There is a famous painting of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann which graces the front cover of Christoph Wolff’s recent biography. Bach is portrayed displaying an extremely complex piece of contrapuntal writing. It is a portrait of a master at the height of his craft – self-confident, even a bit arrogant.
By a curious piece of serendipity this painting, dating from 1748, was sent to Britain for safe keeping during the second world war by its Silesian owner. Right up until the early 1950s it had pride of place in the home of a Dorset farmer and forester. Each day the farmer’s young son would walk past the portrait and stare into the austere eyes of the great composer.
The young boy was called John Eliot Gardiner. Fifty or more years later he sits in the Savoy Hotel, fixing the memory in his mind.
“Sometimes I would put my hand up and look at the two halves of his face,” he remembers. “The top half is very stern – an uncompromising, implacable gaze. The lower half is much more human – fleshier, slightly jowly. Almost a playful smile.”
Gardiner can date his preoccupation with Bach’s music back to that painting and that Dorset childhood. Today he is one of the most acute and sought-after interpreters of Bach in the world. His devotion – some would call it an obsession – recently led him on a pilgrimage of holy places, performing all 198 surviving cantatas.
Abandoned by Deutsche Grammophon midventure, he established his own label with the aim of issuing no fewer than 52 CDs of the cantatas, recorded live during this extraordinary pilgrimage. The first volume in the series was recently named Record of the Year in the Gramophone Awards.
And, of course, he is a central figure – as performer and talker – in next week’s BBC Radio 3 Bachathon. Who more natural to turn to than this human JSB encyclopaedia? Not only does he carry most of the music around in his head, he can in many cases tell you in which church it was performed, on what date – and, when he really wracks his brain, who was playing the flute.
The boy who grew up under the compelling gaze of Bach soon began to play his music. His father and mother were both keen amateur musicians, and by the age of 11 John Eliot knew the treble parts of all six Bach motets by heart. Then he took up the violin and started playing obbligato to his mother’s contralto arias.
“So, you see, I started thinking about him from an early age,” he says today. “And, of course, you can’t really avoid him as a conductor. He’s very central. It’s difficult to name another composer since who hasn’t been influenced or marked by the experience of studying his music.
“One thinks of Mendelssohn, obviously, but it goes for Schumann and Brahms. Both were subscribers to the first collected works edition of his music. Every time he suffered one of his recurrent mental crises Schumann would try to bring himself back into focus and to root himself by playing Bach and also writing in a strict fugal or contrapuntal style. Mozart was strongly intrigued by Bach. Beethoven revered him. And, of course, there’s the 20th century, too, with the whole neoclassical tradition.
“That’s not to say he wasn’t out of fashion for long periods of time. In fact you could say he was never in fashion. Look at all the composers born in or around 1685 – Bach, Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, Rameau and Telemann. If you were a betting person you wouldn’t have put your money on Bach. He was never really fashionable or cosmopolitan as the others were. He wrote no operas. Very few cantatas were published in his own lifetime.”
Yes, the cantatas – Gardiner’s consuming, allengulfing fixation for the past five years. He first conducted one in 1968 in Paris at the suggestion of his then teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Ten years later he started performing them on original instruments with the English Baroque Soloists.
At the time he embarked on his Bach Odyssey – performing every single surviving cantata on its relevant liturgical day in some of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals across Europe – he still only knew around 30 of the pieces. By the end of it he was immersed in all 198 – a process he describes as having been “in solitary confinement with Bach’s mind for a year”.
Of the surviving cantatas how many are great? He pauses to consider. “There was a handful – not more than seven or eight – where I thought his inspiration was low … but in every single one of those cases I found it was my fault, not his. I was approaching it in the wrong way.
“At the other end I would say there are 30 to 40 that are on a level of inspiration we’re used to with the St John and Matthew Passions.
“Emotions and preoccupations are woven into his cantatas – anything from grief at infant mortality to real apoplectic anger and frustration when he feels a lack of respect accorded to him for his abilities as a craftsman.”
When not performing Gardiner is planning a book on Bach. One of his frustrations in research is the scant evidence of how the cantatas were received. “There’s just no record I can find. No letters, no diaries. We don’t know if they were Exocets raining down from the choir gallery on an oblivious congregation, whether they were outraged or hostile … we just don’t know.”
The composition of the pieces – to a brutally tight production schedule – is a different matter. “He had a rigid deadline. They were sung twice on every Sunday. They rehearsed on a Saturday. He prepared the boys on a Thursday and a Friday. The chances are that the parts were completed by Wednesday evening or Thursday at the latest, though there may have been changes of mind – the sudden presence in town of a particularly good virtuoso who he wanted to draft in might change things. He wrote straight into score, so he probably started composing on a Monday and finished by Wednesday. That’s my feeling but there’s no way of proving it.”
