Two interviews with Mark Wiggins
Interview for the programme of the Teatro Real production of Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress
Where do you place Stravinsky as a composer?
The last great composer that the world has had! He is unmistakeably a great composer in terms of what he encompassed and the status that he now enjoys. I haven’t seen a greater composer since he died; there may be upcoming new Stravinskys but I am not sure that I see the evidence for the all-round composer that we have in Stravinsky, the constant experimenter and the huge success.
As a musician where does the interest lie for you in The Rake’s Progress?
Where it was for Stravinsky, of course. I am very excited by the fact that a composer of that status, and a Russian, should want to take on the whole idea of writing an opera in English – that originates in the English language and from an English theme – and also that he would do it at a time when he was very openly influenced by and admiring of (and imitating almost) the very classical tradition – that of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and the Italian opera tradition. All with the consequence that you have an opera of arias, recitatives and choruses, very formally constructed.
What, for you, is ‘neo-classicism’ in music?
Neo-classical composers were basically people who worked in the first half of the 20th century looking back for models or inspiration or from some form of attributes that they could rework from either the Baroque or the Classical eras. I think that Martinů and Hindemith looked quite heavily at Bach and Corelli. Other neo-classical composers looked more at the later rococo style. A lot of people were influenced I think by the Mozartian ethos and tried to recreate it in the language of their own times. This is a very different thing to composers from the same period who made arrangements and transcriptions of that music – thus, everything from Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana onwards through to the arrangements that Schoenberg and others made of earlier music. A contrast, therefore, to composers who worked on some of the concepts and models of the Classical era but filled them up with their own language.
Why did Stravinsky stop composing in this style after The Rake’s Progress?
It is true that Stravinsky went on to renounce neo-classicism in favour of serialism after The Rake’s Progress, but do remember that he renounced everything in fact! He started in one particular school – as a fully-blown disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov – and then ploughed his way through every ‘-ism’ that was available. He was a magpie and a very inventive and effective one, but he clearly didn’t feel that he had to be related to any one particular doctrine. I think that when he had said what he wanted to say in the one form, he then moved onto the next form. His adventures with serialism were, of course, encouraged by Robert Craft. It was not a language that he wanted to indulge in very much and only a certain amount of his output follows the precepts of the serial school, and even then with quite a lot of licence. But he was ‘neo-’ everything else on the way, I think.
What qualities do you think that the libretto to The Rake’s Progress possesses?
The libretto to The Rake’s Progress is one of the best modern librettos. In fact, there are people who say that the libretto for this opera is better than the music! What WH Auden and Chester Kallman did in the libretto is to create a very well constructed operatic ground plan based on classical principles, but with enormous skill in using the English language. One of its greatest qualities is that it is pithy. Many modern libretto writers tend to write too many words, forgetting that words expand rather like cooking rice when you add music to them. This libretto has a wit of its own and a characterization of its own, which is very singable. It has a sort of colloquialness and easiness of delivery; I never get the feeling when you hear people singing the words of The Rake’s Progress that these words are in any way contrived. So much of the opera is delivered in a speech rhythm, at a suitable speaking pace. So, for people who have a phobia, particularly, of the artificiality of operatic singing, I think that The Rake’s Progress is a very salutary piece. It speaks to an English person in their own language in a way which seems ‘actor-ly’ but not artificial.
How do you feel that Stravinsky was able to deal with this libretto in the English language?
Stravinsky set the English language in his own way. One cannot say that it is unidiomatic. In fact, he sets Russian and French (and Latin) according to his own lights and in ways which are not always exactly what native speakers would expect. But it is the actual vocal-izing of all the parts that is extremely individual to him. In the theatre this is usually extremely clear, so we get the texts very well. The setting and the division into acts is very firmly demonstrated by Auden in the score. Yes, there is a terrific alignment between music, action, motivation, architecture and English language.
Stravinsky made many recordings of his own music. Should such interpretations be regarded as a clear sign as to how the music should be performed today?
It would be nice to think so, except that when he made more than one recording for individual works, they tend to differ. So there are clear signs – in the plural – I would say. I think that we are incredibly lucky to have recordings available to us now of how composers played their music. Also, singers are very lucky to have examples of how earlier singers sang the parts. So, it would be hard to say that one should overlook them. I would always listen to them frankly, because I myself am interested in history. I think that they tell you a lot about what might not be actually indicated in the score. On the other hand I think that many people dealing with Stravinsky will say he has put quite enough in the score, anyway – sometimes almost more than what one would need – and therefore if you follow his instructions, you don’t need to ask many more questions. I would sit somewhere between those two points of view.
