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John Toll

, harpsichord

Organist, harpsichordist, conductor, teacher, John Toll helped form some of the outstanding ensembles in the early music renaissance of the last quarter-century. Through dozens of recordings and countless concerts he established a reputation as one of the best keyboard continuo players anywhere. The art of adding harmony to a bass line to enhance its essential role in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries has rarely been more comprehensively mastered, or better taught.

He became an Associate of the Royal College of Organists while still at Hitchin Grammar School. He went on to the Royal School of Church Music in Croydon for a year, was made Fellow of the RCO and took up the organ scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1966.

Although he was always careful to acknowledge the influence of the then Director of Music, Bernard Rose a noted advocate of pre-classical repertoire he actually devoted a significant part of his music studies to the operas of Wagner. On leaving Oxford he went into music theatre, but of a different kind, writing and directing musicals and becoming Music Director at the old Mermaid Theatre under Sir Bernard Miles.

He then took a job teaching at the American College of Switzerland for a year, before returning to England to become keyboard player to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Sinfonietta. This presented him with such varied challenges as the notorious piano part in Stravinsky's Petrouchska and harpsichord continuo in the rapidly growing 18th-century repertoire of the Sinfonietta.

Toll helped to form L'Ecole d'Orphée in 1975, to play baroque chamber music on appropriate baroque instruments. Among the other founder members were Ingrid Seifert and Charles Medlam; in 1977 they founded the ensemble London Baroque, and Toll joined them in 1978. In the following 10 years they played an astonishing 528 concerts together, and made 18 recordings of music ranging from Marin Marais to Mozart, from sonatas to opera.

As the early music world developed in the 1980s and 1990s Toll became an ever more central figure. He was a regular continuo player for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, especially for projects directed by Gustav Leonhardt; he became Music Director of Kent Opera, enabling him to deepen his knowledge and love of baroque music theatre; his work on Monteverdi's operas, begun with Roger Norrington, blossomed in projects for Kent Opera, and with Ivor Bolton at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Bologna Opera and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The Munich Monteverdi opera cycle will be completed this summer using Toll's edition of Ulysses.

In the 1990s he also co-founded two new ensembles, Musica Secreta with singers, and Romanesca with the lutenist Nigel North and the violinist Andrew Manze, thus helping to launch the career of one of the more recent stars of the early music scene. This period included a short-lived but hugely enjoyable project called \0x2522Three Parts upon a Ground\0x2522 with Toll and North playing continuo for three very different violinists: Manze, Stanley Ritchie and myself. As befits the \0x2522sopranos\0x2522 of the ensemble, the violinists drew a lot of attention to themselves, but it was of course the superb continuo playing which once again held it all together and gave it musical coherence and stability.

Toll's passionate interest in all aspects of the music he loved and his rare intellectual integrity made him an outstanding teacher. As well as his long-standing posts at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Birmingham School of Music in England he taught numerous workshops all over Europe and the United States. Some of these in turn developed into long-term relationships, especially with the Dresden Akademie für Alte Musik and the annual Jerusalem Early Music Course, where he first taught in October 1993. The director of that course, Hed Sella, recalls how Toll, in spite (or perhaps because) of his so
BLAVET: Sonates
Claire Guimond
January, 2000