Gardiner warms to his theme. He will tell you of his analysis of thumb prints on scores to establish whether (as the American academic and performer Joshua Rifkin would have it) there was more than one player to a part. And then there is the matter of ink-drying times.
“There was no blotting paper in those days and each page of ink took 12 to 15 minutes to dry. So he had to keep stopping, sometimes writing himself little mnemonics at the bottom of the page about how particular fugal exposition went on while he took a break. You can see this in the original part books.
“To keep that rhythm of output up for the length that he did was a simply prodigious feat. A lot of it was self-imposed. He could have performed the works of others. That’s what most people did. He didn’t have to compose pieces of such length and complexity. But it is wonderful music. The cantatas are the heart of him.”
How has Gardiner’s performing style changed since his first English Baroque recordings in the late 1970s?
“The early ones are very, well, not quite cautious, but very much will-powered, determined to come to terms with his music, to grapple it and put one’s best foot forward. The main difference today would be much more of a sense of expanded chamber music – the sharing out of responsibility between the musicians and me.
“I don’t mean to say I don’t take the final decisions, because I do – I am responsible – and for giving the impulsion in a rhythmical sense and in the shaping of the phrases, but the recent rehearsals were very collegial and agreeable. There was a lot of input from the different musicians. They’d done their homework. It’s not like sitting down to a Chopin etude or Liszt. There’s so much you have to work out before you can start.”
He has, he says, a constructive dialogue with two rival conductors who have also embarked on major cantata recording projects – Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki. With Rifkin it’s different. “It’s difficult to talk to Rifkin because he takes a very entrenched position and there is no dialogue. Actually, it’s impossible.
“There are many ways to skin a cat. I’m not rigid in that way at all. You have to make certain decisions, but we’re all trying to take on board as much historical information as you can and you come to different conclusions.”
He admits his tolerance has its limits. He has recently been listening to many different interpretations of Bach for the Radio 3 marathon and confesses he finds it very difficult to listen to large forces of modern instruments playing the music. “It pomposifies it, if that’s the right word. I can’t cope with it easily.
“My personal feeling is that it’s only in the 21st century that Bach’s going to come into a full recognition of this extraordinary – by any standards – breadth of musical creativity and inventiveness.
“There’s a paradox that Bach was writing for such a parochial, specific, circumscribed liturgy, but that this music can lift off the page and speak to a far wider range of people today than lots of other composers. It’s a phenomenon. I can’t account for it but I can witness it and testify about it.”
One of the contributors to the Radio 3 extravaganza is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who speculates whether non-Christians or non-believers appreciate this holy music in a different way from Christians.
Is Gardiner himself a Christian? “At the moment I perform the music I am a Christian, yes. Culturally, yes. Doctrinally and theologically, no. I can’t put it better than that.
“I have to subscribe at the moment of performing, even preparing. And I’m acutely aware there’s another realm of existence out there. But do I subscribe to the whole catechism? No, of course I don’t. I can’t.”
The live recordings during his own pilgrimage were, he says, originally intended as archival. But when DG pulled out of the project he and his wife, Isabella de Sabata, decided to form their own cottage-industry record company and issue the series themselves.
“We have practically no overheads because it’s run from home. And the musicians have agreed to accept royalties rather than fees. The break-even for each disc is around 5,000 to 6,000 and the first album sold 16,000.
“So far it’s gone better than any of us could have hoped. We’ve got hundreds of subscribers for the whole series of 52 CDs. Any profit we make goes straight back into the financing of the next batch of records.”
His mood darkens only when asked about the general state of musical culture in this country. “Things are getting worse. But I’ve been used to a back-to-the-wall entrenched position really since the word go. I was very lucky, I suppose, in the 1980s with the arrival of CDs and the interest in early music, that suddenly there was a fashion which seems to have tailed off. Or have the record companies become fat cats and made the wrong decisions? I don’t know the answers to that.
“There is this perceived crisis of classical music. How much that is to do with successive governments – and particularly the Blair government – for not keeping music in schools as a vibrant and essential part of the curriculum, it’s difficult to say. I feel that Blair has got just as much to answer for as Margaret Thatcher had in different ways – certainly in the dumbing down of culture.
“But there’s still a group of people out there who place a high value on classical music and, even if they’re not card-carrying Christians, look to Christian-inspired music for solace or for diversion or for inspiration. Whether it’s because of the failure of the church or of the whole zeitgeist of contemporary culture is difficult to say”.
· In awarding the first volume of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantatas series the prestigious Record of the Year award, the Gramophone judges wrote: “This is a magnificent achievement that illustrates how Gardiner’s independence gives him an increased capacity to reinvigorate our recording collections for years to come.”
You can subscribe to the full series or buy discs individually at monteverdiproductions.co.uk. To get a 20% Guardian discount, and to have a chance of winning the complete set, see the reader offer on page 12 in today’s print edition of G2.
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