Wall Street Journal interview with Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Wall Street Journal (U.S. edition), by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, 14 November 2012

He Conducts an Art Tour

'That certain artists and composers are of the same generation doesn't always mean that there is a significant link between them. But Goya and Beethoven share the sense of being possessed by inner demons. They also share an awareness of humanity at its most squalid and disreputable—particularly in the context of war," observes Sir John Eliot Gardiner.


Ken Fallin- The famed music director, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, discusses the relationships between art and music.

A revolutionizing exponent of the music of Claudio Monteverdi and Johann Sebastian Bach as well as Ludwig van Beethoven, Mr. Gardiner is the founding music director of the Monteverdi Choir and the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Having discovered his profound interest in relationships between art and music during an informal conversation earlier this year, I arranged for us to resume this discussion at London's National Gallery during his organizations' Beethoven Tour, a venture complemented by the Orchestre's white-hot new CD of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies, recorded live at Carnegie Hall last year.

From Wednesday through Nov. 20, the choir and orchestra are taking that tour to the U.S., with programs featuring two of Beethoven's most spiritual works—the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis.

The previous night, I heard their revelatory account of the latter at Barbican Hall. The splendid choir and soloists rose mightily to the challenges of Beethoven's craggy, complex vocal writing. And the orchestra's blazing period-style trumpets, magnificently sonorous horns and trombones, dark-hued woodwinds, incisive timpani and gut-strings imparted almost speechlike textures to this beseeching music that underscored its disquieting pessimism.

Thus we start our National Gallery visit by discussing Beethoven vis-à-vis Francisco de Goya's satirical 1798 painting "A scene from 'The Forcibly Bewitched,'" in which a timid priest frantically refills an oil lamp he's been told he must keep burning if he is to stay alive. Though the grotesque little priest seems comical, Goya paints him engulfed in menacing darkness that suggests the political climate of Goya's Europe.

"Both Goya and Beethoven endured a tumultuous era of widespread warfare and social upheaval—the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars, the Peninsular Wars in Spain," Mr. Gardiner notes. "And both were scarred by it. Goya vents this in the macabre fantasy here and in other works like 'The Disasters of War' prints. Beethoven expresses it in the Missa Solemnis. During Napoleon's bombardment of Vienna in 1809, Beethoven cowered in a cellar, covering his deafened ears to preserve what little hearing he still had. That he was haunted by this terrifying experience is reflected by the Missa's desperate quest for peace and remission overwhelmed by doubt. It is especially apparent in the Agnus Dei movement, usually a comforting passage in musical settings of the Mass, but which Beethoven charged with skepticism. He writes it in the dark key of B-minor, dashing the hope for peace by the martial timpani and the sense of incipient warfare or removal of divine benevolence.

"Imagine what it must be like to be deaf yet to hear in such blistering detail all those sonorities in your head. So, I think that if Beethoven had seen this Goya painting he would have said, 'I too am possessed like that.'"

Our conversation touches on Mr. Gardiner's forthcoming book on Bach, scheduled for British publication next September. "It's less a conventional biography," he explains, "than a series of 14 contextualizing approaches to Bach through the music." For instance, one chapter explores "the family ramifications and what it meant to be a Bach, while comparing Europe's parallel musical dynasties at the time: the Bachs in Germany, the Scarlattis in Italy, the Bendas of Bohemia and the Couperins in France. Another chapter . . . investigates Bach's relationship to Martin Luther and the complexity of the religious element in Bach's music. And on it goes."

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Luther's close friend and portraitist, is a painter Mr. Gardiner identifies with Bach. "Cranach is so much part of Lutheran iconography that he's an inescapable part of Bach's heritage, and Bach must have been introduced to his work during his years in Weimar, where Cranach's house still stands."

Cranach's "Cupid Complaining to Venus" (c. 1525) uses pagan imagery to present a Lutheran moral that Bach would have recognized. The winged child of the goddess of love protests being stung by bees while stealing a honeycomb. A Latin inscription in the upper right reads, "life's pleasure mingled with pain."

"I always feel the plague and the Dance of Death hovering in the background of Cranach's work," Mr. Gardiner says. "And death plagued Bach throughout his life. He was orphaned at 9, and as an adult lost 10 or 11 of his 23 children, not to mention his first wife. Bach so wonderfully evokes the concept of the Dance of Death in his Easter cantata, 'Christ lag in Todesbanden,' based on Martin Luther's eponymous hymn of the Resurrection and the struggle between life and death."

Related to this theme, Caravaggio's powerfully emotional "The Supper at Emmaus" (1601) is a painting whose resonance, for Mr. Gardiner, embraces Bach, Beethoven and Caravaggio's contemporary Monteverdi. Caravaggio depicts the post-Crucifixion episode, in St. Luke, when an apparent stranger sups at an inn with two of Christ's disciples. As he blesses the bread, the disciples recognize him as Christ. To the two disciples Caravaggio adds a bemused innkeeper.

"By means of sharp light and shadow, gesture and illusion, Caravaggio re-creates the sheer wonderment of a miracle. At the center is this beardless, tranquil stranger whose hand raised in benediction almost reaches out beyond the canvas to the viewer. The two disciples react so differently to their sudden awareness—the one on the right with his outstretched arms seems ready to embrace Christ. The disciple on the left stares at Christ's face and is ready to spring from his chair in astonishment and joy. Meanwhile the puzzled innkeeper can't understand what's going on."

The disciples' excited gestures are those of everyday people, I note. The whole composition embodies realistic shock. Everything around the calm central figure is off-balance; shadows are exaggerated as if caused by a flash of light, a fruit basket teeters at the table's edge. Hands balloon out of proportion—fingertips oversized, arms foreshortened. Caravaggio confronts us with a silent emotional explosion that transcends even the most eloquent speech.

"You certainly find this emotion in Monteverdi," Mr. Gardiner says. "Consider the moment in his opera 'Orfeo,' when Orfeo learns of Euridice's death and responds with a single word, the soft, anguished cry, 'Ohimè [Alas].' Yet over a century after Monteverdi's day Caravaggio's emotion resonates strongly in Bach's cantatas for the second and third days of Easter, especially the wonderful Road to Emmaus Cantata VI, 'Bleib bei uns.' And this epochal, iconoclastic work anticipates Beethoven, indeed all those subversive composers who would not follow the rules."