The Irish Recorder And Viol Course

Every June, I start to sort music and general logistics for my summer of Summer Schools and courses. Most years I teach on six, from Lyme Regis to Venice, from renaissance choral music to contemporary recorder ensembles. People often ask which course I enjoy most: I have to answer “all of them”, which, as well as being politically expedient, also happens to be true! They all have such individual characters that each one re-energises me and teaches me so much.

Perhaps no summer course has a more strongly individual character than the Irish Recorder and Viol Course (IRVC), held each August in An Grianán, a country house run by the ICA (Irish Countrywomen’s Association), on the east coast of Ireland, some 40 km north of Dublin airport. The course was started over 40 years ago by Theo Wyatt, the legendary pioneer of one-to-a-part recorder courses. With his wife Kitty, Theo would set off from London after work one Thursday in August, the car packed with recorders, Kitty’s beloved violin (and of course their three daughters!), towing a trailer loaded with the music which would form the course library. After the long drive to Holyhead and the overnight ferry, they would arrive at An Grianán to be welcomed first by the college staff, and then by Stan Corran, Cormac (“Corrie”) and Patricia Flanagan, and Arthur Agnew, keen amateur musicians and organisers of the course in Ireland. Once the course library was unpacked, and the playing rooms had been made ready, Theo would carefully unroll and display in the front hall the document which would define the week for the course members soon to arrive: the Holy Writ of the course – the Permanent Group List.
Theo’s courses all operate on the same system, now widely imitated: the core one-to-a-part playing occupies two sessions each day, one with a permanent group (where the same players meet daily, and are visited in daily rotation by the tutors), and one with a non-permanent group (where players meet most of the course over a week of recorder consorts, broken consorts, trio sonatas etc.). The rest of the day is spent in larger ensembles, workshops, Recorder Orchestra (and nowadays Viol Orchestra), choir, renaissance wind band, massed playing etc., but it is the one-to-a-part element which defines courses such as the IRVC, and which takes an enormous amount of preparation. Theo would go into a four-week “purdah” before the course, poring over the musical experience, technical ability, and personality of every player, before dividing them into consorts. Several drafts later, the result would be beautifully written out by hand, and displayed for the delight (and occasionally the despair) of the course members. Every day of the course, Theo would also labour to produce the Non-Permanent Group List, trying to ensure that everyone had the most varied experience possible in a week of music-making.

Theo had already taught on smaller music courses at An Grianán, sharing the house with ICA members studying lace-making, quilting and cooking. On one such shared course, a three-choir Gabrieli Canzona was being performed on the steps and landings of the fine main staircase when an elderly lady from one of the other courses slowly ascended the staircase to the very top, determinedly unaware of the massed musicians, retrieved something from her bedroom, descended through the choirs of recorders, strings and woodwind, and disappeared out of the front door. Perhaps, when the mirth had subsided, thoughts turned to setting up a larger course (and taking over the whole house) and so in 1971, the Anglo Irish Recorder Course was born.

Sole occupancy of An Grianán meant unlimited use of the large Hall, built on to the back of the house in 1956 with funding from the Kellogg Foundation. This was a huge benefit – the space was (and still is) ideal for massed playing, the course concert, and the all-important Thursday evening Ceilidh. Other facilities were, at this time, less up-to-date: when I joined the course as a tutor in 1978 most bedrooms were shared, there was no en-suite accommodation, dining space was spread over two adjoining rooms, and singing in Paul Clark’s “Choir-in-the-Byre” involved picking one’s way across the farmyard to be first to the most comfortable bale of straw in the clean but unmodernised barn. These “limitations” were cheerfully embraced by the course as being part of the whole experience, largely due to Theo, who relished every challenge and enjoyed finding solutions. I particularly remember, during an evening power cut, how he marshalled half a dozen cars outside the full length windows of the Kellogg Hall with headlights on full beam, enabling (just!) an evening of massed playing to go ahead.

