“You should have been a shoemaker!” Johann Sebastian Bach snapped at his organist during the cantata rehearsal in Leipzig, after he had torn off his wig and thrown it in his face. This is one of the attacks by the 18th century German composer that John Eliot Gardiner (Fontmell Magna, Dorset, aged 80) has compiled in his book Music in the Sky Castle (Cliff). An excellent monograph in which he devotes an extensive chapter entitled “The Incorrigible “Singer”” to painting a portrait of Bach’s meanest and most violent side. A way of justifying the more human and even mundane reading we hear in his superb performances, though he now seems to allude to the folds of his own personality as well.
The legendary English director starred in an embarrassing incident at the Berlioz festival in La Côte-Saint-André on the night of August 22nd. Backstage, Gardiner attacked bassist William Thomas, who had sung the role of Narbal in a concert performance of the sprawling opera The Trojans. The incident caused a lot of media coverage after it was published on the Slipped Disc portal. The English conductor apologized heartily and withdrew from his ensemble’s international tour of Berlioz’s opera. Now he has just announced his retirement from the stage by the end of the year to undergo therapy.
Orchestra conductor John Eliot Gardiner, at the Palau de la Música Catalana in 2021.EUROPA PRESS (Europa Press)More information
The reasons that led to this violent reaction are unclear, and justification by heat or medication did not help to mitigate the consequences. The truth is that few musicians who know Gardiner were surprised by this incident. Back in February 2014, the English conductor hit a trumpeter of the London Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal after throwing a score in his face. Then the matter did not go beyond the pages of the satirical magazine Private Eye, where the former general director of this orchestra, John Boyden, reported on it in his famous column under the pseudonym Lunchtime O’Boulez. And the same portal Slipped Disc clarified its solution with a written apology to the musician who was attacked, although without mentioning the name of the director.
The British magazine The Spectator has been one of the few media outlets in recent years to broadcast the most violent side of Gardiner, who goes by the title Sir. In 2013, Stephen Walsh published a glowing review of his Bach book, commenting on its “notorious rudeness” towards artists and colleagues. Several articles followed, such as that by Damiam Thompson, in which he revealed the nickname Jiggy, which artists use to refer to him. And last January, Richard Bratby admitted that if you talk to experienced musicians, almost all of them can tell a chilling Gardiner story.
The omertá covering up these unacceptable behaviors is related to his musical prestige. We are talking about one of the greatest living interpreters of Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz, with dozens of important recordings of all these composers. Without going any further: at his last appearance in Spain, on April 11th at the Palau de la Música Catalana, we heard him perform an extraordinary Mass in B minor by Bach. He is also one of the most important pioneers of historically informed performance practice and founded three legendary ensembles: the Monteverdi Choir (1964), the English Baroque Soloists (1978) and the Orchester Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1989). Added to this is his haughty and sophisticated charisma, which he shares with the pride of being a farmer, having inherited his family’s business in Dorset. And also the erudition that we can read in his book on Bach mentioned above and soon in another monograph he is preparing on Monteverdi.
John Eliot Gardiner in September 2007 in Dorset. Luc Castel (Getty Images)
Also the contrast between the brilliant Dr. Gardiner and the violent Mr. Jiggy have proven themselves due to their strength. Many British musicians owe their careers to him and would prefer not to be excluded from his numerous projects. But he also has good contacts in high places, starting with King Carlos III, who commissioned him to write some of the music for his coronation. Therefore, no one doubts that this withdrawal will be a brace so that this unfortunate episode is forgotten and Gardiner will return in 2024 without major consequences. However, the public reaction to the event shows clear signs of an important change in our society in general and in the profession of orchestra and choir conductors in particular.
One of the major mistakes in Todd Field’s recent film, Tár, was failing to notice this sea change. And in trying to make his main character believable, he reproduced in a woman the worst qualities of the egotistical, manipulative alpha director. Almost all of the great legendary conductors of the past were violent tyrants on the podium. And from some, like Arturo Toscanini, we have solid testimonies of their terrible attacks. But we live in a society in which genius is also required to have moral worth.
Today, authority at the orchestra’s podium is achieved through an attitude of collaboration rather than intrusiveness. We’ve seen this with some great directors of the past. Consider, for example, Carlos Kleiber and the notes he wrote for the musicians during rehearsal breaks (the famous Kleibergrams), with indications that he preferred not to perform them in public. And also the amazing efficiency of Mariss Jansons in preparing a new program, which made him the most popular conductor of all orchestras.
Today, experienced conductors like Riccardo Muti freely admit that “orchestral musicians are better prepared than conductors”. And some, like Herbert Blomstedt, have developed the intriguing theory that he sees the musicians in an orchestra as “a bit like angels,” whom he personally thanks at the end of each concert for their work behind the scenes. Among the youngest, such as Klaus Mäkelä and Joana Mallwitz, we admire the visible (and audible) complicity they develop with each individual instrumentalist in their ensembles. Today the myth of the maestro has been replaced by the protagonism of the orchestra. And the case of Dr. Gardiner and Mr. Jiggy is very strange indeed.
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