For some interviews, you exchange what feels like dozens of emails with publicists. You’re asked what you want to ask. When I wrote to Reinhard Goebel to see if he wanted to speak to me, he wrote, “You won’t be needing to suggest topics for us to discuss. I can talk about a lot of things, and even make sense while doing it.”

For 33 years, Goebel led the early music ensemble Musica Antiqua, with whom he made over 50 recordings. In May 2006, the group broke up, and Goebel, who suffered from focal dystonia, stopped playing the violin. In 2010, he was appointed Professor of Baroque Violin at the Mozarteum, in Salzburg. Now that he doesn’t play, he reads for eight hours a day. “Do you know how big of an advantage that is? You read more than other people do in a year,” he said.

Goebel is a bit of a big mouth, but you’d be hard-pressed to hold it against him. We spoke about how historical performance has gone mainstream, the thrill of knowledge, and the deification of composers. False modesty didn’t hold him back.

VAN: Looking at the old photos from when Musica Antiqua was founded—in Cologne in 1973—there’s a strong activist, anti-establishment vibe. Did its members share a political outlook?

Reinhard Goebel: I never understood people who saw it like that. For me, it was always about the musical reasoning for what we did. It’s true that we did have the kind of people who would complain that, “Oh, we can’t play in Chile,” or “We can’t play for Reagan.” I didn’t get it, that side of things didn’t interest me.

What was the impetus that led to Musica Antiqua’s formation?

Musicians are practical people; they want to play their instruments. Harnoncourt liked to write that his ensemble [Concentus Musicus Wien] spent the entire decade from 1950 to 1960 practicing. But of course they weren’t just practicing, they were trying to reinvent the wheel—you need to push things to extremes for that to work. It’s not like they did the research first, then started performing. They pushed things to the breaking point. And sometimes their first shot at it was better than their second and third shots. It’s very touching, but when you get down to it, it’s full of errors in the philology.

The beards heard ‘round the world: Musica Antiqua Köln on an album cover from 1983.
The beards heard ‘round the world: Musica Antiqua Köln on an album cover from 1983.

Since then, I think it’s fair to say that “historically informed performance” has become mainstream. What do you think?

Yes, it’s like, you dabble a little and play the baroque bow. I really couldn’t care less about the superficial things: the bow, the gut strings, no endpin, whatever. I want to focus on getting to the very bottom of the material, as deep as I possibly can. I’m doing a recording of the Brandenburg Concerti with the Berliner Barock Solisten, who play on modern instruments. It’s possible to play with the agility and zest you need on them too. It’s not like it’s written on the fingerboard of a modern violin that you have to play it with a vibrato as wide as the Amazon.

It seems like the people who were once student activists are now all venture capitalists. Similarly, it seems like your fellow musicians from the early music scene are now conducting Berlioz or Bruckner.

I’m sure that someday we’ll be doing Hindemith on period instruments. That’s the market, the quest for publicity—everybody wants to get there before the next guy. But you’re not going to convince me that it’s OK for musicians to jump from Monteverdi or Mozart’s last Symphony to the “Symphonie fantastique.” You might be able to convince someone of that if they’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, though.

Flexiblility is the most trendy trait for musicians to have right now. Do you think it’s important?

No, I don’t believe in that at all. But there are still scattered specialists out there: in early music, and in new music.

Sure, but I’m saying that early music specialists are doing more now than they used to.

Because it’s easy to indulge the fantasy of doing it all. People think that if you can do a Bach Cantata well enough that nobody walks out—without any protests from the Protestants—that you’re qualified for Berlioz.

So if you’re good at one kind of music, it doesn’t mean you’re good at other kinds?

No. [The German painter and art forger Wolfgang] Beltracchi was able to work in every style. Musicians aren’t capable of it.

You’ve always said that your repertoire ends with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. Haven’t you ever felt the need to look beyond that?

I only make music when it has strict external rules that I can subject myself to. That’s why I was never really able to delve into Romantic music—there’s far too little theoretical basis for what I would be doing. I know that Joseph Joachim played without vibrato, but that doesn’t get me anywhere close to a complete interpretation. I need clear, predictable structures that I can rely on. When you have that, you can sightread a symphony in a certain style and have it be right. You don’t have to wander around with your divining rod, looking for the emotional content.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, MWV 1048, I. Allegro; Musica Antiqua Köln, Reinhard Goebel (Leader) • Link to full album

You often get invitations from symphony orchestras where they ask you to rehearse a 17th century program and give the players a crash course in historical performance. What’s that like?

It’s not a crash course—what I’m doing is putting together a program in four days. Here’s what it’s like: I put together a watertight, idiot-proof score. Everything’s in there: every tenuto marking, every dynamic nuance, every musical vector, and then it all works very well. The more relaxed the orchestra is, the more diverse, smaller, and more flexible, the easier it is. But if just one player—even the second oboe—is lethargic, the shit hits the fan.

“A program in four days.” Goebel at his conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, in October 2013.

It’s pretty common knowledge that orchestras don’t love guest conductors who talk and explain a lot. How do you avoid coming across like a substitute teacher?

True, that’s always kind of a problem. After the first rehearsal someone will take me aside and tell me, discretely, that I have to let them play more. Or they’ll say, very politely, that they don’t really want to know about all that stuff. And I say, I know you don’t want to know, but I’m going to tell you anyway. If you want to play a dance, you need to explain what the dance is at the beginning, so that later on they can let it loose.

