“You do not play on the the violin anymore, but from the violin”
Simplicity or virtuosity? Beauty or a material approach? Classical or electronic? An interview with Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the leading figures of the early music movement.
You are considered to be the „founding father” of the early music movement. What is the root of this special affection? Why is this period so close to you?
To call me the founding father” or even „ a founding father” of the early music movement is a strong exaggeration, I feel… I remember all too well (from my adolescence) my deep enthusiasm and admiration for other musicians who had started really before us to specialize in early music on instruments that were not the „modern” instruments.
We (Kuijken brothers) have always developed our early music-insights as autodidacts: we have had no teachers in that specific field , and came to it “by chance” (if that exists…). We learnt ourselves to play this music and had great fun and deep admiration and respect. One year later my brothers went again to built two more „fiddles”, and playing together we discovered within our child-heart and intelligence an immense intuition that this was a thing to continue - even if in no music school or Conservatory in those years there was one single word spoken about this repertory. This was in fact the biggest present that we ever got from life itself.
After that we studied music in the „official „ system” – but secretly kept a kind of double booking-system: accepting (for the time being) the official instruction with pleasure though with a critical eye, and at same time developing by ourselves the horizont of the possibilities of „old instruments” for the repertory where it was needed – this was mainly guided by intuition and later by confrontation with given performances of people like the ones I mentioned above, and sources that we started to be aware of. We learned ourselves to play the gamba (our ”fiddles” had been very close to it!!) and gradually I started to experiment on the violin as well; with gut strings, other bow etc… Gradually we came in touch with other individuals thinking like we did more or less; and life itself took care of things, how to happen… After in 1959 Wieland was asked by his friends of the Alarius Ensemble in Brussels to played the gamba, things got slowly more professional, and finally we contacted G. Leonhardt in 1965 , being completely unknown to him. This brought an immense acceleration in our development and contacts…
Why is this period so close to me ? As a child I was struck by the harmony and intelligent structure, by the peaceful perfection of our little duets we played.. This ground-impression conditioned probably my whole life’s musical taste and concept , also when shifting through later periods (even until the avant-garde music of the 1980s !!! ) Structure and harmony (in the largest sense) are the backbone of art . They support the beauty.
There are people who are very far from Baroque music and consider it to be something old, dusty, and hard to understand in the 21th century. How would you argue them? How does Baroque music fit into our modern world?
First of all: I would not argue… I am not a missionary who tries to convince people. I realize that nobody can be convinced - except of things that were already hidden within himself. It is important to appeal to the deep layer of consciousness which is existing in all individuals, to help people to discover it gradually. I do believe that this will very often result in an increasing awareness of all kind of beauty: and that will include music as well - all good music from all times, not only Baroque or so. I think that people who believe that baroque is old, dusty etc etc. say so by imitation of a often heard refrain : they mostly never listen to much of it, or listened to it very superficially, already thinking in advance that is old and not of our times… WHAT IS “OF OUR TIMES” ? Only the music of latest fashion???
I dare say that quality is beyond time . In this discussion, time is NOT important in se , the DATE of a piece of beauty is not what makes it more or less beautiful . Quality lives over the time - that is why I find judgments like ”old, dusty, not of 21st century” very short minded…. What a pity that so many people are thought to think this trendy way… ALL beauty fits our modern world , it fits every world ! and the world NEEDS it badly – our materialistic „practical” thinking” is taking too much space in the brains…
Gunar Letzbor says that Baroque music has much more freedom in it than classical music. Do you agree with this idea?
I see what he means : yes, the scores leave often more open space to individual „realization” by the performer . But what means the word freedom? I like to consider ‚freedom’ in qualitative way - rather than quantitative. Simplicity is also a free choice, and is often touching more deeply than elaborate virtuosism which frequently hides the essence…. I think it is more a question of individual taste and temperament, if one focuses much or not so much on this ‘freedom’.
You play your instrument in a chin-off style. What’s the connection between this style and the quality of the sound you create?
