Round-number anniversaries of composers’ births and deaths can often feel arbitrary, excuses to keep programming the same music. Not Monteverdi’s 450th birth year. His operas are universal, important reminders that us humans have always had the same struggles, that we’ve been here before: 450 is a number that puts things in perspective.

The conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists will mark the occasion by touring Europe and the U.S. with Monteverdi’s three operas, alongside the Vespers, Madrigals, and music by other composers, from April to October 2017. I spoke with him by phone from his home in North Dorset.

VAN: In Monteverdi’s opera “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” the philosopher Seneca says to Emperor Nerone, “Unjust deeds betray a lack of confidence.” The emperor answers, “He will always be most just who is the most powerful.” What is it like doing this piece in the current political climate?

John Eliot Gardiner: [Laughs.] Well, the decision to do “Poppea” was not based on Trump, or anything remotely connected with the catastrophic happenings of the last few months. But now that you’ve raised that issue, it does chime in, in a curious way, with what’s going on in the world at the moment: the uncertainty, and the potential for catastrophic changes. It’s very disturbing.

Will concerns about the future have any effect on the music-making in your version of “Poppea”?

No. Sorry, but we’ve got to keep music and politics separate. Look, we musicians have very little political influence or power at all. The only thing we can really do is take people out of their daily concerns and preoccupations; or, in the case of opera or religious music, particularly Bach, provide some sort of solace and consolation in a very benighted world.       

You have a lot of Monteverdi coming up next year. When you’re so immersed in the work of one composer, how do you keep things fresh? Do you ever think, “Not another 4-3 suspension”?

It depends on the quality of the composer. I mean, I had no difficulty whatsoever in being in solitary confinement with J.S. Bach in the year 2000. The range of his art, his imagination, and his creative response to different stimuli, is apparently endless. And so one was never, for a split second, frustrated—let alone bored.

Next year Monteverdi is not quite the same thing, because in between the three operas, I’m also doing other music: Berlioz, Bach, Beethoven. So it’s not solitary confinement for a whole year. But I wouldn’t mind if it was. Because Monteverdi is another composer whose range is so colossal, particularly in terms of emotional explorations of the human condition. I mean, he’s the first composer, to my mind, who makes man and woman, and their emotions, central to his whole musical philosophy. It’s galvanizing.

YouTube video
Claudio Monteverdi: “Vespro della Beata Vergine“; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, The Royal Chapel Palace of Versailles, John Eliot Gardiner (Conductor)

When you were in the middle of the Bach pilgrimage, did you ever wish you could go back and start again?

Oh yes, I’m afraid I did! [Laughs.] Particularly, in the course of that year, we ran out of money, and we had to cut back on certain [things]—some of the soloists that I would have used normally were beyond our budget.

Another consideration was the time constrains—I think this was more important than the budget, really. We were following the patterns of Bach’s own creative output, and the rhythms of the Lutheran church year, which is inexorable. There are two short gaps, tempus clausum, which are closed to music—in other words, Advent and Lent—but otherwise it was remorseless. You were preparing three new cantatas every week, sometimes four. And when it came to the concentrations of festivals, like Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, it was even more. You were doing three or four programs per week. And the lack of time—even though one had studied and prepared and everything else—was against one. It was faithful to Bach’s own practice, because in a way, it was exactly the problem he had. He had the problem of composing the music, let alone rehearsing and performing it.

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How about on a musical level—were there interpretative things, such as articulation or phrasing, that you wished you had been doing from the beginning?

I don’t think so. Certainly, the different groups of musicians I was working with and I, we met the challenges from the word go, in terms of articulation, phrasing, even the figuring of the bass lines. I guess we developed a kind of ease and familiarity with the idioms—that made it slightly easier as we approached the finishing line.

I’ll give you one example. When we were in New York, right at the end of the Cantata Pilgrimage, and we were doing Cantata No. 190, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” which has some instrumentation and figuring of the bass line missing. It could have been really daunting, had that come at the beginning of the year. But by the stage we were at, the two continuo players figured out what was needed in terms of the figured bass line pretty quickly. And I was able to figure out the instrumentation pretty quickly. I’m not saying we came up with the right solutions, but we certainly came up with solutions that were workable and quite convincing.      

YouTube video
J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 113 “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut“; Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Conductor)

In an interview with VAN Reinhard Goebel said, “You’re not going to convince me it’s OK for musicians to go from Monteverdi or Mozart’s last Symphony to the ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ ” arguing that you need to be so immersed in one idiom to do it well that there’s not enough time for the others. You’ve done all of the works he mentions, and more—what do you think?

