Rhinegold Photo credit: Simon Way

Rhian Morgan

Life with Bach and bovines

10:00, 10th April 2013

As John Eliot Gardiner approaches his seventieth birthday, he has an exciting and busy line-up ahead of him this year. After such a long and successful pioneering career, he talks to Rhian Morgan about the roots of his musicianship and how he balances his hectic schedule with a passion for farming

Seventieth birthdays generally arrive with much putting up of feet and cruise bookings, but for Sir John Eliot Gardiner – founder of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, among other illustrious bands – the festivities are considerably less mundane.

From an all-day Bach marathon at the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Monday, the final instalment of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage on his own Soli Deo Gloria label, a BBC Two documentary, a new biography of Bach, a return to the Royal Opera House in the Autumn and, as his seventieth birthday celebration in April, a tour of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Apollon Musagète with the London Symphony Orchestra.

It is the start of a year in which he shows no sign of slowing down, or exchanging life on the road and in the recording studio for more time with his great loves – a hundred-strong herd of prize-winning Aubrac cows on his Dorset farm.

He is especially looking forward to the Bach marathon. ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase a whole variety of Bach’s oeuvre in a single day,’ he says of the seven-hour programme, which ends with the B Minor Mass. There will be a cello suite, organ works, ‘lots of onstage discussion and a neuroscientist to explain why Bach seems to appeal to mathematicians, scientists and medics’.
Why this might be, he surmises, is because of, ‘the cleanliness of the lines, proportionality, and the fascinating intersections of different planes of harmony and counterpoint’.

For a man who has devoted much of his life to the performance and interpretation of Bach, he remains fascinated by the eternal question of exactly what makes Bach work.

‘He just has a giant-size brain which is able to conceive of so many activities, a dynamic intersection of different planes of music going on simultaneously. He manages to clarify them all so they never coagulate or block up the channels. And that’s the challenge for a musician, to keep those channels free.’

The marathon, he admits, ‘could have gone on for a week,’ and what to leave out is more of a problem than what to put in. ‘Bach’s works are so rooted in the church year and it is lovely doing them at the right time,’ he comments, bringing him to his own childhood, a time in which – until he went to boarding school – he thought everyone sang grace and marked the changing of the seasons with song.
‘It’s not purely musical, but this sense of appropriateness came to me very strongly as a child. Music, historically, has always been associated with the seasons, the festivities of the year, the pagan year and the Christian year, and I grew up in a family, on a farm, where we always marked the changing of the season with singing – at Christmas, Easter and Lammas.’

Gardiner’s father, a farmer and a passionate amateur musician, initially warned him against the music profession. ‘He had grave misgivings and he only changed his opinion just before he died.

‘He said you need to prepare yourself both before and after a piece of music; that you need to make time for its genesis and its growth in your mind. Once you’ve finished a performance, you then need to allow time for the memory of it to assimilate, to be digested.

‘The frenzy of going from one piece to another, from one orchestra to another is bad for the soul and bad for everything. My father was dead right … but what am I doing now? Jumping from one to another … that’s just how it is and I don’t like it, and this is where my farming comes in to make a separation.’

Gardiner values his father’s change of heart on his son’s chosen career and says he ‘cherishes enormously’ his musical background ‘because there was nothing precious about it’. Natural it may have been for him, along with his brother and sister, to put on nativity and Easter plays with beautiful polyphony, to have Imogen Holst play the piano for them in the newly written Britten Friday Afternoon Songs, or to have Percy Grainger and Arnold Bax around the place, along with his great uncle, the composer Henry Balfour Gardiner. ‘I was lucky with my background,’ he says. ‘I didn’t reject anything.’

But when he went to Cambridge it wasn’t to read music, saying he ‘didn’t think the music course was very interesting’. Instead, fascinated by history and the relationship between the Middle East and Europe, between Arabs and Christians, he read history and Arabic.

He had conducted choirs since the age of 15 but his first big concert was the Monteverdi Vespers in King’s College chapel in 1964.

JEG‘Looking back at myself, I was completely driven and obsessed with music. It was audacious and completely unknown because there was no tradition here of singing Italian music with any degree of passion. But I was determined to succeed and shake the whole system up. For me, it was a breakthrough in personal terms, convincing me that this was the course I should pursue.’
Looking back through programmes in the Modern Archive Centre in King’s College Cambridge, you can trace Gardiner’s enthusiasms through his undergraduate career: a violinist in Bach’s Musical Offering in 1961, as a tenor, the evangelist in Schütz’ Christmas Story, through to a Stravinsky’s Pastorale for violin and wind quartet.

And the career which grew out of these colourful beginnings is well documented. He formed the Monteverdi Choir in 1964 (big celebrations and a reunion are planned for its fiftieth anniversary next year), followed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, which was founded in 1989 to give the music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an equivalent stylistic fidelity as that given by the English Baroque Soloists.

Another project close to Gardiner’s heart is that of the Monteverdi Apprenticeship Scheme, which was set up in 2007 to address the problems faced by young singers attempting to embark on a professional career. The aim of the programme is to give the most promising young musicians, on the verge of entering the profession, direct experience of the musical tradition of the Monteverdi ensembles. This year it is open to eight singers and eight instrumentalists.

‘Singing is at the root of all musicianship,’ he says. ‘I learnt how to sing rounds and canons with my mother on journeys from Dorset to London. She would start off a phrase, you had to memorise it while she was singing it, you sang it while she was singing the second phrase … my God, it’s good ear training … but so many singers can’t do that at all. If they haven’t got the notes in front of them they are lost.

‘I still make them do things by heart, though,’ he adds, ‘and it makes a huge difference.’

This shortcoming aside, Gardiner finds that the quality of musicians coming to him to audition today is higher than it has ever been. ‘Whether this is elitist or the genuine product of the school system, I really don’t know.’

There is a vast oeuvre of work behind him. The extent of his repertoire is illustrated by more than 250 recordings which he has made, and this repertoire stretches far beyond the Bach for which he is best known … not to mention all that is ahead of him.

His Bach book, which he says is aimed at the general reader as well as Bach aficionados, may spread his net still wider.

‘It’s not a standard “life and works”. It’s has a much more complex approach, which is based on my own enthusiasm. It’s mostly connected with the music and the text … cantatas, motets, passions and masses … and it is also accessible and discursive.

‘I have enjoyed researching it; the probing, reinvestigating sources afresh and really looking at what it was like to be a musician in Germany in the eighteenth century.

‘The other avenue I have explored with it has been to look at the music and the texts from my experience of being so involved in it, and to see to what extent I can truthfully reflect Bach’s mind at work and see the kind of personality he was.’

It is now more than a decade since, on Christmas Day 1999, Gardiner began his quest to perform all Bach’s surviving church cantatas in the course of 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. This astonishing achievement of 59 concerts, involving 282 musicians, 50 cities, 13 countries and 198 cantatas is still very fresh in the memory of many musicians, Gardiner mentioned.

‘It was marvellous to follow Bach’s train of thought through a whole year, and it was amazing to feel how appropriate each cantata was to both its season and its liturgical slot.

‘I have been a very lucky chap and although my farm took pretty much took a back seat during that year, it really is a place which is very good for the soul and a place I need to make time for between engagements.’

And with the music talk behind us, Gardiner launches into a paean of praise for his beautiful cows … and the revelation of one of his most treasured awards: second prize for three of his heifers in the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Agricultural Show.

www.bachmarathon.com; www.monteverdi.co.uk

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