After having played lots of concerts of Baroque repertoire on the „baroque violin” in quasi modern technique like every body used to do in the 60s , I got from inside fed up with this paradox : I saw so many old documents, images and treatises about violin playing when doing research on repertory etc, that I could not go on to ignore the basic difference in technique : so in 1969 I decided to try it, to stop using my chin as „tranquilizing” factor in holding the violin. I was first of all considered crazy by the violin-world around me, except by some people who were close to me and felt my real urge : my wife, my brothers also , and some colleagues amongst which above all Gustav Leonhardt. I had nobody who could show me his example , since I was the first to do it. I gave up twice, thinking that it was impossible – but the third time I saw light at the end of the tunnel and I continued. And I never regretted it!
It is not only about ‘sound’ – no , the chin-off technique implies many more things; the most important is the kind of very useful ‘distance’ you create between yourself and your instrument. You are obliged to handle your instrument with more respect and care, you cannot behave anymore like someone who plays as if it were on his own body. You have to think and examine and analyse more ; the technical limits that you seem to impose to yourself in the beginning turn out finally to be completely new fields of possibilities and inspiration, I would almost say…And the sound you produce becomes more round, more gentle and more from inside …You do not play ON the the violin anymore , but FROM the violin.
In November you are playing together with the musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra with a French program. What’s the speciality of this program? What are the characteristics of French Baroque?
The French music around LOUIS XIV and until French revolution is not typical Baroque music: it is much more equilibrated , formal and decorative in the esthetics than the genuine italian or german baroque. In french language, still today, ‘baroque’ is quite pejorative – meaning confused, irregular, lacking a good balance.
So we should not „make” this french music baroque , but accept and enjoy the more rational and symmetrical forms, the well accepted codified conventions of behavior , in short : the limits of what is ‚done’ . Of course, Art always has loved to explore and play with borders; but this can be done with refinement and style without trying too much to surprise or to shock the general audience . It all happened within the limits of the courtly fashions… ( That was precisely the reason why later in the 18th century – as an extreme reaction – the French revolution bursted out , destroying the ‚artificial’ conventions of the Ancien Régime society)
We will perform a Suite from Lully’s Opera Roland – Lully’s style was imitated all over Europe in the small and bigger Courts were french style was highly fashionable… This instrumental music mainly accompanied the ballets within the operas – later , with composers like J.-F. Rebel , the ballet was even getting a genre in itself – detached from a specific Opera- plot. J.P.Rameau was 50 when he started to write Operas (1733) and he was immensely successful . Platée ( Opéra-Ballet, 1745) is a exceptional piece – a kind of caricatura with a surprising plot : „Platée” is an old nymphe which is put on stage being ridiculised by Jupiter himself , who finally marries her. There is a lot of spirit in it, but the poor Platée is a kind of anti-héro…The music is splendid , witty, characteristic , colorful. We will give also an example of a french cantate (by L.N. Clérambault, composer of the generation between Lully and Rameau) performed by the singer with the conventional gestures and theatrical attitudes as normally done in those days. This was and is a very important aspect of the vocal art in general…
What do you consider to be the strongest point of the Budapest Festival Orchestra?
I am not going very frequently to concerts , but when some years ago I decided to go to a Bartok concert in Brussels with BFO and its conductor Ivan Fischer (whom I knew from earlier occasions) I was completely in admiration because of the lively and intelligent way of making music! Very effectful but never cheap. When 2 years ago I heard the BFO baroque orchestra in Budapest in the Bach festival (where we played Bachs Musical Offering) I saw that there was a lot of enthusiasm in the players to do this repertoire – there was a good mood !
Music plays an important role in your family. What would you recommend to parents as a first step to make their children get acquainted with music?
Take them to classical concerts early , really early (better too early than too late) ; give them at home plenty of occasions to enjoy classical music – before the age in which they wil be exposed (at school and everywhere) to the mainstream „industrial” music and culture . Classical music and good books to read ( no childish kindergarten stuff , that is only putting them asleep) is an important factor in well balanced education! Send them young to a good music school, you will see their reactions , support them… Quality in art is something children should be learned about in early years by their parents … I am convinced of that.