Is it easier to work with modern symphony orchestras, or with experienced baroque ensembles?

I prefer the modern ensembles, because it’s less like pulling teeth. I don’t have to show up with my crane and wrecking ball. And the conversations that I used to have aren’t as common: “We’ve never played it that fast.” When was the last time you played it? “15 years ago I think.” That doesn’t happen any more.

What bothers me about early music ensembles is that everything they know, they know second hand. They don’t do any investigating of their own. A lot of them are pretty hostile towards me—it’s a kind of regicide, of course.

Reinhard Goebel (Photo: Christa Bleier)

Does that mean you can’t play Bach, Biber, or Cannabich, if you haven’t read about them in depth?

…or if you have someone at the front of the group who can explain things well. That’s the way it is. Bach began writing the Brandenburg Concerti around 300 years ago—it’s not like you can just know anything about him, through some kind of spiritual connection. You have to study him. You can’t say, “I’m just naturally very close to Bach.” Some of my colleagues are like that. Sigiswald Kuijken thinks he personally is a primary source.

So claiming a personal connection with the composer is a way of saying that you don’t know much about him?

Yes. The way composers are deified—it’s very tabloid. How do we know that Bach didn’t abuse his daughters? That he didn’t use force to make sure his wife performed her “marital duties”? We’re projecting a closeness to him that leads to a kind of cannibalism, you eat Bach up and digest him and after that you feel close to him. And in doing so, we get around the fact that an interpretation should be up for objective debate.

How would you respond to people who say that it’s more important that an interpretation is touching than objectively correct?

I would say that when Bach got his cantata text on Mondays, he couldn’t sit around and wait for his muse. For me, music is like a secret code: by using the nomenclature of the 18th century, you can reverse engineer the meaning out of it. You can compare, for example, the Brandenburg Concerti with Bach’s Cantatas and get a sense of the structures. We heard a horn? We think of hunting. We heard a trumpet? We think of Pheme. We heard recorder? We think of the meadows. We heard gamba and violas? We think of mourning music, of death. These are the objective raisons d’être of that specific music. My students need to be able to discuss a piece on its own terms. To figure out what the score says about how to play it, to reason logically from the one thing that’s written in bar 16 and the slightly different thing in bar 18.

Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto in D Minor for two chalumeaux, I. Largo; Erik Hoeprich and Lisa Klewitt (Chalumeaux), Musica Antiqua Köln, Reinhard Goebel (Leader) • Link to full album

And are your students able to do this?

Some members of the young generation are so incredibly naïve that it’s almost painful. They’ve never been put in a position where they’ve had to explain anything besides themselves. They say, “This is how I want it, so this is how I’ll do it.” That’s how it starts, musicians’ self-righteousness and arrogance.  I have to say, that’s absolutely the wrong way to approach a composition or art in general. And if you don’t learn it early, then it can be really hard to pick it up later. I try to make it clear to all my students that they need to look for something they can specialize in, even if it’s totally ridiculous. Because you need to form your synapses somehow, stay alert. A student of mine who’s a virtuoso player came to me once, completely wiped out. She said she had no idea why she was making music anymore. I told her to pick up a book. Three days later, she came back and said that it was incredibly hard for her at first. I remembered learning, as a 10-year-old, Latin vocabulary—studying something that I had absolutely no connection to. Agricola, the farmer; ara, the altar; avia; the grandmother. It hurt so much that I was screaming at home while doing it. With my student, it worked. She keeps winning prizes, she knows how to combine knowledge and ability. You can’t look away. She plays violin 10 times better than I ever will, and she’s charming and knowledgeable!

Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, KV 216, I. Allegro; Mirijam Contzen (Violin), Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie, Reinhard Goebel (Leader) • Link to full album

Can it hurt to know too much?

No. Knowledge is the fount of inspiration! It’s breathtaking. Last semester I went from lexicon to lexicon, looking for an explanation of a sentence I found that was critical of Bach. And it was such an elementary joy when I found it. Knowledge is thrilling. And the more you know, the more thrilling it is.

Reading reviews of your concerts, a criticism that I came across a lot was that your interpretations are too powerful, too “virile,” that they’re forte all the time. Does that show that historical performance, in the mainstream concert hall, comes with a certain set of sonic expectations?

Yes. It’s this idea of the chamber music-sized, transparent “St. Matthew Passion.” For me it’s the opposite, it’s about empathy and pathos, less about downsizing.

How did that expectation come about?

It was at the end of the 1970s. People stopped listening. They stopped noticing that Harnoncourt’s Bach Cantatas are unbearable, that Gustav Leonhardt’s are much better. At the time, if I had written that it’s horrible the way Hampson looks for the notes before he hits them, there would have been a total shit-storm, nobody would have dared. Which shaped the conversation. Philippe Herreweghe is kind of an example of that, his recordings show the trend. I like CDs where you don’t know what it is or who it is. Recently I listened to one and I was thinking how great it was that the boy singers have gotten so good; though it’s not 100 percent clean, it’s very good. And then I found out it was women singers, who sounded like boys. That that doesn’t bother anybody!

Anecdotes like that—do you think people see you as a know-it-all?

That’s pejorative, it’s supposed to be a negative term. I think most people are afraid of me, because I have the knowledge. I personally copied out Musica Antiqua’s entire repertoire. I could write a dissertation on every one of our records. I recently tried that out again, I wrote 20 pages on the Mozart [Violin] Concerti, to show people, Hey, look, I still know best. ¶