A new biography of the great composer fleshes out the man with revealing details of his early life, writes
Last month he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first performances at the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, of the Monteverdi Vespers — he gave a repeat performance at King’s to mark the milestone — in which he tried to overcome the prevailing “polite, beautifully blended” English choral sound for something more emotionally immediate. “That performance was probably very imperfect but it was encouraging enough for me to decide that I wanted to study music full-time,” he says of the 1964 performance.
With his Monteverdi Choir Gardiner brought similarly fresh insights to Bach’s choral masterpieces, bringing exuberant dance rhythms to the B minor Mass and the great Passions, along with drama and contemplation. In 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, he took the choir on a Bach pilgrimage around Europe and the US, performing the cantatas on the days they were intended in the church calendar.
Gardiner — who grew up with the famous 1746 Haussmann portrait of Bach, which was on loan to the Gardiners for safekeeping — has written a highly readable account of the composer that reveals his deep relationship to the music. Have his interpretations of Bach changed with the new insights into the composer? Gardiner says the work of interpretation is never finished. “Not consciously; who’s to say?” he says. “There are so many different approaches to Bach that are possible and legitimate,” he says, adding musicology and performance quality have leapt ahead since he started such work a half-century ago.
“Musical performance should not be a carbon copy or a replica of what you did the day before. It will always evolve, depending on the time of day, the place, the acoustics, the personnel involved, all sorts of factors that have a deep impact on the way the music emerges.”
A statue of the
enigmatic composer; John Eliot Gardiner,
below; an undated portrait
of Bach, right