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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism