Celebrating the Centenary of Jack Duarte: An Appreciation of the Composer and Classical-Guitar Champion

BY PAUL FOWLES | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR 

Longtime CG writer Paul Fowles’ connection to Jack Duarte dates back to the late ’70s, when Paul attended Duarte’s Cannington Summer School guitar program, and a bit later the Wirral festival, “which I covered for CG from 1990 onwards,” Paul says. Coincidentally, Paul now runs the Manchester Guitar Circle, which Duarte founded. We have adapted the following from Paul’s longer appreciation of Duarte which appeared in the program for a centennial concert that was staged at Kings Place in London on October 2, 2019. —Blair Jackson

John William “Jack” Duarte was born in Sheffield, England, on October 2, 1919. According to his as-yet unpublished autobiography, within the first year of his life, the family moved to an address in Levenshulme, Manchester, where he lived until his departure for London in 1953. As a teenager, he taught himself the basics of the ukulele. He went on to acquire his first guitar and became a pupil of Terry Usher (1909–69), who he later described as “my first and only teacher.” By the 1940s, Usher and Duarte were a team, co-founding the Manchester Guitar Circle in 1946. They also made a 78 rpm recording of guitar duets for the Manchester-based Decibel label around 1950.

In the meantime, Duarte expanded his musical palette to include the trumpet and double-bass, self-taught in both cases. This diverse skill set allowed him access to a wide range of ensembles operating in the Manchester area, one of his early collaborators being Murray Mayall, father of English blues patriarch John Mayall.

It was in such company that he nurtured his lifelong love of jazz, a formative influence being the Gypsy-jazz guitar style of Django Reinhardt. Long after his own playing had taken a back seat to other endeavours, Duarte emerged as the main protagonist in the after-hours jam sessions at the Cannington Summer School, performing mostly on guitar and occasionally on double bass. Jazz was also to play a role in such Duarte compositions as Sua Cosa, Op.52 (1972), an essay in the use of parallel octaves pioneered by Wes Montgomery and much copied after that guitarist’s early death in 1968.

Although music was central to the young Duarte’s development, it would be some years before it became his full-time occupation. In June 1940, he graduated from the Manchester College of Technology with a degree in chemistry, a qualification that allowed him the security of a day-job in the coming years. It was his appointment as chief chemist for a plastics company in London that facilitated his southerly migration in 1953, and it was while working as a scientist in Manchester that he met his future wife, Dorothy Seddon, as a colleague, in 1941. They went on to have three children: William Ivor (b. 1951), Sylvia Dorothy (b. 1957) and Christopher John (b. 1960).

According to Jack’s own recollections, Miniature Suite was the first of his works to be included on a commercial recording, appearing on Laurindo Almeida’s 1957 Capitol album New World of the Guitar—a trailblazing release in the context of its time. The Almeida recording also featured the more extended but equally approachable Sonatina by Albert Harris, which remains a rare sighting to this day, as does Miniature Suite.

The first Duarte work to have a major and lasting impact was Variations on a Catalan Folk Song, Op.25. Recorded by the 17-year-old John Williams in December 1958 and released on one of two simultaneously issued LPs on the Delysé label in early 1959, this became one of Jack’s most enduring and respected creations. It is the only Duarte composition to have appeared on a Williams recording; that said, the 1958/9 discs also featured complete performances of Duarte’s then unpublished guitar arrangements of J.S. Bach’s first and third Cello Suites, selected movements having been on the program of Williams’ concert at the Wigmore Hall in November 1958. Both suites were published by Schott in 1965 and reissued as revised editions in 1985. The Catalan Variations were published by Novello (with fingerings by Alice Artzt) in 1968.


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In the 1950s and ’60s, Duarte also made significant contributions in the burgeoning field of music journalism, penning a column in BMG magazine (where he sometimes reviewed records under the name “Discus”), and also in the U.S. periodical Guitar Review, which also published some early Duarte works unavailable elsewhere. He expanded beyond the guitar world to write for such learned mainstream publications as Records and Recording, Music and Musicians, and Gramophone, extending his specialist fields to Baroque music in general and the harpsichord in particular. Along the way, he finally ended his scientific career, and devoted himself full-time to music.

