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.

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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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