University of Leeds



Adolphus Cleckheckmondthwaite (1835-1914)

Adolphus Cleckheckmondthwaite (hereafter AC) was born in a tiny un-named hamlet between Huddersfield and Halifax. He showed musical promise at an early age. Having found an abandoned violin in a ditch while looking for turnips to eke out his family's meagre diet, he taught himself to play. For some time, not having cleaned the accumulated fine silt from the instrument (see the 1835 Report of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (Yorkshire Silt Deposits), pp. 163-457), he had difficulty in keeping his fingers on the string, and thus evolved a unique playing style which was eventually known as the "AC portamento" - an uncertain, if not indeed desperate, slide combined with even more uncertain intonation. For the same reason, vibrato was rendered almost impossible, and AC's playing almost never utilized this expressive technique.  When his parents realised the extent of  his unique talent, he was immediately sent to study with Ferdinand David in Leipzig through the generosity of the local community who, though extremely poor, raised enough financial support to ensure that he would be able to remain abroad for several years. This may have been partly because the constant sound of the AC portamento was apparently causing the inhabitants of the hamlet to experience symptoms akin to motion sickness ('A Strange Musical Ilness',Halifax Courant and Intelligencer, 24th April 1844, p. 1, col. 1, l. 1). On his arrival in Leipzig, AC commenced his studies with the esteemed David, often sharing his lessons with the young but already esteemed Joseph Joachim. At this time, Joachim's playing was totally without portamento, following the principles of his teacher. A letter in a private Wakefield archive from David to Mendelssohn sets out David's approach at this time: 

I remain convinced that, notwithstanding my public statements to the opposite effect, portamento is an entirely unnecessary affectation which only retains its hold on performers because of public demand. If only others would do as I do in private, and avoid portamento in favour of a continuous intense, wide, and fast, vibrato! It is amusing to think that perhaps in the next century or two, there may be those who attempt to recreate this nauseating practice. When my pupil Joachim appears in public for the first time, audiences will be amazed!

However, under the influence of AC's portamento, both David and Joachim became unable to play without portamento, hypnotised as they were by the young Yorkshireman's mesmeric performances. Leipzig audiences were equally affected. 

It is impossible to describe the impression made on us by the young Herr Cleckheckmondthwaite's performance last night at the Gewandhaus. Only those who were present will know from their own experience what we try to describe here. We had always thought our city to be safe from flood, upheaval, earthquake or other disasters. But yesterday's concert suggested to the more impressionable among us that our local rivers, the Weisse Elster, Pleisse, and Parthe, had broken their banks and swept us away on a tempestuous flood. The young ladies in the audience had green faces, and some reacted so violently that we imagined ourselves to be on the open sea in a high storm. The concert hall will be closed for extensive cleaning for one week. We hear that Herr C____ is about to commence a tour of Europe, in which we wish him every success - indeed, we heartily express the hope that his travels take even further afield. [Leipziger Monatschrift, 56 (1847), p. 346)]

AC continued to perform in his idiosyncratic style for the rest of his life. He had a considerable influence on the young Joachim and other members of the Mendelssohn circle. In a reversal of David's position, Joachim would perform in private using the AC portamento but not in public. This may be a further manifestation of his somewhat different approach to editing compared with David's. By this means  Joachim influenced the cellist Friedrich Grützmacher, who incorporated it into his edition of the Mendelssohn cello sonatas, which became therefore the first printed text to include the AC portamento. Apart from this exceptional evidence, the AC portamento remained largely a private matter between consenting musicians - apart, of course, from AC's own public performances. He continued to play in this way for the rest of his life, always on tour, and to increasingly remote venues. He did not make any recordings. However, archival material at the Bell Telephone Company archives suggest that recording sessions took place, for which the repertoire included the esteemed Oliphant Chuckerbutty's 'A day on the roller-coaster' and 'Sliding on the ice'. A note in shaky handwriting refers to a mysterious illness that affected the recording engineer during the recording, such that he could no longer continue; it also suggests that the recordings were destroyed before they could render entire populations unwell. The general reaction to his first concert in a new city was the cancellation of his second one. He met his end in the early days of World War I, a victim of a friendly fire incident which unfortunately interrupted his particularly heartfelt performance, in the trenches, of Auguste van Biene's 'Broken Melody' - the break in the melody coinciding with the accidental discharge of a rifle by a British soldier whose identity is now lost (the question of a particularly large wartime service pension paid to an infantryman nearby has never been satisfactorily resolved). Further research is needed into this tantalisingly obscure but highly influential figure.