- The Australian Viola da Gamba Society - Its formation and its future
- Election of the AVdGS Committee
- State Reports
- Marin Marais: A Life's Work
- Carol Herman in California
- Tony Allan - Renaissance Man Extraordinaire
- 21st National Easter Viol School
- News from John Hall, Viol and Baroque cello maker
- Making your Viol Work
- Dutch bow maker coming to Australia
- The Score: News gatherings from near & far
- Music for the Bass Viol in Tablature
Tony Allan: Renaissance Man Extraordinaire
Early this year I moved to Hobart and one of the musical activities I missed most from my former life in Sydney was - not to mention playing in the odd viol consort - simply fiddling around on a treble viol. Where was I to find one? For a short time, I began to believe that I would have to make do with a painfully poor substitute such as a quarter size cello. However, Hobart being the small and friendly town that it is, it took me just a few enquiries to track down what is probably the only treble viol on the island.
Reminiscent of the film The Red Violin, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that this treble viol has quite a history, having been made by one of Hobart and Adelaide's most well-known musicians, Tony Allan. For according to its last owner Angela (Margaret) Allan, his treble viol became closely associated with each of his three partners, who all played it at one time or another.
Tony made a huge impression on people in the roles of an inspiring teacher, player, maker, improviser, experimenter and most importantly of all, general larrikin. It was largely his sense of humour, even when his chips were down, that people still remember. So while at first I must admit I felt a little tremulous to take over his instrument, now I'm sure he'd appreciate the joke ... and I wasn't at all perturbed that when I was interviewing her about his life for this article, Angela said she could still feel his presence around us.
Tony was born in 1933 to North Yorkshire and Scottish parents in Shanghai, where his father worked as a doctor. From the age of seven he was sent to boarding school in Cornwall where one of his friends maintains, he must have developed his Pythonesque sense of the absurd. As a student violinist, he went to London's Guildhall and then later to Vienna, though Angela says this was largely due to a failed love affair! There, as a well known identity in Vienna's bohemian pub scene, he met his eventual wife Elisabeth (treble viol player no.1). Returning to post war London, he used to say that he "held" a clarinet for the Welsh Guards at Buckingham Palace: this was of course in lieu of the dreaded military service. He also played in a string quartet and his violin teacher by now was the Czech Jan Sedivka.
When Jan Sedivka and his wife Beryl announced they were emigrating to Australia, to the unknown Brisbane of all places, Tony, Elisabeth and by now various children were soon to follow since as Tony said, he would follow Jan anywhere, even if he had to swim. But what was Tony to do ? Well there was a guitar position going at the Queensland Conservatorium and he'd always wanted to improve his basic guitar skills, so together, he and Jan began to refine his playing. Tony got the job and quickly established himself as a flamboyant teacher. In about 1967 the Sedivkas moved to Hobart so Jan could take up a job at the Tasmanian Conservatorium teaching violin. Naturally the Allans followed and Tony found an equivalent guitar teaching position there. Performance parties were held in his backyard, along with obligatory hot scones and red wine. Yes, you could see Tony had definite potential as a viol player!
Back in Brisbane, in about 1965, Tony had set up The Renaissance Consort. Two years later, he and Elisabeth re-established the group in Hobart where this was a first for early music, especially for viol and crumhorn consorts. No instruments? No problem. The players, but mostly Tony along with Sir Ralph Whitshaw, set about making them. Even though he would never call himself an instrument maker, Tony created a treble, tenor and bass viol, rebec, pandora and cittern. Somewhere along the way he learnt trombone, once again from the violinist Jan Sedivka, so he could teach the crumhorn and sackbut. And by now he was playing tenor viol but he actually became better known as a lutenist. Some say he became one of Australia's best lutenists of this era, having been inspired by Julian Bream who was also fascinated by Thomas Morley's First Book of Consort Lessons.
The Renaissance Consort achieved a popular following in Hobart, with 1970 and 1972 tours to Melbourne and Northern Tasmania. Their LP Early Music from Renaissance Europe (Candle Recordings, 1972) lists Anthony Allan, lute and tenor viol; Hugh Macindoe, tenor; Elisabeth Allan, violin, treble viol, rebec, krumhorn; Alan Murphy, recorders; krumhorn, pandora, pommer; Peter Doe, bass viol, tenor sackbut; Marian Stankiewicz, cittern; Gerald van de Geer, flutes; and Sally Mainwaring, viola da gamba.(sic) Tony's approach was not to let authenticity debates get too much in the way of musical considerations. He greatly encouraged improvisation, often along with quite sprightly tempi for the times. And he considered music inseparable from the imbibing side of life. One of the reasons he said he loved his first and last guitars was because they were made by an Italian wine connoisseur, Fabrizio Reginato.
Adelaide viol players from the 1970s might remember Tony as a teacher there, for that was they next moved so Tony could complete his M. Mus degree. Eventually, however, Elisabeth moved back to Hobart and Tony spent three years teaching in North Yorkshire with his new wife Angela (treble viol player no.2) and their children. But music at this point, was more of a day job. According to Angela, his real purpose at this time was to study alternative therapies such as naturopathy, reiki and homoeopathy. Arriving back in Hobart, Tony began putting in appearances on lute and guitar at local restaurants, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, once more reinvigorating the music scene. He also played in a local jazz group. However, this was not to last, for Tony took up a teaching position at Coffs Harbour, with his new partner, Susie (treble viol player no.3). Before returning finally to Hobart to be able to see more of his children from his second family, there was his sojourn at La Trobe University where he began his thesis on designs for the controversial Bach bow - the bow which was theoretically supposed to be able to play all four strings of the violin at once. Soon after he submitted his thesis, he took up drawing, and even became an exhibitor.
It might be assumed that such a versatile person would also be a practical one but apparently Tony was just the opposite. By all accounts he was not very good at coping with the daily demands of life and stretched many a temper ? As his mentor and close friend Jan Sedivka put it, despite being an optimist at heart, Tony just seemed to "attract crises". At least he recognised this and was quite famous for apologising in advance for what he predicted would be "an inconvenience". With typical charm however, he once tried to trade this off by offering a free lesson in jazz piano!
Like many musicians who push the boundaries of acceptability, he had a difficult life. But he had a reputation for coping, by making the most of his poverty-stricken existence. One year he came by some Christmas cards which must have been on special. The cards arrived in his friends' letter box addressed to "The Commoners". Inside was a note from the Queen:
"I and my husband are sending you this perfectly awful Christmas card in the hope that it will suit your taste and engender feelings of loyalty and gratitude to the Monarch at this festive time. And as for your grotty little Republic we hope you know where you can stick it!"
Seasons Greetings Elizabeth R
Many of his friends and family have talked about the transformative experience of his last illness, feeling like they experienced a kind of "redemption" where past hurts simply washed away. This was a two way process, for Tony, even while he was making jokes to the end, recognised the unfailing caring and compassion of Margaret as that of his "guardian angel". He began calling her Angela and she has adopted this name in his remembrance.
Tony died in January 2000 at the age of 66. I am very grateful to Angela for providing me with the material for this article and of course, for loaning me Tony's treble viol.