Sunday 27 October 2019

Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse

Violet Gordon-Woodhouse in the drawing room of Nether Lypiatt Manor, playing her Dolmetsch harpsichord
Violet Gordon-Woodhouse in the drawing room of Nether Lypiatt Manor, playing her Dolmetsch harpsichord
If you read biographies of Virginia Woolf, Ethel Smyth or the Sitwell sibling then the name of Violet Gordon Woodhouse might not be unfamiliar to you. She flits across the pages of many a 20th century biography, often as a somewhat eccentric figure, living in some splendour in the Cotswolds, passionate to the point of oddness about the harpsichord and clavichord. But one fact about her seems to trump all the others. That she lived in a ménage à cinq!

Gordon Woodhouse, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, Bill Barrington shortly after creating a menage a trois
Gordon Woodhouse, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse,
Bill Barrington shortly after creating a ménage à trois
History has been somewhat unkind to Violet. Her musical reputation has dimmed somewhat behind the cloud of eccentricity and the fact that she lived with four men. Yet she was a major musical figure. Talented young and born into the Gwynne family, whose fortune was in manufacturing but who moved into politics and who lived in some grandeur on the South Downs.  Her brother, Rupert Gwynne became an MP, her mother was a great friend of Adelina Patti, and her niece became the great cookery writer Elizabeth David. There was also a touch of exoticism in her background too, one of her ancestors was an Indonesian princess thanks to a Dutch forbear who was a colonial administrator in Padang and married a local.

Violet was something of a prodigy, encouraged and indulged by her family. She started out a pianist, and devoted herself entirely to the keyboard; throughout her life she kept to a rigorous practice schedule. She ultimately studied with Agustin Rubio, the Spanish cellist who was the great Pablo Casals' teacher (an evidently discovered him), and she developed into a major musical talent. Violet was not entirely devoted to early music, and her early career as a pianist involved quite a wide range of composers including Isaac Albeniz and other Spanish contemporaries who were friends of hers. Delius even wrote her a piece for harpsichord!

In addition to the list of artistic luminaries I mention at the top of this article, she was admired by others such as Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw, whilst Radcliffe Hall dedicated a volume of (erotic) poetry to her! She pops up in Osbert Sitwell's autobiography, but the Sitwell to whom she was closest was Sacheverell, the most musical of the siblings, with whom Violet spent a lot of time discovering the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (then very much under appreciated).

Except for a short period in the 1920s (when money was tight), she remained non-professional, giving select private recitals but always playing at the very highest level. She was passionate about the harpsichord, and Arnold Dolmetsch was an early influence, and she ultimately devoted herself to the clavichord. There are recordings, but they do not always capture her full personality. And style in the performance of Early Music goes out of date so quickly that her recordings need a sympathetic ear. She made a few commercial recordings, and luckily some of the BBC's recordings of her survive, thus giving us some sort of documentation. She may have been the first person to be recorded playing the harpsichord.

Violet with Gordon, Bill and Max taken by Dennis
Violet with Gordon,
Bill and Max
taken by Dennis
I have been reading Jessica Douglas-Home's 1997 biography of her [available from Amazon] which is still the major source of information on Violet. [You can read Jessica Douglas-Home's substantial 1996 article about Violet, her music and her ménage on the Telegraph website]. On the musical side Douglas-Home (who is a great-niece of Violet's) is admirable in her copious quoting of contemporary reviews of Violet's performances, giving a fair idea of the high esteem in which she was held. But also reading the biography, you come away with a feeling that Violet was simply not a very nice person. Delightful to have as a friend perhaps, but demanding, controlling and very selfish. But there is very much the danger of being rather sexist about Violet. She developed a career as a woman at a period when women simply did not do such things. Music was a delightful hobby and certainly not something to be pursued with the single-mindedness and dedication which Violet brought to it. It is worth remembering that our view of Violet is coloured by the information filtered through from her contemporaries, where even the most sympathetic men must have regarded her as something unique., unusual and strange if not downright freakish. A big source of information is Violet's sister's diaries which inevitably require a deal of filtering.

In her personal life she was certainly the one in control. Early on she developed a strange view of sex and underwent a marriage blanc with Gordon Woodhouse (from the port and marsala family) who remained devoted to her (the adverb unaccountably sort of hangs around that latter phrase like a miasma). The love of her life was Bill Barrington (later Lord Barrington) who moved in with them, to be joined by Max Labouchere and Dennis Tollemache. The quintuple lasted till the First World War, and after one death the foursome reformed post-war, remaining together until each of their deaths. Bill eventually became the 10th Lord Barrington (an Irish title, created in 1720); thanks to his devotion to Violet, Bill never married and had children, on his death in 1960 the title descended to his nephew who was similarly unmarried and on his death in 1990 the title became extinct.

It is a strange story. Was she really that fascinating? Where Jessica Douglas-Home's book is weak is on the men and their relationships. We have letters documenting Violet and Bill's relations, but little about what the men really thought. Violet and Bill did have some sort of sexual relationship, but we can probably rule out any thoughts of group activity. This was an ensemble held together by Violet's strong individual relations to each of the men. They were all upper class British men of the Edwardian era, stiff upper lip and all that. But there is a whiff of something, perhaps not quite homo-erotic but at least homo-social about the men's relations, and may be more. Clearly some had 'outside interests' but Violet was the light around which these moths flitted, but what did they get up to when they retired to the dark?

And Violet the musician? You can get a CD remastering of her recordings originally issued as volume three of Pearl's Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord, which includes recordings of Purcell, Bach, Rameau, Couperin, Farnaby, Scarlatti, John Bull, Handel, Byrd and Haydn [see MusicWeb International for a review of the disc, and it is still available from Amazon]. And there is an admirable YouTube compilation, embedded below which includes a number of smaller pieces, an interview with her as well as Bach's Italian Concerto [embedded below].

Elsewhere on this blog
  • An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Home

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