John Eliot Gardiner: Monteverdi is the Shakespeare of Music

Niels Swinkels on April 22, 2015
John Eliot Gardiner, photo by Steve J Shermann.
John Eliot Gardiner
Photo by Steve J Shermann

For the better part of a half century, English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been one of the leading forces in the early music revival. Growing up in a family where, every day after meals, he sang Bach motets with his parents and siblings, the now 72-year old maestro initially studied history, Arabic, and medieval Spanish at King's College, Cambridge.

That was until “a sympathetic tutor… Edmund Leach, the social anthropologist … allowed me to take a year off to find out once and for all if I was going to be a musician,” Gardiner says in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. He decided, as a test, to organize and conduct a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in King's College Chapel.

That was on March 5, 1964 — six weeks before his 21st birthday.

The performance threw a completely different light on Monteverdi’s music. “Instead of a polite …. euphony and mellifluousness, I was striving for vibrant colors, drama, vigor, and passion: the elements I thought were the hallmarks of Monteverdi's musical style,” Gardiner says in the same interview.

Gardiner is currently on a six-city American tour with two of the early music ensembles that he has founded since 1964, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. The tour arrives in San Francisco on April 27 at Davies Symphony Hall and ends on May 1 in New York City.

The tour program includes Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, and his “favola in musica” L’Orfeo from 1607, the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed today. Prior to departure, maestro Gardiner graciously made time for a brief phone conversation with San Francisco Classical Voice.

What is the fun of going on tour?
On the positive side: A tour is a great opportunity to have several shots at performing the same repertoire with a very tight-knit ensemble. On the negative side, there is jet lag, the wear and tear and hazards of travel; and before it even begins you have to get your visa. I spent my morning at the American embassy and I tell you: That is no joke at all. It is an extremely arduous process.

What is the purpose of going on tour? Money?
No, it barely washes its face. It is extremely difficult to get any profit margin on it at all; we have to raise money in order to come to the United States. Once you factor in the travel, the per diems, the accommodations, and the fees, it is very difficult to make it work. It is not lucrative at all.

Then why do it?
I do it because I love it. I want to impart the love I have of this music to a wider audience. I [go on tour] because I love it. I want to impart the love I have of this music to a wider audience.

Talk about your fascination with Monteverdi. How did it start?
It really was a childhood thing. I was fortunate to be introduced to Monteverdi by Nadia Boulanger, the great French teacher. She came to England when I was eight or nine and conducted some of his madrigals at the summer school I was visiting, close to our family home in Dorset. That was the start of it all. Later, I heard a broadcast of the Vespers, conducted by Walter Goehr in York Minster with the London Symphony Orchestra. That made a big impression on me in my teens.

What is it about Monteverdi that fascinates you?
I find him a compelling musical figure. He is a sort of the Shakespeare of music because he manages to combine high culture and low culture; he is concerned with conveying the whole range of human emotions, from the most elevated to the most basic.  

Can you give an example?
He does it both in the context of the church, in the Vespers, and in terms of opera in L’Orfeo, his first great favola in musica [musical tale or fable], as it is called. On the one hand it is about the love between two individuals, and on the other hand about the deep despair when one has lost that love because of death or deprivation and about the sacrifices that are entailed in order to get that love back.

Was Monteverdi the first composer to do this?
Well, he wasn't the first composer of operas but he was the first to, in my view, encapsulate human emotion in such an intense and varied way.

You must have been a remarkably sensitive teen to pick up on that.
I don't know whether I was or not. You know how it is when you are young: You develop a kind of fascination that almost becomes an obsession with a particular artistic figure that hits the right spot.

Have your feelings for Monteverdi changed?
It has been a life-long admiration and affection, but it has certainly deepened with greater familiarity. And it is always a joy to come back to his music.

Has Monteverdi challenged your relationship with Bach?
Bach is the all-consuming musician — the one who provides everything you could ever possibly want in music. Monteverdi is different, much more direct and personal; [his music] is about emotions that are close to the surface and a musical language that conveys those feelings with great intensity. Bach is much more complex; the sheer range and complexity of his musical brain are fascinating. Bach is the all-consuming musician — the one who provides everything you could ever possibly want in music. Monteverdi is different, much more direct and personal.

During your performance in San Francisco you will conduct L’Orfeo. Is it purely a concert version or is it staged in any way?
The performance will inevitably have some semi-staging elements in it. You cannot just deliver L’Orfeo as a concert version; it would be too stiff and too unnatural. So whether you like it or not, it will have some animation of some sort.

Can you elaborate?
No, I can't.

With the period-instrument ensembles you funded, and your approach to early music, you have changed the way audiences listen to repertoire from the early Baroque up to the late 19th century.
I feel very privileged to have been a part of this phenomenon. The movement started in the 1960s, when the general public was introduced to hearing music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in a way that was much more faithful to the sound world of the composer, rather than being performed in the same old way by a modern orchestral apparatus. There was a need for research into the historical context of these composers, the revival of the instruments for which they wrote, and a real empathy for the type of expression that they were trying to convey. It was a complex balancing act between research and practice and empathy, but it has paid huge dividends. The audience for early music has increased enormously.

Do you think there will ever be a revival of the way, for instance, Karl Richter conducted Bach in the 60s and 70s with a large symphony orchestra and a massive choir?
You are asking the wrong person. For me: no. It was a different time and a different aesthetic. What satisfied people back in the 60s may not satisfy them now — I don't think it does. The public has generally become more educated and familiar with the use of period instruments and the historical knowledge and the empathy of musicians in the early music field.

Could you see nostalgic reasons to perform Bach again like Richter did?
It could be interesting, I suppose. But not something I would personally want to do.

Are you religious?
That's a very personal question. I have my own religious convictions, but they are not conventional ones and they are tied up with the music I perform and conduct.

Do you have to be religious to appreciate religious music?
In my book on Bach I go into that in some detail. Bach in particular is someone who requires a certain understanding by the listener of the Lutheran theology from which he emerged. You don’t necessarily have to believe in it, but you need to come to terms with that Lutheran theology in order to understand the man and the composer.

So even an atheist can enjoy Bach?