Bach on the farm

Alexandra Coghlan talks to John Eliot Gardiner.

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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Breaking the Bond ceiling won’t solve British cinema’s race problems

Anyway, Ian Fleming’s Bond was grotesquely, unstintingly racist. As a character, it’s hardly the highest role available in UK film.

I don’t know which of the following is weirder: the idea that Idris Elba is the only black British actor, the idea that James Bond is the highest role available in UK film, or the idea that only by putting the two together can we be sure we have vanquished racism in our entertainment industry and in our hearts. I almost feel for Anthony Horowitz, who ballsed up the Elba question in an interview with the Mail on Sunday to promote his newly-authored Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis.

He even had another black actor (Adrian Lester) lined up as his preferred Bond to demonstrate that it really wasn’t “a colour issue”, but in the end, calling Elba “too street” sounded too much like a coded way of saying “too black”. By Tuesday, Horowitz had apologised for causing offence, thereby fulfilling his anointed role in the public ritual of backlash and contrition.

Whether Elba would make a good Bond depends a great deal on what your vision of Bond is. Elba is handsome, and he’s capable of exquisitely menacing composure – something more in evidence as Stringer Bell in The Wire than in his stompy title role in Luther. He can do violence of the sudden sociopathic sort. All of this puts him in good stead to do a kind of Bond: not the elegant killer gliding on a haze of one-liners, but something closer to the viciously alluring bruiser of Sean Connery. Something like the ur-Bond, the Fleming Bond.

The only thing is that the Fleming Bond is also grotesquely, unstintingly racist and in hock to a colonial past he wishes had never ended. “I don’t drink tea,” he tells a secretary in Goldfinger (ungraciously, since she’s just made him a cup). “I hate it… it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire.” Bond has always been a bit of a has-been. Even in his first adventure, he’s a tired and slightly ragged figure: past it from the start, an emblem of wistfulness for a time when everyone knew their proper place and an Eton-educated murderer could sit comfortably at the top of the heap.

“This country right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date,” he maunders in Casino Royale. “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” In the end, the only thing that saves Bond from this alarmingly unpatriotic attack of relativism is that he lacks the imagination to do anything apart from booze, smoke, fuck, and kill the people he’s told to kill. “A wonderful machine,” his colleague Mathis calls him, and this is exactly what Bond is: a beautifully suited self-propelling module for the propagation of white male supremacy.

One of his primary work-related pleasures is seeing that anyone non-white is “[put] firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” In Live and Let Die, black people are essentially voodoo-addled amoral children, and the civil rights movement is a front for a Russian assault on the western world. Women, meanwhile, exist to be obliterated, the foils to Bond’s marvellous virility. Bond’s favourite kind of sex has “the sweet tang of rape”, and the women he does it to (never really “with”, because that would imply some kind of reciprocity) are “bitches” or “girls”, but utterly disposable either way.

He’s also not quite as glamorous as you think. Yes, there are luxury cars and card games and elaborate dinners, but Bond is a character strung absurdly between heroism and bathos. He saves the world, but he’s also the office bore delivering lectures on hot beverages to junior staff, and even a license to kill cannot save him from the terrible frustrations of the road system around Chatham and Rochester, which Fleming describes as unsparingly as any piece of weaponry. The accidental Partridge has nothing on the deliberate Bondism.

I suspect that Fleming would piss magma at the thought of Idris Elba playing Bond – almost a compelling reason to want the casting, but it doesn’t explain why there is such an obsession with redeeming a spirit-soaked, fag-stained, clapped-out relic of Britain’s ghastly rapaciousness. Nor does it explain why any good actor would want the role. It’s true that a black Bond would not be Fleming’s Bond, and thank Christ for that. Every rotten thing the character is, means and stands for should by rights explode on contact with postcolonial twenty-first century Britain.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.