School rattles and rolls

14th August 1998 at 01:00
THE Dartington summer school was where the 13-year-old Simon Rattle came as a student, chaperoned by his parents, and where he took his first steps towards being a conductor. This is also where Nicholas Kenyon, director of the BBC's millennium celebrations, humped pianos around as a star-struck teenager.

Everybody here who is anybody in British music has either studied here, or taught here, or both. Yet its beginnings were hardly auspicious. When a pair of rich visionaries called Dorothy and Leonard Elmhurst bought Dartington manor in the twenties, it was a ruin. They turned it into a place of cultural experiment, to which artists from all over Europe - notably those fleeing the Nazis - were immediately attracted and many of these made it their home.

Its specifically educational thrust came from the German pianist Artur Schnabel, who was eager to found a school where excellence could be passed down the generations. He first offered the idea to the director of the Edinburgh Festival, and decided to carry it out himself when he got a rebuff from that quarter.

If all of this is unusual, what makes the school unique is its determination not to discriminate between professionals and amateurs. Most music schools are hotbeds of neurotic competitiveness, but here young prodigies and retired bank clerks sit side by side, and in some mysterious way draw inspiration from each other.

And Dartington's mix is by no means limited to classical music. This year's students can opt for gospel music and jazz, or loosen up their ideas with the aid of Ensemble Bash - a group of percussionists who make it their life work to break down the music world's bunker-mentality with every means to hand. If their main fount of inspiration is the slave music of West Africa, their goal is entirely cross-cultural, and their teaching methods are readily transplantable to any ordinary classroom.

Michael Church

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