Bach on the farm

Alexandra Coghlan talks to John Eliot Gardiner.

New Statesman

Wellies aren’t conventional attire for interviewing an international conductor but then not many conductors turn their earnings from major opera projects into cattle barns (which he’s christened “The Merry Widow” and “Benvenuto Cellini”). Still fewer, surely, have presented the Prince of Wales with two French Aubrac cows as a birthday gift.

John Eliot Gardiner has worked in all the major concert halls and opera houses of Europe, pioneered the Early Music movement and directed performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera, but the conductor’s metropolitan musical life has its roots in the dark Dorset soil. Here, in a converted barn liberally upholstered with golden retrievers and set among 650 acres of woodland and herds of cattle and sheep (which he has been known to help birth, still in concert white tie and tails), Gardiner is farming the same land that his father once farmed.

Far from being a hobby, this twin focus of Gardiner’s attentions seems both to counterbalance and fuel his music. His study at the farm is set apart at the very top of the house: a vaulted wooden eyrie made from the same trees seen through the windows on every side, the views rivalling the hundreds of books, scores and CDs in their clamour for attention. But music not farming shouts loudest today, as the conductor talks about plans for his forthcoming 70th birthday – a modest affair in which he will take over the Royal Albert Hall on Easter Monday for a ninehour marathon performance of Bach.

“Choosing the music has been both the easiest and hardest decision,” he explains. “You start off thinking it’ll be a ‘best of’ type programme but that gives you a surfeit of great music. The B Minor Mass goes without saying – it’s the summation of his whole life’s work – but we’ll be starting with the motet Singet dem Herrn which is also epic in every way, a celebration of dance in music. It shows how Bach can construct a whole orchestra just out of the consonants and sounds of a choir functioning really well.”

Bach’s Goldberg Variations, unaccompanied suites for cello and violin and his organ music will also feature, as will the fragile solemnity of the cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden, which for Gardiner “sums up the struggle between the forces of life and death, dark and light” and “symbolises the duality of German political history”. It’s a typically ambitious and iconoclastic project from a conductor whose career has ranged across centuries of repertoire, exploring music from Berlioz to Byrd. But again and again, for significant “milestone” moments (notably 2000’s unprecedented Cantata Pilgrimage), Gardiner returns to Bach. Later this year his biography of the composer will be published by Penguin and a new BBC documentary, The Genius of Bach, will show the conductor exploring the life and legacy of this founding father of western classical music.

“My first encounter with Bach really begins with that picture,” says Gardiner, pointing to a reproduction of Hausmann’s ubiquitous portrait of the composer, hanging on the study wall. “The original hung in my parents’ house when I was growing up, lent to them for safekeeping by a refugee who fled Germany in 1936. As a little boy I didn’t particularly like it. I loved his music but I couldn’t reconcile it with that portrait, which is stern and rather forbidding.”

For many, the world of “historically informed performance” to which Gardiner’s period-instrument Bach belongs can appear equally stern, still tarnished by lazy clichés of joyless authenticity that characterised the movement in its earliest days. But Gardiner’s B Minor Mass at the Proms in 1973 and the performance he and his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra will present on Easter Monday are not just decades, but worlds apart.

“The original performance was very formalised and felt like an oratorio, with all the soloists sitting at the front in their big frocks. This won’t be like that at all.”

“You long for Bach to leap out of the picture as a vivid character, as someone who can dazzle and uplift you with his music instead of just looking pedagogically at you,” Gardiner muses, eyes returning to the picture. “But although Bach’s music has a kind of emollient, healing capacity, that doesn’t make him a wonderful man. It makes him a wonderful composer. It’s all too clear that his own life and character were deeply flawed.”

It is the gulf between this troubled man and his music that Gardiner has spent a lifetime trying to cross. As part of his marathon he has invited speakers – scientists and philosophers – to offer their thoughts. “I interviewed a mathematician about Bach once, and asked her whether she perceived number and proportion when she listened to his music. She said that she did but that she also heard tremendous amounts of emotion, love and wonderment. I put it to her that this was a conflict but she argued that maths, music and emotions are all about the sheer joy of discovery. That’s what you find in Bach.”

For Gardiner, Bach himself explains it best. “I take my cue from something he wrote in a Bible commentary: ‘Whenever musicians come together with the right spirit of dedication and devotion there is grace available to them.’ Some people find that grace through prayer but I do it through inhalation, as you would in a yoga exercise. Bach fills whatever space you allow him to enter, but you have to open the door.”

Sir John Eliot Gardiner will lead a nine-hour Bach Marathon at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on Easter Monday.bachmarathon.com.