichord recital to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Francois Couperin. It was not just composers’ birthdays, however, that were celebrated. I was surprised to find a reference to a concert of motets and madrigals given by the Deller Consort on 31 January 1960 which advertised it as celebrating their 10th anniversary!
The V&A was the venue of choice for the first appearance in England of I Solisti Veneti (founded by Claudio Scimone in 1959) on 4 November 1962, when they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and (an interesting coupling) Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. This orchestra, along with I Musici, did much to popularise the music of Italian Baroque composers such as Albinoni, Geminiani, Tartini and Vivaldi before the period instrument groups hit their stride.
Denys Darlow (1921-2015) and his Tilford Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra were V&A regulars until the plug was pulled on Sunday evening concerts in December 1971. Darlow, who died last month, was organist at Handel’s local church, St. George’s, Hannover Square, from 1972 to 2000, and founder of the Tilford Bach Festival (1952) and London Handel Festival (1978). One of my earliest CD purchases was Darlow’s recording of Handel’s oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth. In 1961, Darlow programmed another Handel rarity: The Passion of Christ.
Darlow’s concerts at the V&A are distinguished by their imaginative programming, such as ‘Bach and Modern’, 10 March 1968, which juxtaposed Bach’s Cantata 125 (Mit Fried’ und Freud’) and A minor violin concerto with premieres of Adrian Cruft’s Annunciation Cantata and Martin Dalby’s Requiem for Philip Sparrow. Darlow and his forces also tackled the great Bach choral works: their performance of the Christmas Oratorio in 1970 was reviewed in Music and Musicians (February 1971), where the critic remarked that there was ‘evidence of the most thorough and intelligent preparation … Denys Darlow conducted with that balance of tightness and relaxation which allows the music to sound both vital and beautiful’ (archive ref. VA/180/2).
The decision to terminate the post-war tradition of Sunday evening concerts in December 1971 was a consequence of several factors, not least the fact that the opening of new concert halls of similar capacity (such as the Purcell Room on the Southbank) had seen a decline in attendance at V&A events. The notion that the Raphael Gallery should be a concert hall with some quite nice cartoons attached (to paraphrase Saatchi and Saatchi’s 1988 advertising campaign for the V&A) was also challenged. It was, however, felt that ‘concerts and recitals are a desirable adjunct to the life and impact of the Museum as a whole and should continue in some form or other’ (archive ref. VA/120/8). Consequently, the V&A initiated an experimental series of lunchtime concerts on Thursdays in the intimate and historically appropriate setting of the Norfolk Music Room.
This initiative proved popular. In 1973, the music columnist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote to the V&A: ‘Interest in baroque, and pre-baroque, music is greatly on the increase, as you probably know. You have been fortunate enough … to have secured the services … of among the finest exponents of such music to be found anywhere in Europe’ (archive ref. VA/120/8). In 1974-75, the V&A played host to a series of evening concerts (in the Raphael Gallery!) featuring pioneers of the early music revival such as Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert, which the V&A adopted as its own baroque ensemble, the Canadian harpsichordist, Kenneth Gilbert, the bass violist, Jordi Savall, and The Consort of Musick. Various antique musical instruments from the V&A’s collection were played, including the ‘Giraffe Piano’, Queen Elizabeth Virginals , the ‘Buffo’ harpsichord , the Ham House ‘Ruckers’ (now the property of the National Trust) and the newly restored ‘Vaudry’ harpsichord.
In 2010, The English Concert, now under the directorship of Harry Bickett, renewed its association with the V&A when it programmed a series of concerts to accompany the major exhibition ‘Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence’.