Talking points

Me and my passion: Elise Becket Smith

In the latest of a series of interviews with extraordinary individuals who are pursuing a personal passion – and in the process making significant difference to a field of science or the arts – we talk to Elise Becket Smith. Her passion is to hear music performed today as it would have sounded to its earliest audiences, in the age of its composer.

11/11/2019

For over three decades Elise Becket Smith has played a large part in the growth and success of the “historically informed” movement within the sphere of classical music.

Perhaps her most striking achievement has been the building of an extraordinary collection of period instruments, the Becket Collection, which brings unique listening experiences to audiences around the world – and is furthering the careers of generations of talented artists.

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Elise Becket Smith OBE, pictured here with her husband Sir Martin Smith. Top, detail of an English violin piccolo made in 1725 by John Barrett, now part of the Becket Collection (image used with permission of the Royal Academy of Music, London).

Elise Becket Smith’s passion for music played on period instruments – now referred to as "historically informed performance" – grew in the 1980s through her involvement with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, of which she was a director from 1987 to 2010.

"The idea of performing on period instruments was then just gaining momentum," she says. "It started out as a group of players who wanted to hear the music of Mozart and Handel the way it sounded for the composers themselves."

Both performers and audiences rapidly warmed to the very different sounds these original instruments produced.

"A trumpet in Handel's time had no valves," Elise explains, "and a Mozartian flute was made of wood, not metal, and had no keys." During the 1990s Elise realised the provision of instruments was a difficulty – and an area where she felt she could help.

"Starting an instrument collection with the aim of building an entire orchestra of period instruments seemed natural," she says. With the resources of an unexpected legacy and a contribution from the Smith family foundation, she went to work.

The problem of finding a partner and collaborator

“Once I’d developed the idea, I needed an expert partner I could trust. I didn’t have the knowledge. I knew I needed help, and so I went looking.”

You might expect institutions to leap at the offer of funding in their area, but in fact that didn’t happen. “I wrote a letter to the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music, setting out what I hoped to do,” she says.

“I never received a reply from the Royal College, and the Guildhall School was less than enthusiastic. But Curtis Price [principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1995 to 2008] rang me up and said: ‘Let's have lunch!’.” The Academy helped Elise’s project grow and flourish.

With David Rattray, the Academy’s Instrument Curator and a noted violin maker and restorer himself, she was able to embark on the process of identifying suitable original instruments – or commissioning painstaking reproductions – and drawing them together in what would become a uniquely comprehensive and special collection.

She eventually gave the collection – comprising 25 classical-period stringed instruments and a complete orchestral set of woodwind, brass and percussion – to the Royal Academy of Music in 2012.

“I had concerns, of course, such as whether or not the Royal Academy of Music would be able to take full advantage of what ought to be a great asset.

"The reassurances I received at the outset gave me confidence, and I was never disappointed.” There were practical challenges in both finding the instruments and then, as the collection grew, in their use. “I knew the Academy would look after the instruments beautifully, and over time the arrangements for their use developed," she says.

Today, a student might approach the curator, with the support of the director of historically informed performance, and agree to borrow an instrument for a period. The student would typically contribute toward insurance.

The instruments – the oldest of which dates to the 1600s – are not limited to use of students of the Academy. During their time within the Becket Collection, many have passed through the hands of some of the world's most distinguished performers.

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Simon Rattle conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Cologne. The orchestra, where Elise served as director for more than 20 years, performs using period instruments. 

Learning along the way

When Elise conceived of the project, she initially decided to try to source British-made period instruments because she hoped this would attract further funding from heritage sources.

In fact, she stumbled into the discovery that London in the 1700s was a major centre for the manufacture of stringed instruments – and that their quality was exceptional. “We lifted the lid on British eighteenth century violin-making,” she explains, “and got some real bargains.”

“What’s in it for me?”

What motivates a benefactor, and what do they seek from their giving? “I wanted involvement, both with the process and with the musicians who benefited," Elise says. "And I think this was important – just handing over the money would not have achieved the same result.

I am not interested in having my name attached to things, so using my maiden name seemed a good solution.” Elise, who has many commitments in the field of music, including presidency of the Tetbury Music Festival, says: "My greatest reward comes when I attend a rehearsal of a period orchestra and ask how many of the players have ever used a Becket collection instrument – there are always hands waving in the air."

Historically informed performance: what you'll hear

"Instruments changed in the nineteenth century when musical performances moved out of the salons and into concert halls," Elise explains.

"This meant there was a requirement for more volume. If you listen to a piece played on period instruments you’ll hear distinct differences. Take the overture to Wagner’s Rheingold, for example.

Modern interpretations, on modern instruments, tend to involve large orchestras producing massed noise. On period instruments the textures are clearer. The same is true with eighteenth century music such as Handel. If you’re listening to an historically informed performance it is a much cleaner and more subtle sound – an entirely different experience."

Author

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