Today, June 16, is the final day of the 2013 Boston Early Music Festival. It is also Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” the events of which take place on June 16, 1904. It seems appropriate, then, to consider Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940), the French-born instrument-maker and performer, whose energetic advocacy produced a vogue for early music in Victorian England — and earned him a mention in “Ulysses,” when Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s fictional stand-in) remarks in passing that he is considering buying a Dolmetsch-made lute.
Dedalus’s name-dropping of Dolmetsch signaled the character’s aspirations to Bohemian sophistication. Dolmetsch’s informal salon concerts helped fuel Renaissance fashion among the Victorian counterculture; his instruments became stylish accessories. Dolmetsch himself disdained the musical establishment, associating instead with up-to-date poets and writers; Joyce apparently never received his lute, but Dolmetsch created a psaltery for William Butler Yeats and a clavichord for Ezra Pound, and influenced the literary theories of both. (Joyce’s countryman George Moore left, in his novel “Evelyn Innes,” a marvelous evocation of Dolmetsch and his concerts: “Painters and men of letters were attracted by them; musicians seldom.”)
In 1905, Chickering and Sons, the prominent Boston piano manufacturer, hired Dolmetsch to manufacture a line of early-music instruments — harpsichords, spinets, viols, and the like. Dolmetsch would spend six years in Massachusetts, going so far as to commission an arts-and-crafts-style Cambridge house from architects Luquer and Godfrey. (The house, still standing, was later the residence of Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter.) Chickering discontinued the line in 1911, and Dolmetsch returned to Europe — but his zeal, apparently, remains.
Boston Early Music Festival,