10 September 1941 – 24 September 2014
Keyboard player
Opernwelt interview (1984)
August 2, 2007

Dorottya Fabian’s new book, Bach Performance Practice, 1945–1975 (Ashgate, 2003) contains a quotation from an interview which Christopher gave to Gerhard Persché in 1984, translated by John Kehoe.

To provide the full context for that quotation, here is the full text of the interview, provided by Dorottya Fabian and reproduced with the permission of Opernwelt:

Authenticity is not academic a conversation from 1984 with Christopher Hogwood, the guiding spirit of The Academy of Ancient Music.

Opernwelt: Mr Hogwood, ‘early’ music in ‘authentic sound’ — is that in fact as Neville Marriner once formulated it, ‘very popular with the open-toed-sandals- and-brown-bread-set’, a ‘macro-biotic’ movement, so to speak, in the music scene?

Hogwood: I know Neville Marriner well enough from our years of working together to take what he says in jest. But there is indeed a kernel of truth in it, or rather, there used to be, when I think of the boom that dominated the mid-sixties in the area of mediaeval music. That was ‘in’ at the time, from every respectable record came the sound of crumhorns, Rauschpfeifen and all that kind of thing. It was an entirely new ‘old’ sound, but not a soul knew if it was authentic or not.

Opernwelt: You yourself took part, as a member of David Munrow’s ‘Early Music Consort’...

Hogwood: Naturally, it was at that time a wholly new world for all of us, and good for the public too, since it became acquainted with a new repertoire. There was a lot of showbiz attached to it. Finally my interest in this kind of music became exhausted, because we did not know whether or not what we were doing was authentic. Although the whole world thought that this type of music-making had a musicological foundation, the very opposite was the case: we had to do a lot on ‘feeling’, because there was insufficient basis and definite proof of the way in which music was made in the middle ages. In looking for an ‘original sound’, we were very much dependent upon hypotheses.

Opernwelt: Didn’t that discourage you?

Hogwood: No, not at all, on the contrary. I turned to an area, to a period, which offered me reliable sources. That was the music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Opernwelt: In the eyes of many people, the attempts to reconstruct the original sound, etc, have something about them, of the supposedly dusty atmosphere of musicological institutes, of archives.

Hogwood: In the eyes of many people there exists a gulf between boring musicology, which is done by old men in archives, and music-making, practical musical education, for example the violinists playing Wieniawski in the conservatories. Men such as Raymond Leppard, whom I met while studying at Cambridge, and who is at home in both areas, achieving great things, always tried to bridge the gap. Through them I came by this kind of music.

Opernwelt: Was your career as a musician pre-determined, by your parents perhaps?

Hogwood: No, not at all. My parents were active in quite different professions. But there was music-making at home, and I had some piano lessons, but without much success.

I don’t know how it came about — perhaps I heard a record of Wanda Landowska — suddenly I became in any case enormously interested in the harpsichord, if only still as a hobby. At Cambridge I studied Latin and Greek at first, and philosophy, I wanted to go in for an archaeological career.

At all events, I met musicians like David Munrow, David Atherton and so on, and the meeting with Raymond Leppard was one of the deciding factors in switching to a music course. At first I specialised very much in baroque music, together with David Munrow, but on modern instruments. Then I went for a year to Prague, to rummage through the archives, and when I came back from there my interest in baroque music had lessened, I had somehow come up against a barrier, the barrier of what one can do in this area on modern instruments. At the same time, David Munrow had gone the same way, and so we plunged into what was then for us the so exotic, if still hypothetical, sound world of mediaeval music. I played with the Early Music Consort for ten years. Alongside that I also began playing with Neville Marriner and his Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, giving solo harpsichord recitals and writing a lot about music.

For the reasons I have already given, my interest in mediaeval music became exhausted; the repertoire that I played with ‘St Martins’ aroused my attention more and more, together with the desire for an ‘authentic sound’, which I had preserved from my involvement with mediaeval music. I tried increasingly to give my solo recitals on historical instruments, too, because the harpsichords built in modern times had a sound that one could only place in the realm of the imagination or, better, of toys.

Opernwelt: How did ‘The Academy of Ancient Music’ come into being?

Hogwood: I looked about me in England. There were many small groups who played, for example, chamber music of the renaissance, and so on. Together with Decca we gave birth to the plan to found a small orchestra to play the music of the 18th century, made up of about 25 players. That’s how the first group of the ‘Academy’ came into being ten years ago.

That such a project was possible we saw from the example of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whom we had not then heard in person, but whose records we knew.

We really met together for the first time in the recording studio, at the first session. But we very quickly found our style, because most of the people had the same background and approached the material in the same way. Much about our style is not principally my invention, but has developed from the similarity of approach, democratically, as a synthesis of views and information.

The group has got bigger and bigger, we started with an early baroque repertoire and worked forward chronologically, historically speaking. At the same time our style has always remained open and flexible, because I can see with other groups the danger of too fixed a style, which one uses for each and every thing. Then one is really in the same situation as a modern symphony orchestra which also plays Johann Sebastian Bach with a Richard Strauss sound.

