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

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

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.