I can’t agree with that at all. I believe it’s incumbent on us musicians to be adaptable and flexible, and to take on different idioms and different styles, and do them justice. That’s part of the fascination of our job. If one confines oneself to a single idiom, then I think one would succumb to the danger that you referred to earlier: of getting very tired and bored.

I’m not using this as a blueprint for anybody else, but I find personally huge refreshment that comes from very sharp juxtapositions of style, of genre, of idiom, and even of musical apparatuses. I mean, I find it hugely stimulating to work with my own group on say the Monteverdi Madrigals or operas and then in the next moment to be working with the London Symphony Orchestra or the Bayerischer Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester on Schumann or Brahms or Mendelssohn.            

I think the point Reinhard was probably trying to make is that we can never know enough about the style that we’re working on, and the danger is that it can be superficial. It’s a point well made. But I don’t think it should entail or imply a ban or a veto on trying to encompass more than one style.

You’ve written a book called Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Does Monteverdi have the same appeal as a literary subject?

Yes. In principle, yes, I’d be tempted, but whether I can achieve it is another matter. Certainly the desire is there. But it took me more than 10 years to write the book on Bach.

There’s much more biographical information about Monteverdi than there is about Bach. That’s an encouraging thing, because we have Monteverdi’s letters. There are so few of Bach’s letters that are in any sense personal, whereas Monteverdi’s letters had rather more personal and autobiographical material than Bach’s. Which is fascinating.

What is your role at the Bach Archiv in Leipzig?

As President I see my role as a patron, overseer, and—when necessary—as a kind of troubleshooter. I’m not involved in the day-to-day management of the Bach Archiv, in the way that Christoph Wolff was, my distinguished predecessor. He was a full-time academic, and even though he was teaching at Harvard, he spent several months a year in Leipzig. I made it quite clear right from the get-go that I could never fill that role, or step into his shoes. But they still seem to want me nonetheless!

Troubleshooting, that sounds a little bit like the conductor’s job. Do you see any similarities between your work at the Archiv and your conducting?

Only insofar as it requires tact and diplomacy and bringing people together who might have differences of opinion, and you’ve got to try and find common ground between them. To that extent, yes. But [otherwise] not really—it’s a different mindset. As a conductor, you’re actually trying to create sounds and coordinate different groups and individuals, in a total organism.

In the case of the Bach Archiv, they have an extremely accomplished director, Peter Wollny, and a number of very fine musicologists working there. My role is more to do with the integration of the Bach Archiv’s work with the rest of the city, and particularly with the Thomanerchor. There used to be very little contact between them and the Bach Archiv. Now, with the appointment of Gotthold Schwarz as Thomascantor, there’s much more curiosity and willingness to take on the research, which is encouraging.

We run the Bachfest from the Bach Archiv, and that requires quite a lot of diplomatic negotiation with the other institutions of the town, particularly with the Gewandhaus. Leipzig has such an incredible richness as a musical center. It has an Oberbürgermeister who’s very musically aware, and a good budget for the arts. So it’s proving quite challenging trying to pull together the different institutions in the same direction.                  

Is there research going on by the musicologists at the Bach Archiv that is particularly interesting for you as a musician?

I find all the work that’s been going on for many years now that surrounds Bach’s own family and predecessors, particularly Johann Christoph Bach, the organist at Eisenach, really interesting. There have been manuscripts from the Altbachisches Archiv which have been turned up in Kiev, and there’s more that’s now being looked at in Austria. And I think that’s gripping. I love studying and performing works that have come to light thanks to the researchers.

YouTube video

Johann Christoph Bach, Lamento “Wie bist du denn, o Gott”; Matthew Brook (Bass), Kati Debretzeni (Solo Violin), Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (Conductor)

I did a recording of motets by Johann Christoph Bach a few years ago, and they were hugely stimulating pieces in their own right. Not just simply as being Johann Sebastian’s predecessor, but actually fascinating pieces in the whole puzzle of early German Baroque music between Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Has it ever happened that something historically very interesting has been discovered, but the piece itself isn’t so great?

If the music doesn’t stimulate me as a musician, just because it’s historically important isn’t enough, really. That’s certainly not the case with Johann Christoph Bach, because he has such an individual voice as a composer. And yes, I can see him as a crucial link between Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, and Johann Sebastian Bach; but intrinsically, he has such an identifiable voice, as a composer of funerary music, music written in times of trouble and distress. He was somebody who was born during the dying embers of the Thirty Years’ War, who had so many career problems, health problems within his family, conflicts with the authorities—which was certainly something he passed onto his first cousin once removed, Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s very easy for us, with this distance of time, to underestimate the difficulties under which those composers had to work. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.