The Belgian baroque violinist, violoncello da spalla player, and conductor Sigiswald Kuijken was born in 1944 near Brussels. His way of playing early music makes the continuing modern-style performances of many works seem, at least to my ears, completely irrelevant.When I reached out to Kuijken to ask if he’d like to be interviewed, he wrote back that he’d be happy to speak, and “I don’t have a cell phone, as hard to believe as that may seem.” He shares an email address with his wife, Marleen Kuijken-Thiers, a violist who performs in his early music ensemble La Petite Bande and with the Kuijken String Quartet. As he talked, he spoke passionately and seriously about several subjects, but had a way of finishing a thought, pausing briefly, then laughing nervously—a disarming punctuation to some very honest words.

VAN: You don’t have a cell phone and have spoken critically about social media. Do you think engaging with the past makes you look differently at the present?

Sigiswald Kuijken: I’m not sure that has to do with it. I’m not against the present, and I’m not a nostalgic person. It’s just that everything feels so hectic these days. I don’t want to be reachable all the time. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I play early music [laughs].

When, or for what, do you want to be unreachable?

For everything. I mean, of course there are times when I have to be available, and I am. But it’s a pity if it’s all the time. Things get too hectic and the sense of calm gets lost.

In an brief documentary about you and your brothers, there’s a part where you’re asked to compare your personalities. “I am more anarchistic” than the others, you say.

That’s true. But what does “anarchistic” even mean, really? Anarchy doesn’t work as a system, either. I do have a soft spot for the idea of anarchism, but obviously it can’t be allowed to go too far.

Is there such a thing as positive anarchy in music?

Yes, but of course it can’t be pure anarchy. Everyone should do his or her own thing. I don’t like orchestras where it’s just the conductor giving the commands, and the others have to keep quiet; where they have to play how he says and that’s all there is to it. After a while, musicians lose their motivation when it’s like that. The conductor is there to serve the musicians. And the musicians should serve one another, certainly they shouldn’t try to please the conductor more than their own colleagues.

I also don’t like it when adherence to the rules is the only thing that counts. Freedom flows from each individual musician, a certain basic trust has to be the precondition. You have to find the right people for the repertoire, and then build on that trust. That’s only anarchy in the sense that it’s not just one man telling everybody else what to do.

Then again, of course, when the conductor is excellent and the musicians less so, that maybe it’s for the best when he takes matters into his own hands [laughs]. But it’s the musicians’ responsibility to be up to the task. And when the conductor is the only one who gets it, then it’s even more his responsibility to be of service to the others.

When you’re working with La Petite Bande, do the musicians give you suggestions? And do you accept them?

Yes, sometimes. We’ve spent a long time working and evolving together, and I see that the musicians enjoy what they do. I don’t need to prove that I’m right about a particular issue. Our style has grown out of the pleasure we take in playing, our shared musical goals.

Do you have to prove that you’re right when you’re working with other musicians?

I never have to prove that I’m right about anything. You can try to be bossy and pressure people, but then nothing interesting will come of it.

YouTube video
Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion; Christoph Prégardien, Huub Claessens, Gabriele Rossmanith, Andreas Scholl, Markus Schaeffer, Werner Van Mechelen (Soloists), Sigiswald Kuijken (Conductor), La Petite Bande

As a young man, you performed with the legendary harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. You’ve referred to this time as the “glory days.” What are some particular memories you have of him?

I learned a ton from him, not just about music, but about culture more generally as well. We played concerts in Italy and went to the museums and the churches together. I discovered those places through his personal, experienced commentary, which was fantastic for me.

Musically, he was always interesting and convincing. He didn’t talk much, didn’t have any theories. He rehearsed as little as possible, and spent as much time as possible looking for common ground.

You were a professor of baroque violin in The Hague and Brussels, now you give masterclasses and teach a summer academy. Comparing your students with your own younger days, what’s changed?

Old music was newer then. Now there are so many conservatories, records, and competitions for early music, and people act like you can learn everything you need to from those institutions. It’s a whole new mechanism. But I think that the people who truly have something inside them need to avoid the institutions at all costs. They shouldn’t simply listen to how other people play, but learn to develop their own intuition and ability instead.

If they find a teacher who can help them along their way, that’s great. But it’s a shame when students look for teachers whom they can imitate. It’s also a shame when teachers teach with in the hope that their students will play the same way as them. In lessons, the first aim has to be to really get to know the student on his or her own terms. Of course, there are some general things that everybody has to learn.

Such as?

Like how to read music. In baroque music, this is incredibly important. As a teacher you need to communicate how to really look at a score, recognize the harmonies and figures, identify harmonic tension. The problem is that very often, young people really don’t have much knowledge of practical harmony. So they play by ear: “This sounds good to me.” Which isn’t a strong argument, of course. Because what is beauty, anyway? First of all it needs to be right. When people shape a phrase incorrectly, don’t resolve the dissonances, and just think in terms of horizontal, melodic phrases—there’s no benefit or beauty to that at all. It’s just dumb.

On YouTube, there’s a video of you performing Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin…

That’s possible. I don’t go on YouTube.

The video has comments, and while almost everyone seems to like the interpretation, there’s a discussion about how much perfection they expect, particularly regarding things like intonation.

I understand that completely. These days there are people who play perfectly in concert, which is something I marvel at. Unfortunately, that’s never been the case for me, it still isn’t. But that’s also not the most important thing. It’s not about saying, “OK, it’s fine, I’ll play the wrong notes.” That’s no good either. You have to do what you can. But you also don’t need to drop dead just because you played a wrong note in a concert.