Opernwelt: In a press release from your record company it says that your Academy of Ancient Music is in no way an English follower of continental efforts such as the Concentus Musicus of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but that you saw as the focal point of your work the revival primarily of English music of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the early classical period. But now you have just been arousing attention with your recording of the complete Mozart symphonies in an attempt at an authentic sound. So a British Harnoncourt after all?

Hogwood: No. Naturally we turned at first to the English repertoire of the period which we had chosen, but in the course of time, and with our successes, other things were asked of us: Vivaldi, Bach and sons, later Stamitz, Haydn etc. And then, when at Decca, they were discussing a new recording of the Mozart symphonies and at the same time the choice between the accustomed ‘romantic’ sound picture of the Vienna Philharmonic or our attempts at a particular authentic one, they chose us. To my astonishment, I have to say, Decca bore the risk.

Happily we also had Neal Zaslaw, who, through his researches, gave us a plan, according to which we could approach the 64 symphonies of Mozart, geographically and stylistically — Salzburg, Paris, Italian symphonies, various sizes of orchestra, various combinations of instruments. From that starting point we were able to come to grips with the project, because we also had in mind that Mozart always tailored his symphonies to the strengths and weaknesses of the particular orchestra.

But to come back to your ‘British Harnoncourt’. I am certainly not that, neither am I the ‘Karajan of Early Music’, as an American magazine called me. I believe that our English way of playing is very different from the continental. It is, might I say, more democratic, our style develops, as I have already tried to explain, more on the level of common agreement, not on that in which one person sets the style.

English musicians appear to me, too, on account of this democratic practice, more flexible when it comes to accommodating to various styles. That has probably to do with the fact that our people, who all come from a London early music ‘pool’, play with constantly changing groupings, and not always in the same orchestra. And finally it seems to be of the essence that our musicians come from a tradition very different from the continental. The continental ‘early’ musician has mostly started out with a so-called ‘modern’ instrument, the strings for example in one of the big orchestras with a ‘romantic’ performance practice, and then taken a step backwards. With us it is mostly the other way round, many started out with the viol and then made the adjustment forwards.

Opernwelt: Nevertheless you still have stylistic preferences. Recently, in fact, your ‘Academy of Ancient Music’ has split.

Hogwood: Yes. One group concentrates more on the baroque repertoire, and is made up primarily of musicians who want to work further on baroque music on baroque instruments. The other group is broadening its repertoire into the classical period — Beethoven’s first symphony has been recorded, later we shall certainly go on to Rossini, Mendelssohn etc. I made this division, too, in order to maintain the vitality and freshness of the ensemble. The groups overlap by about sixty, seventy percent in terms of personnel, nevertheless.

Opernwelt: Wanda Landowska, whom you mentioned earlier, once said to a colleague who thought that Bach would certainly have composed for a modern piano had he known one: ‘You play Bach your play, I’ll play him mine’.

Hogwood: Certainly Bach would have liked a Steinway piano, he was open to everything new, but he would have composed differently. He is around today — he is called Brubeck.

I think the often-stated opinion, that composers of the past would have breathed a sigh of relief had they known ‘modern’ instruments, is absolute nonsense. To begin with, because the assertion that present-day instruments are better, cannot be upheld. Today’s instruments may be more perfect — I would not even subscribe to that in all cases — they are, as far as the strings are concerned, louder, but on the other hand, their palette of colours and nuances is reduced.

Opernwelt: Do you think that composers of earlier times were always content with the conditions they were offered?

Hogwood: At any event they adapted themselves to the means placed at their disposal. Mozart might have liked the number of strings that were available to him in Mannheim or Paris. But you cannot go with this argument and say: give him the same, larger number for all of his symphonies. Because Mozart waited until he arrived in the particular town, heard the singers in the theatre, heard the orchestra, and then composed ‘bespoke’. His genius was just that, to adjust his art to the given conditions. There is no reason, by changing the conditions, to ‘improve’ him any more than there is reason to freshen up Leonardo’'s paintings by over-painting with acrylic paints.

Opernwelt: But Beethoven’s problems with orchestral personnel are quite evident...

Hogwood: This is wrongly interpreted too. When we just recorded his first symphony, we knew from contemporary reports that it sounded like a concerto for woodwinds. We were guided by that in the size of our orchestra. For his seventh symphony he brought three orchestras together, obviously it contains something special that requires size. Mozart was absolutely happy with the seven first and seven second violins in the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, with four firsts and three seconds in the ‘Prague’, but also with fourteen firsts and ten seconds in the ‘Paris’. We shouldn’t we follow that guidance?

One other aspect should not be ignored in all these considerations: that of the space in which the particular works sounded. The wrong space can give you a totally false aural impression. And there is another point: we have ‘wrong’ ears too.

Opernwelt: Is it possible to go over the history of a work’s reception when it is reproduced? Is it possible today still to play a Mozart string quartet, as if Bartok had never been?

