'Man of History': John Eliot Gardiner interviewed in BBC Music Magazine
01 Mar 2013

In the March issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Tom Service meets the man who revolutionised Baroque Music

“Man of History”

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who celebrates his 70th birthday later this year, is responsible for changing the way we listen to Baroque music. Tom Service meets the acclaimed conductor, and finds him as outspoken as ever.

It’s a dangerous question to ask John Eliot Gardiner, who’s quite possibly the most energetic, provocative, and intellectually and creatively curious 69 year-old the musical world has ever seen; but anyway, in the concerted church that’s his London base of operations as he prepares for a 70th birthday year that includes, among other things, a Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 April, I venture the impudence of asking whether this perennial pioneer is ever inclined to look back on his life in music.

“Well, a little bit”, he says. “And sometimes I think, “why on earth did I do that?, why did I make such a complete Horlicks of this?” But mostly I look forward. My enthusiasm for the whole process of discovery is undimmed. And none of it is finished business. I mean, how could it ever be finished?
Well what about, you know, Gardiner’s signal achievement – along with the other still dazzling trailblazers of what he calls HIP (‘historically informed performance’, the ’early music movement’ in other words) – of effecting a fundamental transformation of musical culture, and approach to music-making that has revealed new dimensions to music from Monteverdi to Mahler? ‘I don’t think about it as territory gained’, Gardiner says. ‘We can’t imagine we’re up there on the happy highlands. It’s always going to be a struggle. There’s a tendency, for example, for young conductors today to regard conducting period instrument as a kind of fashion statement. And I think it’s a shame, because actually it’s much more serious than that. The learning process about how to play this music differently from a modern instrument group is not something like changing from sweet wine to dry. You have to do the hard yards, like we did.’ That’s a typically trenchant analysis of what his successors are up to, but he’s equally forthright on the path his own life in music has taken. ‘You could see my career as going against the grain, and there are really two grains I’ve been cutting against all the time: one is the ghettoisation and sectarianism of music culture, and the other is the mindless concept that you don’t need to have a historical background to understand this music. I think you do, you really do’.

Gardiner is at the stage where his own career has virtually become a historical epoch. It’s a life in music that can claim among its highlights being a pupil of the 20th century’s most important musical pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, the formation of perhaps the most influential group of singers in the story of the early music movement, the Monteverdi Choir, as well as the instrumental ensembles the English Baroque soloists (EBS) and Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), and a discography of unique and award-winning depth and range. But Gardiner says that his gigantically diverse life in music has a single guiding lodestar: Johann Sebastian Bach. ‘There are three life-changing things to me with Bach. The first was learning the motets as a child. Knowing them off by heart, they have been companions with me all my life and I’ve never got to the end of them. They’re so unbelievably galvanising as pieces of music. The second was the Bach pilgrimage. That was such a rare privilege that year to live in solitary confinement with a single musical mind with no other distractions for a whole year. And the fact that we programmed the complete surviving cantatas [all 200 of them, performed in the year 2000 all over the world] to unfold with the seasons, with the geophysical year, was an extra bonus and produced a lot of insights. And the third thing was writing my diaries during the year, which were published in the SDG liner notes’ – Gardiner’s cantata cycle is available on his Soli Deo Gloria label – ‘and which have now been transmuted into my book. That has really given me the background I needed to see Bach’s while oeuvre differently. Really I should have written all this before I did the pilgrimage!’

The full feature article is in the March issue of the BBC Music Magazine.

Preview the magazine article