The same religious feelings stretch across the centuries, and Bach’s music touches something profound. It has the power to suggest a “savoir de vie”, to use the words of the poet Yves Bonnefoy. His music is a doorway to the sacred.
I think it was important that we had decided from the outset to perform the cantatas in churches (apart from a few exceptions in the French part of the tour), and on the exact day for which they were written. The music made perfect sense when performed in this way, and its spiritual quality seemed to affect believers and non-believers alike. It’s as though the music had found its true home. Sacred works fit most easily into the special places of prayer for which they were intended. The connection between religious music and religious architecture goes beyond their liturgical context; it is as if the music at times extends and fuses with the architecture.
Wouldn’t you like to put your great experience and knowledge of Bach’s music into writing?
I am trying to write a book—yes, on Bach—for the first time in my life. It won’t be a standard biography though; I want to try to explore Bach’s personality through the prism of his music. Having lived through the experience of the Bach cantata pilgrimage, I am convinced that there are features of his personality that are discernible in his vocal works—but putting them into words is incredibly hard.
Do you think Monteverdi, the other important figure in your musical firmament, would lend himself to a similar adventure?
Monteverdi is an adventure that lasts a lifetime! But yes, we are in the process of preparing another musical journey. This one will be a three-part pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The Monteverdi Choir will sing the music of each country we pass through. The first stage took place earlier this summer in cathedrals in England, Scotland and Wales. In 2004 we travel from France along the ancient pilgrim routes through Spain, from Roncevaux to Santiago. In France we’ll be singing music from Josquin to Charpentier, in Spain music by Victoria and Morales.
You’ve devoted yourself to some of the most exalted works of early and baroque music, but your choices seem less eclectic when it comes to more modern music.
You’re right, I am more selective about nineteenth and twentieth century music. I’m not a Wagnerian at all. But romantic composers like Weber, Schumann and Brahms, and especially Berlioz, open up alluring perspectives for me. I think there’s a fascinating parallel between Monteverdi’s music at the beginning of the seventeenth century and Beethoven’s at the beginning of the nineteenth. Both periods contain such energy, so many creative ideas. In his own way, Monteverdi was every bit as romantic and revolutionary a composer as Berlioz two centuries later. Berlioz was also a marvellous writer. I love his Mémoires and A travers chants.
Berlioz’s novelty and audacity didn’t always meet with approval. This caused him great bitterness, and he felt rejected and isolated.
He has always tended to be misunderstood in France, where he was taken for a grandiloquent and bombastic composer, and slightly vulgar. But really he was a musical poet, though, especially in Les Nuits d’été, that magical song cycle. With regard to French music in general the situation in France used to be appalling. Twenty-five years ago Paul Tortelier was asked during a BBC interview which he considered to be the best French orchestra. His immediate answer was, “The Boston Symphony Orchestra!” Charles Munch was the conductor at the time, and I believe that Tortelier was first cellist. Munch was influential in making French music known outside France. I find it odd that composers I admire, like Chabrier, Messager and Reynaldo Hayn, are still neglected! But things are changing, thank goodness. I enjoy standing up for French music even in France. Recently I wrote an article on the aesthetic links between Rameau, Debussy and Berlioz, all of whom I value as a Francophile musician. I recently conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of César Franck, Chabrier and Debussy. None of these are really well-known in Germany. But for me, Berlioz will always be a heroic figure. Later this year I will be conducting a new production of Benvenuto Cellini at the Zurich Opera.