An Interview with Gwendolyn Toth

By · Title Image © KARSTEN MORAN · Date 2/27/2020

The first thing one sees in Gwendolyn Toth’s apartment on the west side of Manhattan, above Lincoln Center, is the keyboards: three of them wrapped up and standing on their ends inside the front door. In the living room, there are several more, some ready to travel, some available to play—seven in all, including a virginal, fortepiano, and several harpsichords.She doesn’t have an organ on hand, though, and that’s a particular speciality for this important leader in early music. Toth has made a series of recordings on organs in different locations, with different tunings, exploring national and temperamental characteristics and bringing music to listeners that has been obscure for centuries. She has also been a major figure in the Monteverdi revival, with a comprehensive concert series and one of the finest and most distinctive recordings of “L’Orfeo,” made in 1995 with her ensemble ARTEK for the Lyrichord label. We spoke recently about her life in early music.

VAN: You entered early music when it was nothing like the field it is now, in terms of size, depth, and exposure. What got you started?

Gwendolyn Toth: I decided after undergraduate studies I wanted a degree in organ, so I went to Southern Methodist University. From Middlebury College, which was Eastern liberal, to Dallas—in 1977! I had professors and TAs who said, “You know, he’ll never give you an extension unless you wear a skirt.” Honestly, Dallas was like another planet of craziness.

I was like, “I can’t take it here,” so after one semester I was out. I came to New York and I had all these connections with people from the Composers Conference. I knew I wanted to be in New York and hang out with them, and my boyfriend at the time said, “You can get a Masters at City College and do composition,“ so I did that.

I launched myself into this academic milieu and was taking organ privately: that was what I still wanted to play, but there wasn’t anywhere to study organ in New York at the time. But there was this early music organ competition [MAfestival] in Brugge, so I went over. They had what we call historical copy organs—I have never played one. I was like, “Oh my God, there’s this flat pedal board and these itty-bitty keys, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here!”

As a competition it was disastrous, but I met Ton Koopman, and I was fascinated by the way he played—it was a whole new world. And he said, “You should come study with me.”

After that I came back and had one foot in the contemporary music world, I played with the S.E.M. Ensemble for four or five years, and meanwhile I tried to get my foot into the early music world. And then, in about 1986, I said, “I’m just going to do my own thing.”

I finally realized it felt more creative to be doing what I was doing in early music because there was so much that we hadn’t figured out; there was so much that was not in the scores. And just because you can’t make up all the notes doesn’t mean you can’t make up most of them. I played continuo, where you’ve got a bass line and you make it up. And I liked that.

I play harpsichord, organ, I conduct, I work with singers, I teach, I write. Any one of those things is one career, so in a way if I had really focussed on one of those my life would be different. Maybe it would be more boring. I was just at Eastman, and it’s so weird to go around and hear people practicing Tchaikovsky—where are they all going to work? Sorry, I’m old enough and cynical!

How difficult is it to attract audiences to concerts of the more unknown composers in early music?

If I play a Bach concert I can usually sell lots of tickets. Monteverdi was very unknown when we started playing it, and now it’s become normal and popular.

We did a concert by Marini, and Michelangelo Rossi, who wrote some of the most chromatic madrigals you ever heard. More so than Gesualdo, which is saying a lot. So I very cutely called it Marini & Rossi and used the logo from the vermouth bottle, but that’s a cultural thing from our time and 20-somethings are like, “What?” I tried hard and maybe totally sold 120 tickets over three nights in a very small venue.

That’s not a lot of tickets. And my singers were all super professionals, and deserved to be paid. And so then you have those donors who are dying…You see what I’m saying. I see the tunnel coming.

PHOTO © MATTHEW DINE
PHOTO © MATTHEW DINE

Even though you are outside the academic world, you’re in a field where research and musicological study is a basic component. Is there much left to be done?

It’s gotten easier since, say, 1981. But there’s more than you realize. It’s about the finer points now—though it seems to me that fewer people really care about the finer points. In ’81 we were all about discovering how they did it. We went into early music to focus on early music, and people go into early music now to have a career. There’s an essential difference.

A lot of these young singers now who do early music and contemporary music say, “For you it’s like religion or something.” And I say, “Yes, I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out how to do it as best I can. Of course I understand I’ve made compromises: everybody makes compromises every time we put on a concert and invite in a modern audience. But to make fewer and fewer of those, or at least to know that I’m compromising, so that at least I know I can tune to the right pitch, or hire the right kind of voices, or do the music with these accidentals because we didn’t realize they didn’t put them in, that’s always been my goal.” It’s always been about the music.

What about tuning and temperament? What is it like working in different systems?

At Eastman, they have an original Italian 1660 organ, in meantone. The thirds are absolutely pure. Something about that organ sounded so fabulous. I texted my husband after two minutes: “I just died and went to heaven.” And the guy before me left early so I had two and a half hours!

