This article introduces two summer schools which have been hugely enjoyable and beneficial to me as a Baroque violinist while I was a student: Dartington International Summer School and ‘Music in Venice’.

Dartington International Summer School is now in its 61st year and for Baroque instrumentalists, the Early Music courses have much to offer. The orchestral course in particular is aimed at advanced music students studying at conservatoire or university level, young aspiring professionals, and amateur players of a high standard. The day is split in two, and in previous years the mornings have been taken up with master classes led by international performers. Previous tutors have included Baroque violinist Walter Reiter and multi-award winning Ensemble Meridiana. Depending on numbers, there has been at least one opportunity to perform a solo piece in a master class setting. While at Music College it is possible to attend occasional workshops or master classes with visiting international artists, but at Dartington you are spending an entire week learning with several leading performers in the field.

Dartington © Kate Mount
© Kate Mount

The second half of the day is spent rehearsing the orchestral repertoire for the final concert. In past years this has included works such as King Arthur by Purcell, music from the Coronation of King George II and the suite from Castor et Pollux by Rameau. The course tutors offer their guidance throughout rehearsals, even if they do not all take part in the performance. Working on a large-scale piece in depth over a period of days is akin to the types of projects encountered at Music College and Dartington provides valuable experience of playing in a Baroque orchestra. The final result is always of a high standard and allows musicians to experience the process of working towards an orchestral concert, alongside learning the necessary skills. There has also been the opportunity to explore the basics of Baroque dance, for which participants from the other courses were invited to join.

Cello group rehearsing at Dartington © Annika Gray
Cello group rehearsing at Dartington
© Annika Gray

After all the hard work, there is still free time to enjoy a Pimms on the lawn or for forming informal chamber music groups. As there are several courses running simultaneously at Dartington, the afternoons and evenings are taken up with a variety of performances by the course tutors, who are all international performers. There are between one and three concerts a day, which usually take place in The Great Hall. It really is a rare opportunity to hear so many top early music performers every single day, especially for those living outside of London. The week culminates in a performance of the orchestral work by the course participants and in past years the musicians took it in turn to join in and perform for the dancing. The friendships and contacts which are formed will be useful when starting out as a professional musician, and over the years one ends up bumping into old summer school friends at various concerts.

The ‘Music in Venice’ summer school takes place every September, directed and coached by leading early music expert Philip Thorby. This week-long course offers a unique opportunity to perform Venetian music in Venice, wherever possible at the original venues at which the composers worked. Music of the 16th and 17th centuries forms the repertoire including, for example, Monteverdi and Gabrieli, interspersed with lesser-known composers such as Rosenmüller. In 2012 the main concert was a quadricentenary performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers at the church of the Frari, where the composer is buried. Being surrounded by the original buildings in which the composers worked and lived is inspiring – if somewhat eerie – and of course fascinating for anyone interested in music history.

In the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari © Annika Gray
In the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
© Annika Gray

The summer course is open to singers and period instrumentalists; depending on the repertoire, places are usually limited to single strings, sackbuts, cornetts, theorbos, curtal and organ. In previous years, there has been a good mixture of early music enthusiasts, music students and young professionals, which makes for a friendly atmosphere where everyone can learn from one another.

A typical day in Venice begins with a morning rehearsal of the larger ensemble repertoire, with a break halfway for tea, coffee and biscuits. The afternoons are kept free for lunch and to explore all that Venice has to offer, whether you enjoy sightseeing, shopping or sharing a gondola ride with some of the other summer school participants. After the evening rehearsal, everyone gets together for a glass of Prosecco and nibbles before making plans for dinner.

The main focus of the course is to learn large and small scale vocal and instrumental pieces under Philip Thorby’s direction and therefore individual tuition or master classes do not form part of the programme. Having intensive ensemble coaching over the course of the week allows you to bring back newly learned chamber music skills when returning to music college or ensembles back at home in the autumn.  For the melodic instruments such as violins and cornetts, it is an ideal opportunity to experiment with ornamentation, and there is plenty of time and opportunity to try things out in rehearsals – something which would not be possible on a bigger ‘orchestral’ course.

Palazzo Ducale and San Marco in Venice
Palazzo Ducale and San Marco in Venice

The final concert is always extremely well attended and appreciated by locals and tourists alike.  ‘Music in Venice’ offers a balance of music-making, socialising and getting to know one of the world’s most beautiful cities - all in a single week.