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John Eliot Gardiner is an English conductor who has helped shape the direction of classical music performance for decades. He talked with DW about conducting Beethoven's symphonies at the Beethovenfest.
Deutsche Welle: Your interpretations of Beethoven became a sensation in the world of classical music. Do you feel any particular affinity with Beethoven himself?
John Eliot Gardiner: I feel that Beethoven is one of the very first composers who speaks to us as a human being, that he lets the mask drop and allows us to see right into his soul. His symphonic music is so extraordinary because he invests this music with so much emotional, political and musical content. I think it sometimes gets forgotten that Beethoven was brought up here in this very gemütlich, bourgeois, friendly German town - in effect, quite provincial on the edge of the Rhine. But his mind was somewhere else. His mind was very much involved in the political events of the day.
Beethoven is among the first composers to let the mask fall, according to Gardiner
At the Beethovenfest this year, you are conducting the First, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. What are some of the pitfalls and rewards in performing the Ninth?
Well the Ninth is beyond any sort of time frame or time scale, the largest symphony ever at the time that it was composed. And it was hugely radical in that he suddenly introduces singers in the last movement. But before you get to that point, the first three movements themselves are of such proportion and such epic stature that you've got an extraordinary summation of all that he achieved in the other eight symphonies, while also charting new territory in the use of orchestral sonority.
And you have to remember that Beethoven was deaf and had been profoundly deaf for quite some while, so he was operating on his aural memory as to how orchestras and instruments function. The amazing thing is how few errors he made. This symphony is the most challenging of them all and the most rewarding.
Last night you conducted the Fourth and the Fifth, and tonight you will conduct the First and the Ninth. Did you discover anything about how these two pairs of symphonies relate to each other by putting them in this arrangement?
Well, the obvious thing is the First and the Ninth being his first and the last works - you've got the whole gamut of Beethoven's expression and experiments with the orchestra. The very opening chord, which is such a shock, of the First Symphony, is announcing him, saying: "I am here, I'm the latest kid on the block, and I have something special to say!" And the Ninth Symphony of course is the non plus ultra.
Bit with Beethoven, you make a statement about one symphony, and you found that you have contradicted yourself or he has contradicted you by coming up with something completely opposite. You can't put him in a nice little box and say, "This symphony is about this, and that symphony is about that." They're all about everything.
The maestro divides his time between two loves: agriculture and music
Throughout your career, you've been associated with a concept known as historically-informed performance practice. It's an approach that has gained widely in popularity in the decades that you've worked as a conductor. Do you feel, in the course of that time, that the concept has become watered-down?
Not really, no. I think it served an important purpose when it was first formulated by those amazing pioneers in the 60s and 70s. Obviously Nikolaus Harnoncourt is an incredibly important figure in our universe. He's not the only one, but he was there right at the beginning of it. The whole idea was fuelled by us tending to perform the whole repertoire from William Byrd to Pierre Boulez in basically the same style and with the same sonic means of production, and that in the process we were missing things. And the great experimental work that was carried out in the 70s, 80s and 90s was to try and find an appropriate language, an appropriate sonority, an appropriate style of discourse for each composer and each country and each era - to make it much more diverse and much more specific.
And I think that's gained ground, and it's terrific. There are exceptions. There are areas still on our musical planet where there are musicians, conductors, solo violinists and pianists who don't want anything to do with it and regard the whole thing as an irrelevance and an amateur folly in some way. They're entitled to their opinion. But on the other hand, I think that there's far greater acceptance today of the enrichment that's happened to our whole way of listening to familiar music of the past. The music of Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and so on - thanks to having a spotlight shone on it and reassessed, reappraised. And I think the proof of it is the way a conventional, modern symphony orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra has taken on board a lot of the stylistic features of the historically-informed movement and assimilated them and made it their own, still playing on modern instruments. But their interpretation has now radically changed as a result of exposure to that style of influence. And I think that must be good.
You've said before that farming is more than a hobby of yours, that it's an occupation alongside your life as a musician. How do these two roles complement each other - does farming offer rest from the stresses of life as a musician?
Yes, it does that, and so does tree planting. There's something very sane about getting your hands dirty and being involved in animal husbandry, crop husbandry, planting of trees, being connected with the cycle of seasons, the turning year, the problems of weather, the problems of looking after the planet, looking after the means that nourish us, whether it be animal foods or vegetarian crops. And that's what I love doing. I mean, trees outlast all of us. So, to me, it's a wonderful balance and an antidote to the music profession, which I would never give up at all. As long as I've got breath in me I would want to be a musician. But the two things are in a way in balance.
Interview: Greg Wiser, Roman Berchenko
Editor: Rick Fulker