Things are VERY different now! Under the stewardship of a succession of CEOs and Chairwomen, facilities at An Grianán have improved beyond measure. The first “new” wing (again funded by the Kellogg Foundation and added in 1982) is now being upgraded to offer large en-suite bedrooms (so well appointed that one of this year’s delighted occupants offered to give tours of her newly-completed suite on payment of a small fee…). Bedrooms in the main house are now also en-suite, and the large purpose-built dining room has a gallery on two sides ideal for pre-prandial fanfares by the Renaissance Wind Band. There are also a number of bungalows within the grounds of the college which accommodate the overspill from the main house. The grounds themselves ((including a beautiful newly planted walled garden) are maintained to perfection. What has not changed is the welcome given to us every year: An Grianán’s manager Ann Flanagan tells me that her staff ask to be on duty during IRVC, and this is apparent in the warmth of their greeting, and the unstinting help they give to newcomers and old hands alike throughout the week.
Theo and Kitty retired in 2004, after 33 years at the helm of the course, by now re-named the Irish Recorder and Viol Course, to reflect the flourishing viol presence, the seeds of which had been sown by John Beckett in the 1970s. Theo handed the IRVC over to its tutors – currently Ibi Aziz, Marion Doherty, Pamela Flanagan, Emma Murphy, Marion Scott and myself. Pamela, Marion Doherty and Emma had all been students on the course before being invited to be tutors. Pamela (the daughter of the Course Secretary, founder-member Patricia Flanagan) is Musical Director of the Ireland and Glasgow branches of the SRP, a freelance conductor and teacher, and also serves as the IRVC treasurer. Marion Doherty is an experienced recorder and viol tutor, having taught on many courses on the continent for over thirty years: affectionately known to her fellow tutors as “Doc” Doherty since being awarded a doctorate in choral conducting, her immaculate baton technique keeps the Recorder Orchestra on its toes. Emma’s career as a recorder soloist, singer and teacher has taken her all over the world, and on IRVC she also organises the Permanent Groups and Tutors’ Rota. Marion Scott needs no introduction to readers of this magazine! She has played recorder with most of the leading British baroque orchestras, in addition to being a widely respected teacher at every level. On IRVC Marion is an advocate of contemporary music, organises the Non-Permanent Groups, and oversees the course library. Ibi Aziz is the most recently appointed tutor, having joined us in 2007. A highly acclaimed viol-player and teacher based in London, Ibi is also a harpsichordist and chamber-music coach. As for me, I chair the committee, tutor, conduct the choir which meets daily, and (having the loudest voice) make announcements. As tutors, we follow in distinguished footsteps, including Theo himself, John Beckett, Margaret Westlake, Paul Clark, Brian Bonsor and Eileen Silcocks. Myself apart, however, I doubt that the Course has had a better team: passionate, knowledgeable, committed specialists – and such good fun to work with.

Of course, there is more to the IRVC than the basic timetable, the constant informal music-making, and the evening craic in the bar. Tuesday evening’s massed playing is followed by an informal tutors’ concert – “informal”, as the rehearsal time barely exceeds the performance time, and many of the audience will be cradling a glass of something good from the bar. It is not so much a concert as a chance for the tutors to form their own “Permanent Group” and make music together, albeit rather publicly.

Another vital part of the Course is the legendary Sand-Castle Competition. After lunch (usually on the Wednesday, depending on the weather) most of the participants follow An Grianán’s private path down to the beach, armed with buckets, spades, and wild imaginations. Castles do feature, but so do extraordinary sculptures, sand-pictures and collages, from the surreal to the hilarious. A pair of unsuspecting newcomers to the Course are inveigled into being judges, and provided with a large bag of chocolate bars and packets of sweets for prizes. Whilst judging is rigorous and fair, it is remarkable that there are invariably as many categories (and therefore category winners) as there are entries.

The famous Arrangers’ Competition has been held every year since the very beginning of the Course. From Benjamin Britten to “In a Persian Market Place” via the Nokia Ring-Tone (yes, really!), our members have over the years presented arrangements and transcriptions to be played in front of the whole Course, and judged by the tutors under the expert guidance of first Paul Clark and now Marion Doherty. There is a small cash prize, but the competition itself is the thing. It generates lively discussion on the Course – especially about whether the tutors got it right this year! Competition items by some of our arrangers (e.g. Chris May, Anne Martin, Alyson Lewin, and Dagmar Scherschmidt) have made it into print, and are now in many recorder players’ libraries. Nowadays, the rules encourage arrangements for any of the instruments represented on the course – which means that one of this year’s Ceilidh items (“I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch” arranged for tenor voice and three crumhorns) COULD have been entered…

Ah yes, the Ceilidh! On Thursday evening, after the massed playing, the chairs in the Kellogg Hall are pushed to the walls, a Ceilidh Band arrives, and a riotous evening of Irish dancing and party pieces begins, compered by Pamela. Each year it includes a new sketch performed by the Course’s own Amateur Dramatic Society. In recent years both Ibi and I have been co-opted into the Society, more, I suspect, for the opportunity of humiliating a pair of tutors than for our undoubted thespian skills. Ibi has appeared as Ibi Baba, Molly Malone, and the ghost of John Jenkins, with me playing respectively his mother, Sam Scheidt (a dodgy shell-fish seller), and the ghost of William Byrd.
The week ends with Friday evening’s Course Concert, with performances from the Recorder and Viol Orchestras, the choir, the prize-winning arrangement, and any group that wants to play. The last item is always a large scale piece for the whole Course, rehearsed earlier in the week (this year it was a 40-part motet by Alessandro Striggio), bringing everyone together in a final joyous burst of music-making.

So there it is – something special. Theo’s proven concept, Irish hospitality, a great group of tutors, a wonderful location, and a fantastic mix of people. If you fly to Dublin, you will be met by a chartered coach and driven to An Grianan. If you can’t bring your viol, some are available by arrangement on loan. Contrary to folk-lore IRVC is NOT always over-subscribed, and although we limit numbers to around 65 to preserve the family atmosphere, if you are happy playing one-to-a-part (and apply in reasonable time) you have a good chance of being accepted. If you are new to the course, you will be “buddied” with one of the old hands until you get used to it. Everyone should try the IRVC at least once – but be warned, it can be addictive!

Philip Thorby