Reading Journal

Reading Journal: John Eliot Gardiner Makes the Plunge

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

 One of the big questions about the Historically Informed Movement, which John Eliot Gardiner is credited with driving, is, simpl, why? The music of J.S. Bach was plenty popular before Mr. Gardiner came along, was it really in need of a savior? Mr. Gardiner explains his reasoning…

… [my] Monteverdi Choir started life as an anti-choir – in reaction to the well-mannered euphony and blend which characterised the celebrated chapel choir at King’s in my day, whose mantra was ‘Never louder than lovely’. Their style was summed up for me by a performance, at Boris Ord’s memorial service, of Jesu, meine Freude – that most extended and interpretatively challenging of Bach’s motets – sung in English with effete and lip-wiping prissiness: ‘Jesu . . .’ (pronounced Jeez-ewe), followed by a huge comma and expressive intake of breath, ‘. . . priceless treasure’ (pronounced trez-ewer). I seethed. How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way? Was this not like adding a layer of face powder and a few beauty spots to [Bach’s] portrait?

Mr. Gardiner continues later on, citing an inspiring performance given by Karl Richter.

… but even his muscular LP recordings of cantatas hadn’t prepared me for the oppressive volume and sheer aggresion of the motet Singet dem herrn as delivered by seventy lusty Bavarians from the gallery of the Markuskirche… Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced, lacking in spirit, humour and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

OK, so Mr. Gardiner has identified for us the problems associated with the traditional way of performing Bach with large ensembles. Such groups tend to play baroque music overly heavy, and too dramatized. They don’t emphasize the dance enough. Hence, his decision to  perform with scaled down, specially trained groups. But why go with period instruments? It certainly wasn’t an easy decision. Mr. Gardiner relays to us stories about the professional community largely looking at his experiment as a curiosity, and the old equipment also did him no favors. Imagine going from mowing your lawn with a gas powered mower, to using one of those old mowers without a big housing, and you get the picture.

Pictured: not my tool of choice for mowing the lawn. Or performing Bach.

Still, Mr. Gardiner saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

… the English Baroque Soloists provided a living laboratory in which to test new theories, to exchange views and approaches, and were now showing a willingness to strike out on new paths away from what were becoming the sapping orthodoxies of period-instrument style. Suddenly you could hear the music leap from the confines of its encasement. The moment these old instruments were let loose on music that had once been the exclusive preserve of the scaled-down modern symphony orchestra, what for years had seemed ‘ye old’ and remote now sounded new-minted.

How refreshing to hear one of the most respected musicians of our time to talk of taking risks, and experimentation. Sometimes it feels as though professional musicians are reluctant to do anything that might scare off their audiences, and who can blame them? Each performance might be the first (and only) of a new patron. Do something that’s to strange, or doesn’t work, and you risk scaring that patron off forever. Even worse – some music critics sharpen their teeth at the sound of an orchestra trying something new. In a world where one performance can make or break an ensemble’s reputation, the industry can grow stale, and risk-averse. What a great reminder from an established musician that sometimes reputations are forged in the fire.


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