The Consort of Twelve celebrates its 40th anniversary / a short history of the ensemble

2022 is a celebratory year for the Consort of Twelve, as it marks its 40th anniversary. The Consort will recognise this remarkable milestone with a concert at 3.00 pm on 11 September in St John’s Chapel, Chichester. Thanks to all the loyal players, audiences and supporters who have helped to make this possible.

The programme largely replicates the group’s first concert for the Chichester Festivities, in 1982; the BBC was interested enough in an item in the programme, by Pieter Hellendaal, that a recording was subsequently made of it. Catherine Martin will be directing, and the ensemble will return to its first instrumental format: that of strings and harpsichord.

Looking forward

Programmes are being planned for 2023. The concert on 14 May will be an interesting diversion from the usual in that the director will be flute/recorder player Ashley Solomon. On 9 July the Consort will again collaborate with the Portsmouth Baroque Choir in the Festival of Chichester. In our final concert of 2023, on 10 September, we will welcome back Julia Bishop as director.

A short history of the Consort of Twelve

The idea of forming a small group of players to perform Baroque music in the styles and practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had its roots in 1980. Ian Graham-Jones and Paul Denley, who had both studied at the Royal Academy of Music, had become disillusioned with the way music of the Baroque period was being performed by nearly all professional groups. During the 1970s they both taught viol at the Viola da Gamba Summer School in Cheltenham. Paul, having recently returned from studying violin-making in Italy, had recently made his own Baroque violin. Ian had moved to Chichester in the early 1970s from Cornwall, where he directed a festival of mainly early music, playing harpsichord; though those programmes used modern instruments, one or two players were able to use copies of early bows.

The idea of getting together to form a group of players emerged from Ian’s and Paul’s discussions when they met each year at Cheltenham, and they found a group of string players locally who were keen to form such an ensemble, even though they were without instruments set up in the Baroque style or, more importantly, Baroque-style bows. Fortunately, two things were in everyone’s favour. Paul, with his violin-making skills, was able to convert modern violins by altering the necks, bridges and soundposts and re-stringing them with gut strings. There was also West Dean College nearby, an institution whose early musical instrument department was able to make Baroque-style bows. The group also had the use of Chichester College and its harpsichord in the music department, where Ian worked, for evening rehearsals.

Rather than choose a name such as ‘Sussex and Hampshire Baroque’, the group decided on one derived from the instrumental bands that accompanied seventeenth-century English masques – ‘The Consort of [however many players were available at that time]’. Since Lully’s ‘Petite Bande’ consisted of twelve strings and there were then about twelve in the group – well, almost – they called themselves The Consort of Twelve; and the name has stood for forty-one years.

Ian and his cellist-wife Jean Graham-Jones moved away from Chichester in 2016, after a final triumphant concert with the Consort.

The Consort of Twelve: moving on

Ian and Jean were obviously going to be a very hard act to follow, but it was decided that the Consort of Twelve would continue to give concerts. The group has been lucky enough to work with such excellent first-violin-leaders/directors as (in alphabetical order) Julia Bishop, Kati Debretzeni, Paul Denley, Catherine Mackintosh, Catherine Martin, Lucy Russell, Simon Standage, Judy Tarling and Elizabeth Wallfisch. While the initial arrangement was for the director to hold that position for a number of years, a different director is now invited to work with the group for each concert. The directors then suggest their own programme.

The ensemble has retained its original format of a string group with harpsichord, but wind and other instruments are added depending on the chosen programme. For example, in May 2022 director Simon Standage opted to have woodwind doubling the strings for part of his programme, a decision that resulted in an unusual and very beautiful sound. And again, in July 2022, when the Consort collaborated with the Portsmouth Baroque Choir to give an exciting performance of Israel in Egypt in the Festival of Chichester, the ensemble was augmented to dramatic effect by timpani, woodwind, famous trumpeters and several musicians from His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.

Ian Graham-Jones

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