It’s like being in another world, when it’s really right. I was playing all these pieces that you’d probably think were incredibly boring if I played them on a regular organ. The music is not alive the same way. The dissonance works differently; the polyphony works differently. Everything sounds different.

If we hadn’t all been working toward this, those of us who believe in historical music performance, then nobody would have moved this organ and tuned it, or they would have retuned it to play with modern trumpets—which happens a lot. It takes all of us really trying to keep advancing our knowledge. So that when a group of kids comes along and says, “We’re kind of past that now, all that historical performance stuff, I learned that in college,” we can answer, “Aren’t you lucky?” We have all these young, talented people, but it’s not a religion for them as it kind of was for many of us.

Do you consider yourself part of the first generation of early musicians?

I’m somewhere in between, because I studied with Koopman, who already had a different approach from [Gustav] Leonhardt. There were the pioneers and then there was the first generation of people who had instruments, who didn’t have to invent every single wheel.

You had hand-written parts, bad Xeroxes from the [Bach] Gesellschaft. If you were going to play continuo, you didn’t have any nice parts with numbers you could read, or, God forbid, written-out continuo. If it was written out it was terrible! That was where I really learned to play continuo, because they would throw you an un-figured bass line for a Bach aria, which is kind of unimaginable because it’s always very complicated harmonies, or you’d have a full score where the numbers were teeny. And I was kind of a newbie at that time and it was like, “9-7-4-2. What is that?” Just do it!

And so you do it. Things are so easy now. IMSLP, doing research, not having to order a dissertation and waiting two weeks for it to come. Not having to go to the library and read something and not be able to take it out. There are so many things that are so excitingly easier, and I’m like, “Oh I hope they put up the rest of those Rosenmüller pieces on IMSLP soon.” I can’t wait ‘till they do that.

Are there things that still surprise you about early music?

Yes. I play a lot of intabulation, which is basically a version of a 16th century piece that has been embellished. Until about five years ago, intabulations weren’t [considered] real, because they weren’t original. But we’ve gotten past that. People appreciate the ornamentation equally to the fact that someone composed the motet.

Photo © Ben Asen
Photo © Ben Asen

That gets back to contemporary and early music, both of which often puts the actual notes just as much in the hands of the musicians as of the composer.

Right. And a lot of what I play is written down but you tend to add things.

For one project, I said, “I really want to go beyond the standard Monteverdi.” I’ve been trying to do [complete] Monteverdi for the past, it’s almost 30 years now. But no one’s doing the masses. Why? They sound boring, they’re all half notes and whole notes. But we should be improvising. So I got this idea and I thought a long time about it and I started hiring people, my regulars and some new people. Inadvertently I hired a couple people who were way more into it than I realized. They said, “We’ve always wanted to do this kind of thing but choir directors never let us.”

Cornetto and violin and sackbut and gamba players [embellish] a lot. It’s just a matter of saying, “It’s OK, you can do it.” Is it in good taste to do it when other people are doing it? We’ll find out! I want to move the taste bar to the right of where it is now, which is basically nothing.

Do you see making early music as making music—not just playing the composer?

It is tricky in the 19th century, because the composer tells you more. The very strange thing is the more the composer tells you, the less [musicians] pay attention to it. Mozart and Beethoven isn’t really my best expertise, but I do play some Mozart and Beethoven on fortepiano, and give some masterclasses.

The students bring in their Beethoven sonata, and 90 percent of it is: “Did you notice that slur only goes to those three notes, not to the whole bar, but you have the pedal down. Take the pedal off.” Just being really literal to the composer’s marks.

Sometimes there’s a lot that’s not marked, and you have to know it, and you have to know what comes before.

Do you consider research part of your musical practice?

Oh it’s very bad! First thing in the morning I answer email, then somebody asks me something and I’ll go on IMSLP, and I’m down the rabbit hole. One o’clock and I’ve got nothing done today! That happens a lot. But it’s these dissertations and things, they’re so easy to find, even paying for them. I don’t mind spending $40 to have it RIGHT NOW!

You still have to use judgment over what you perform for an audience. But I think what the internet has done is—there are some bad things, it’s really taken the caché out things—but the good thing is the amount of amazing stuff that’s available. Rabid fans can be even more into it because of the internet. The ones who were going because it was a lovely social occasion are going to be harder to retain.

Here in New York there’s a crowd of people from 60 to 90 who’ve really supported things: upper middle-class people, retired professors and professionals who supported years and years of concerts. It was very lucky to have that. That’s why it’s still the most thriving arts place, because we still have big middle class support. Someone can give me a four-figure donation and it makes a real impact. If you give that to the Metropolitan Opera, it’s office supplies. ¶