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The Dolmetsch 'Beethoven' Fortepiano at Groote Schuur, Cape Town, South Africa

Of the three 'Beethoven' fortepianos made by Arnold Dolmetsch at the end of the nineteenth century while he was based at Charlotte Street, London, that mentioned in a letter from Elodie (Dolmetsch's second wife) to the painter William Rothenstein (written 24th March 1901), made for Cecil Rhodes, must be the furthest travelled. The great empire-builder, when Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, bought and had restored, for his personal use, the house Groote Schuur (the name means 'great granary', revealing its original status in the seventeenth century). For this work he commissioned the young architect Herbert Baker, who made and acquired many outstanding pieces of furniture. The sturdy pillar-like legs which are a hallmark of his style also adorn the fortepiano, which is cased with coromandel wood.


Groote Schuur was, until recently, the official residence of the President of the Republic, but the last occupants were Mr and Mrs F. W. de Klerk. Now it has been restored to the way Cecil Rhodes left it. President Nelson Mandela lives in another house on the property. The piano, a treasured part of the collection, is used in concerts: a photograph taken at one given during Mr de Klerk's Presidency shows the President and his wife, the American pianist Lamar Crowson (who now lives in South Africa), and Dolmetsch Foundation Governor Claire Horn and her sister Myra.

Dolmetsch Fortepiano - Keyboard

On a recent visit to Cape Town the author had the privilege of being given a full tour of Groote Schuur by the Curator Mrs Alfa Kriel, who is in the middle of the huge task of cataloguing the Rhodes collection. I was also allowed to play the piano - it is a fine instrument, in good working order, and a beautiful piece of furniture. Above all, I can confirm that it is a piano, with hammer action, and not a spinet as stated in some of the literature about Groote Schuur.

The first of three instruments was acquired by the Rev. Stewart Headlam, while the second after passing through other hands was purchased by Violet Gordon Woodhouse. One passed back to the Dolmetsch family, to whom it was bequeathed by its original owner, and now resides at The Horniman Museum, South London, where it forms part of The Dolmetsch Collection.

Dolmetsch's 'link with Africa' was to be strengthened by his third marriage, to Mabel Johnston, sister of Sir Harry Johnston (the famous African explorer after whom the okapi (okapi johnstonii) is named) sometime friend, sometime rival to Cecil Rhodes. It was through Sir Harry that the Dolmetsches took tea with Theodore Roosevelt (an intrepid big-game hunter) at the White House on Wednesday December 16th 1908, an event from which Dolmetsch benefited considerably during his 'Chickering' period.

Our thanks to Shelagh Godwin (Governor of the Dolmetsch Foundation) for this article and to Shelagh, Claire and Myra Horn for the photographs.

In the Spring of 2000 Jeanne and Marguerite Dolmetsch had the opportunity of giving a series of concerts in South Africa and this tour included one concert given in the Groote Schuur and in which the Dolmetsch Fortepiano featured.