In 2012, La Petite Bande lost its government funding. The ensemble continues to perform and is financed privately. How’s that going?

A lot is possible. Still, the government funding was important to us. Until 2012, we had a budget of about €600,000 per year, which was obviously great. And the Flemish government has a reputation as one of the leading providers of cultural funding in Europe, so that wasn’t the problem. There were just a few people on the commission who felt that we shouldn’t get the money anymore. Colleagues of mine haven’t had any problems. La Petite Bande really was a unique target in that sense. But since that’s what they wanted, there was nothing we could do, we had to accept the decision. The worm was already in the apple.

Is it hard to get enough money from private sources?

It’s hard; we’re doing what we can. We’re sticking to smaller programs: we can’t do the kind of “The Magic Flute” productions anymore where we were on stage with 70 people. We do smaller productions with smaller instrumentations, and try to find presenters who can pay for everything. We used to be able to say, “If you pay half, that’s fine, we’ll contribute the other half.” And we can’t do that anymore, which isn’t great.

I play solo recitals, and all the income I earn goes into the orchestra’s coffers. That helps, but it can’t replace everything—I can’t earn €600,000 a year playing recitals [laughs]. I also wrote a book about Bach which we’re selling, and which people get if they donate to the orchestra. That helped a lot in terms of people understanding and donating if they could. We’re preparing a new mailing now and sending out copies of the book again soon—we need this income, otherwise things will get quite difficult.

But that’s the way things are. We’re thankful for all the years we had [funding]. Now we have to find a different way out of the burning building. It’s hard. What’s particularly tough is that the justification for leaving us out was, “If you do early music, early art, there has to be a connection to today.” Everything has to be “updated.” Which is exactly the thing I don’t want to do.

Why not?

If you do “Don Giovanni,” it shouldn’t take place in New York, Sydney, or Moscow, and it shouldn’t be brought into the present day. These pieces are immortal, they don’t need arranging. If you say you’re playing “Don Giovanni” and it’s a piece of modern theater with music by Mozart, it’s not the same piece. The old scores have a lot of instructions, including stage indications. The way the piece is written, it’s complete—it’s all there.

But you have to be able to read it and want to read it. That’s the thing. It’s a matter of principle, and my principle is: the piece is the piece. “Updating” is miserable. It deforms it. You ruin the pieces that way.

Are you able to convince directors to agree with you on that, or find people who share your views?

They don’t think they way. What’s taken hold in the official world of opera today is the idea that it’s all about modernization, and people think that’s the only interesting thing to do.

I’ve never wanted to conduct an opera before I knew how the staging was going to be. In opera, the visual and audio elements, the singing and dancing, add up to a single unit. When you preserve that unit, the results are incredibly moving. But these people often don’t even know that, because they’ve never tried it that way.

In the past I have done operas that went in the right direction. But it’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve been truly happy with the results. My daughter, Marie, has directed two Haydn operas, “La canterina” and “L’isola disabitata,” that we did in semi-staged versions. And we did them the way they were described in the original sources. To do that, of course, you need to have a real familiarity with and understanding and love of the early staging conventions—plus good taste and conviction. And it was wonderful to see: without the forced “modernity,” the pieces began to shine in all their simplicity, directness, and sense of humor.

At what point does it make sense to do early music repertoire on modern instruments?

My preference is to start with the music from Beethoven’s time, and later: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, that’s all fine. These days I’ve been doing Mozart and Haydn with modern instruments too, when I’m asked. I know pretty much what I can and can’t do with the musicians. But that’s the opportunity: you go as far as you can.

Bach I don’t like to do with the modern orchestra. The language is so incredibly different that I almost don’t have the courage. It would be hard to do the Brandenburg Concertos or the St. Matthew Passion with modern instruments, because there’s such a gap between the instruments and the style.

You spend a lot of time working on music that was written 300 years ago. When musicians and musicologists 300 years from now look at our music, what will they think?

If I knew I’d tell you. What would Bach have said if he could have seen a modern Steinway? The question is absurd, of course. We can’t know what people in 300 years will think of Stockhausen and Boulez and how they’ll be played. Honestly, it’s really not an interesting question.

YouTube video
Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburgisches Konzert No. 3; La Petite Bandee

Are you interested in performing music by composers like Stockhausen and Boulez?

I did that a lot in the late 1960s and ‘70s. I played 50-50 baroque and avant-garde music, which I thought was fantastic.

Why did you stop?

The ensemble we had, in Brussels, actually came apart all at once, like a cake that rises too much and then collapses. At the time, none of us were really sad, either, although we did good things. There wasn’t any conflict, just the realities of life: we were all doing things in different directions and early music was the one that held.

The mixture is coming back now. A lot of people who do programming think that they’re changing the world, although the idea is already at least 50 years old. It’s a bit pretentious to say, “I’ve invented something completely new”—that needs to get scaled back a little.

In an interview with VAN, Reinhard Goebel said, “Sigiswald Kuijken thinks he personally is a primary source.” What do you think he meant by that, and do you have a response?

[Laughs] I think what he was trying to say was: I aim to be as original as possible. At least, I hope that he didn’t mean more than that. To say that I think I’m a “primary source” would be going to far, I’ve never felt that. Probably he just meant that I’m a purist. And if that’s what he thinks that’s not a problem.

I’m still interested in playing music on the instruments that it was written for. I’m trying to avoid using the techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries in music where they don’t apply. Like when someone conducts a Bach Suite. That’s just not done. Either you play, or you stay silent. ¶

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