As a noted keyboard player yourself, what do you make of Stravinsky’s use of the harpsichord in The Rake’s Progress?
I once asked him whether he would write something more for the harpsichord. He just rolled his eyes! I think that he himself was not a great admirer of the harpsichord as an instrument with a future for him, but it was clearly an instrument with an enormous past and to include it in a neo-Mozartian score was clearly an obvious thing to do. I think that he managed its use very well so that the harpsichord has more of a connection with the Graveyard Scene and the diabolical side of the Rake, rather than just being an all-purpose accompaniment instrument. And it is also very well integrated with the rest of the small orchestra because you do get the harpsichord incorporated with comments from other instruments around it. It is not the isolated instrument quite as it is when it accompanies just the secco recitatives in a classical opera. There is a sense in which Stravinsky is welding it into his sound palette. But its biggest moments are alone (and in the most ominous scene), so clearly he has carved out a special character for it.
© December 2008 Mark Wiggins for the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Interview with Christopher Hogwood published in the Diverdi Boletín of January 2009
Where have your interests in the music of Stravinsky, Martinů and Mendelssohn derived from?
I have been performing Stravinsky and Martinů since I was a graduate in Prague; there I grew up hearing more Martinů than one would normally expect to. I took to him and like him very much. For my purposes as a conductor, he is a very useful composer for blending in programmes of classical and neo-classical music. Mendelssohn is a more recent interest and it comes from my musicological work, in preparing new editions for Bärenreiter. I discovered that there are many unknown versions of his works; that he was constantly rewriting his own music and many of the versions are very deserving of hearing. So, I tend to feature them (in concerts), really as a way of seeing the whole thing through from the original manuscript through to a performance. Also, because Mendelssohn was as great a musician as Mozart! We hear far too much Mozart and not enough Mendelssohn. It is the same reason why I tend to play a lot of Haydn and Handel, simply because the world, if left to its own devices, will insist on Bach and Mozart.
What approach (as somebody who has been cited as employing Stravinsky’s own performing values and rhetoric in terms of early music performance) do you utilize for such earlier music?
Stravinsky, I think, spoke out against over-interpretation, by which I think he was really objecting to people who took liberties with his music that were not helpful and went against what he had very carefully notated. I would tend towards the same line and I would quote him in some contexts for an earlier music, always with the proviso, of course, that earlier composers on the whole never attempted to put in notation as much information as Stravinsky did. So there will always be gaping holes where they relied on the convention of their time to fill the gap and that’s where the performer has to acquire a knowledge of the convention of the time. With Stravinsky, if there are gaps, we can probably fill most of them by listening to his recordings.
In your career you have made hundreds of recordings. Is there a problem now for younger artists?
That I record less these days is not something that I mind, but for people starting out on their careers the avenues open in recording are much fewer than they were thirty or forty years ago. I worry whether the current generation of young musicians will get enough chance to experiment and spread their message so that people can learn what is going on. Especially with the Academy of Ancient Music I think that we benefited from two things. First of all from the BBC in Britain, which had a very open policy of studio work and was always trying to propose new projects, a lot of them quite expensive and long drawn out. And following on from them, the record companies, of course, suddenly grasped the idea of period instruments and specialist labels and gave us a lot of rope with which to hang ourselves. That has disappeared now. I think that there is much less studio work; I think that the BBC is much less asking for people to record things in the studio and the record companies are playing very, very safe with repertoire and operatic voices that they know and love.
And you are also writing a history of the picnic…
Nobody has written about the picnic and I think that it is a rather fascinating historical, moral, poetical subject. I have to say that this interest started in the Goya galleries of the Prado Museum, where there is a famous painting of an aristocratic picnic on a hill top overlooking Madrid. Somebody would have gone to a lot of trouble to host and plan this and it made me think of how many other picnics are there that should we be looking at in paintings. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe is a good start and then you suddenly discover that there are hundreds of paintings involving picnics, lots of poetry and lots of novels that pivot on something strange that happens during a picnic – Mr Pickwick, Passage to India and much Jane Austen. But it is not a specifically English thing; officially it started with the French word picquenique. It was adopted by motorists everywhere and all countries have done it – I have a lot on material on Japanese picnics, moon picnics in China, hunting picnics all over France appearing in tapestries. They all carry certain characteristics and I thought that it would be nice to explore them.
Mark Wiggins © Diverdi