Reading Journal

Reading Journal: John Eliot Gardiner Builds a Jumbo Jet

One regular feature of the blog is a reading journal. As I read a musical book, I’ll journal about various thoughts that pop into my head as the book comes along. I’ll invite you to follow along, and even have a discussion in the comments section – treat it like a sort of virtual book club. Or just take the individual observations at face value. I am currently covering John Eliot Gardiner’s Book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner’s exciting book about Bach, and his experiences with him, begins with Mr. Gardiner’s own story, of how he broke into the musical world. He talks about his experiences at Cambridge, and later his time in the studio of  composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who is undoubtedly one of the most important pedagogues in any field in the 20th century. I have to say that Mr. Gardiner’s stories about his time in “the Boulangerie,” as he calls it, remind me of my own time with Yizhak Schotten in Ann Arbor, where you were guarantied a terrific education, in all senses of the world. Maybe there’s something about getting near the top of the heap that leads a teacher to try to light a fire under their students in the most aggressive way possible. One way or another, between his time with Nadia Boulanger, and setting himself Monteverdi’s Vespers, Mr. Gardiner is definitely a musician who was forged in the fire. Mr. Gardiner describes the process of bringing the Vespers to the stage.

Despite the dual handicap of my relative inexperience as a conductor and my little formal musical training up to that point, I had set my heart on conducting one of the most challenging works in the choral repertoire. I spent the best part of that year studying the original part-books on microfilm and, with the encouragement of the Professor of Music, Thurston Dart, preparing a new performing edition. I also ended up doing everything involved in planning a public performance in King’s College Chapel – from assembling and training the choir and orchestra, to having the tickets printed and putting out the chairs.

The process that he describes would be as if a pilot, having graduated from flight school, decided to design a new plane from the ground up, commission the construction workers and teach them how to put it together, and then work the check-in desk before rushing onto the plane to go on his flight. No pilot would ever do it – when a pilot goes to flight school, he only wants to fly his plane! One more reminder of how much of a labor of love this life of music making is.


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