By the early ’70s, his completed compositions totalled more than 40 opus numbers, the majority of which had found, or at least were destined to find, a commercial publishing deal. The biggest “hit” of his career, English Suite, Op.31, had been published by Novello in 1967. He had also forged links with a number of high-ranking players, most notably Andrés Segovia, for whom English Suite was a “wedding present” and whose recording of the work was released in its year of publication. Jack was equally close to the Presti-Lagoya Duo, however a possible premiere recording of his Variations on a French Nursery Song, Op.32, which the duo had performed on a number of occasions, never came to pass, as Ida Presti died in 1967. This work was eventually recorded by the Frankfurter Gitarren Duo in 1978 and Duodecima in 1982.   

The 1970s was also the era when Duarte’s international career, which had been gaining traction for some time, further expanded, with overseas trips to a range of destinations—the U.S. became a particular stronghold, with other opportunities in Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Argentina, Venezuela, Russia, and all over Europe. His duties would vary from place to place, but his standard mix was one of teaching, lecturing, and/or adjudicating competitions. An irony he later noted was that while he regularly found himself working for academic institutions abroad, such engagements were relatively infrequent on his home turf.

However, one of his most celebrated didactic achievements anywhere in the world was the Cannington Summer School, an annual one-week gathering on the campus of an agricultural college in the southwest of England. Under Duarte’s directorship, supported by his wife, Dorothy, the event successfully built on what was an emerging format at the time and is still widely applied to this day. Essentially, it comprises classes and individual teaching during the day, with evening performances by members of the teaching staff and invited guests.

It was as Cannington director that Jack was able to play one of his strongest cards. Having long-standing links with guitar activity at home, and increasingly abroad, he had built an enviable network of contacts which enabled him not only to broker the services of such established figures as Alirio Diaz (Cannington 1978), but also to showcase high-caliber emerging talents such as Vladimir Mikulka (in 1981), whose international status was rapidly gathering momentum, and the works of composers Štepán Rak (who also played there, in 1984) and Nikita Koshkin, both then largely unknown beyond Eastern Europe.

Given that the Cannington site, with its ample parking, leafy surrounding countryside, and well-stocked bar facilities was a difficult hand to beat, it came as a surprise when the event was moved to Bath—a gathering that also became an annual fixture, but by 1996 was minus Jack Duarte, who instead launched the Oatridge International Guitar Summer School explicitly in the mold and spirit of the original Cannington. It was a bold initiative for a man now in his eighth decade, and the school remained active for a number of years.

Duarte’s next home stomping ground was the Wirral International Guitar Festival, which still survives (albeit in a much-reduced form) as the International Guitar Festival of Great Britain. During its ’90s and early 2000s heyday, the WIGF was the leading UK venture of its kind, running on at least one occasion over a “long fortnight,” with multiple attractions every evening and even more packed weekend schedules.

The WIGF also provided a platform for Duarte’s music, including his rarely heard and still unpublished work for guitar and orchestra, A Tudor Fancy, Op.50. The soloist was Neil Smith, a former Duarte student and long-standing teacher and recitalist at Cannington, where it was often joked that programming at least one of Jack’s pieces was written into the contract. In 1984, Smith released what was billed as the first all-Duarte LP recording, Neil Smith Plays John W. Duarte (GMR). Although this wasn’t destined to remain the only studio offering devoted to Duarte’s work, some have observed that his music up to that time had tended to be more played than recorded. The Orphée Data-base of Guitar Records (1990), shows just 21 Duarte works in total, with only English Suite, the Catalan Variations, and Sua Cosa appearing on more than three listed releases.

However, Duarte’s oeuvre became a beneficiary of the CD boom of the 1990s, as well as the ensuing surge in independent and self-promoted recordings. The shelves of Duarte collectors were soon weighed down by the products of post-vinyl international labels including Naxos and Brilliant Classics, and other less high-profile enterprises. By now, that modest tally in the Orphée Data-base has grown to more than 60 Duarte opus numbers known to have been represented on disc or tape. 

The life of this tirelessly creative figure came to an end two days before Christmas in 2004, at the age of 85. His life and legacy are surely worthy of celebration!