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The Bridge Interviews

Richard Boothby

Richard Boothby

April 2024

Living in the distribution area of The Bridge is one of the world’s best-known and respected viola da gamba (viol for short) players, Richard Boothby, co- founder of the internationally acclaimed viol ensemble, Fretwork. Richard and his wife arrived in Sherborne from London with their baby (now at Cotswold School), attracted by a National Trust rental property and good local schools. He uses Windrush Village Hall for leading informal viol playing days for amateur enthusiasts who travel from all over the country to take part, whilst also being professor of viola da gamba at the Royal College of Music in London. The majority of Richard’s performing life is on international stages both with Fretwork and as a soloist, and in recording studios both for CDs and film music tracks.

Viols are a family of string instruments, played with a bow, held like a modern ‘cello (not under the chin), and with frets like a guitar. Dominating the Tudor and Stuart England music scene, the viol went out of favour in the 18th and 19th centuries, but has seen a revival in the past 80 years. Music written for viol then, as indeed now, covers a wide variety of ensembles (including other instruments and voices), diverse compositional styles and many playing techniques.

Fretwork will be 40 years old in 2026. Over its lifetime audiences have, Richard observed, become more knowledgeable. Last year saw the 400th anniversary of the birth of both William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes, prolific and skilled composers for the instrument; the ensemble celebrated with entire programmes of Byrd’s work, which would have been unheard of in the 1980s, perceived then as “too samey”. 

Critically celebrated for its live and recorded performances of works from the golden age of Renaissance and Baroque viol consort music, Fretwork also has a long history of fascinating collaborations with living composers and performers, including vocal ensembles The King’s Singers and The Sixteen (conductor Harry Christophers), composer Michael Nyman (think the film The Piano) and songwriter Elvis Costello. Electronic music and folk music feature in current collaborations.

Richard spoke about how the ensemble has changed through its 40 year history – he’s the sole remaining founding member. Finding the right blend of players is essential.

The completeness of an ensemble emerges as much from the instinctive connection between players as it does from their technical expertise. The current line-up has been together about four years, benefitting, curiously, from Covid.

The creative industries endured an immense shock when whole countries and continents went into Covid lockdown. For Fretwork members, the Arts Council came to the rescue in England, with an emergency grant, followed by a Covid recovery grant. These meant players continued to employ themselves, kept the ensemble together, and could work on new repertoire.

Adjusting now to new international pressures (exchange rates, post-Brexit regulations), Fretwork’s international touring has picked up, drawn more now to the USA and Canada, and significantly less to mainland Europe. Japan used to be a regular destination, but exchange rate movement means at present the ensemble is very expensive to book.

We talked about the challenges facing the creative sector in Britain. Pre-Covid government data showed a vibrant, buoyant sector creating jobs and contributing at an annually increasing rate to the economy. By comparison, recently Birmingham City Council announced it was completely cutting its arts budget. The city of Berlin receives more in arts funding that the entire UK Arts budget, Richard said. Theatres close; orchestras and choirs disband. Film plays an increasing role in the professional lives of instrumentalists and singers. James Newton Howard, US composer of the music for The Hunger Games films, for instance, records the soundtracks in London – UK musicians may be more expensive than musicians elsewhere in the world, but are also better quality. There is some encouragement from the revival of live audiences, Richard notes. His concerts recently in Cheltenham and Leicester have been to full houses.

So for us, what’s the response? Like our post offices and banks, the creative industries suffer from “use it or lose it”. We have a world-leading sector; it needs us as one crucial element in its complex ecosystem. If you can afford it, when did you last go to a live performance? Buy vinyl or a CD? Get out of your comfort zone and try a new musical genre, streamed or broadcast? Protest about arts funding cuts? Meeting Richard was inspirational for me – I hope you are inspired, too.

Ruth Reavley

Fretwork will be appearing at the Guiting Music Festival on 25 July - more information next month - Ed.

Richard Boothby
Richard Boothby
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