Francis Baines

 

Francis Baines: Musician of Several Parts

This Centenary Tribute from his friends, colleagues and family was compiled by Tim Crawford, with Annette Isserlis and Alison Bury, for a celebratory event held at Cadogan Hall on 11 April 2017. Andrew Parrott’s contribution appears below.

FRANCIS BAINES

In front of me is a concert programme from St John’s Smith Square dated 26 June 1973 and announcing ‘the first appearance of the 24, a baroque orchestra modelled on the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi of Louis XIV’. A short-lived group perhaps but a momentous occasion in that it marked the very first attempt in the UK to put together anything resembling a period-instrument orchestra. At Peter Holman’s instigation a full fifteen ‘period’ string players had been mustered, amongst them – sure enough – the 56-year-old Francis Baines. (Duncan Druce led, while June headed the second violins.)

For me, the event was a first opportunity to experience the very particular pleasure of directing an orchestra underpinned by Francis’s inimitable bass playing, and for the next two decades and more, until he and June called it a day and headed for Ireland, Francis remained my undisputed first-call bass player. At that Smith Square concert the instrument he played was in fact neither a (double-)bass nor what we usually think of as a ‘violone’ but – for reasons which no longer withstand scrutiny – a ‘small’ violone or ‘great’ bass viol (at cello pitch). In due course we would regularly discuss such matters at great length to determine which particular species of instrument would best serve a forthcoming programme – viol- or violin-family member, with six strings or three, frets or no frets, with what range and in what tuning? With an intricate choice duly debated and agreed, Francis would nevertheless almost routinely turn up with the ‘wrong’ instrument (not out of mischief, I like to think). It rarely made much difference; what this taught me was that – with sub-bass instruments in particular – musical personality could prove more potent than equipment, even when the equipment concerned was a majestic Nicolò Amati double-bass.

Not obviously at ease in a dinner jacket or surrounded by microphones, Francis could scarcely have been more different from the well-groomed instrumentalist fresh out of music college today. (I remember a live broadcast in, I think, Belgium, when I looked over from the harpsichord to see why the 16-foot sound had mysteriously disappeared, to find Francis taking a few bars’ break for the obviously very necessary purpose of hoisting up his trousers.) For him, real music and real music-making could just as easily – more easily? – happen away from the concert hall, in his own home, in a pub, in a street or field. Similarly, medieval dance-tunes, Elizabethan and Jacobean fantasies, folk music from around the world – all had a natural place in his musical pantheon, alongside the diverse masterpieces of later ages, from Purcell and Bach to Stravinsky.

In short, baroque music and double-bass playing were but two facets of Francis’s musical world, though his contribution to both was clearly exceptional. And therein perhaps lay the key to his unique style of baroque bass playing: in an innate awareness of music’s infinite possibilities. Rather than dutifully replicating a cello line at the lower octave, Francis knew how to complement it and clarify it, when to act as a mere shadow and when to add real depth, when to strengthen the music’s rhythmic impetus and when to relax it; how to chart the harmonic direction of a passage; indeed, how to lift a whole choral and orchestral edifice. None of this was contrived or even consciously done; it sprang from a rich and rare musical instinct. Music truly moved him – and often quite literally. My most abiding memory of Francis – a composite one – is of his infectious delight at feeling free to let Bach’s music truly dance: in such moments, as he himself almost danced, his bass (or whatever he may have been playing) would become his most perfect dancing partner.

Andrew Parrott (February 2017)