Hogwood: What I said about ‘wrong’ ears was not meant totally negatively. We are more open today: in Mozart’s times there was only one style, which was accepted, today one can hear Mozart and Bartok alongside one another. That has advantages: somebody who as a string player has played Penderecki will have more variety of command over his instrument. I have in the Academy musicians who play jazz on the side, and greatly welcome that.

To take the history of a work’s reception into account in performance is not wrong. There is of course no moral sanction for the interpretation of a work. Many people choose this kind of interpretation, I choose another. The attempt to restore an authentic sound picture gives me a scheme, a framework, a channel into which I can guide my feelings, but there is always quite enough room for wholly personal interpretation. There can be no question of academic coldness, as many people maintain, in authentic playing.

Opernwelt: So you are not the conductor as Stravinsky requires him, a bell ringer who simply pulls the rope?

Hogwood Stravinsky’s ideal does not exist, that doesn’t work at all. But I do not regard myself as a dictator, a leader of an army of musical soldiers, but as primus inter pares whose job it is, above all, to keep the right balance.

Opernwelt: Is that the case also when you — more and more — conduct not your own orchestra but ‘foreign’ groups? With such as try to pour ‘Tchaikovsky sauce’ over Mozart and Bach?

Hogwood: Most orchestras, above all in the USA where I make most of my guest appearances, are increasingly aware of the various styles. The business of ‘Tchaikovsky sauce’, as you put it, doesn’t hold true any more. What I am trying to do is to communicate certain perceptions. Such as, that in the 18th century the up-bow in string playing was weaker than the down-bow; something that was taken absolutely into account by the composers; such as, that in playing keyboard instruments, one took into account the fact that the fourth finger was weaker.

Or with respect to interpretation; that the slow second movements in Mozart symphonies were by no means the melodramatic expression of a philosophy of life, as people have liked to interpret them since the Romantic period, but were played really flowingly, while a great deal of tension and personality was invested in the minuets and trios.

And I try to convey problems of balance. That in Beethoven’s piano concertos, for instance, the solo instrument, if you think of the fortepiano of the day, often had an accompanying function, which perhaps does not suit the temperament of a ‘modern’ pianist, but which nonetheless gives back to the works their authenticity.

Opernwelt: Is authenticity the same as being faithful to the work?

Hogwood: People like to misunderstand the latter concept as playing in historical costume. It definitely is not that. My conviction is that a work, when it is played ‘correctly’ will always remain modern in respect of what it says and its effect.

Opernwelt: Does that also go for opera?

Hogwood: As far as this field is concerned, I am a new boy. In my student days I played theatre music, even founded my own chamber opera company, but have since somewhat neglected this area — with the exception of a ‘Don Giovanni’ in St Louis and Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ at La Fenice in Venice. That is going to change. Naturally I have my own quite definite ideas...

Opernwelt: Influenced by the quest for authenticity?

Hogwood: Certainly. For a start in respect of vocal style. I am amazed that stylistically wrong singing is accepted today. I find it quite wrong for example, that a Donna Anna sings like a Verdi or Puccini prima donna. Dramatic expression to be sure, but Mozart had his own.

Opernwelt: That has certainly to do with a changed idea of drama — today size of voice and volume play a role.

Hogwood: Concerts and opera are suffering at present from a ‘Hi-Fi syndrome’. People aim for the same effects in live performance as on record. Brass players, for example, by the most direct way of playing, try to give the listener the same impression that is achieved in the recording studio by placing a separate microphone in front of them. On the other side there are the listening habits of many hi-fi freaks who play works at home at such a volume as you never hear live.

But to come back to opera. I have definite ideas there too, relating to the stage. To my mind today’s fashionable ‘producers’ theatre’ is of no use to 18th century opera. People interpret more into it than is there — a similar problem to the slow movements in Mozart symphonies that I mentioned.

I can imagine performances in which — as used to be the case — the scenery moved around the static singer. Opera singers are mostly not especially gifted actors anyway, and it is difficult for them to convey the psychological aspects of character — a modern perspective in any case. Part of it is that it is almost impossible adequately to accompany somebody who is singing coloratura up-stage. There’s no contact there. There is apparently an unspoken agreement in the world of opera that one accepts ragged ensemble. I have never been to an opera performance where they were all together. If the same thing happened in a piano concerto, it would be very critically noted.

Opernwelt: But wouldn’t that then be a ‘concert in costume’?

Hogwood: No, by no means. The expression would come from gesture and movement. For these performances singers would have to learn a special repertoire of gesture, as was customary in the 18th century.

Opernwelt: But this repertoire of rather large gestures rests on the fact that the lighting at that time was weaker — there was simply less light.

Hogwood: That is another aspect which could have to be taken into account.

Opernwelt: So fidelity to the work is playing in historical costumes after all.

Hogwood: Again no. I am convinced that here — as in playing concert music on original instruments, under authentic conditions — entirely new perspectives of the works come to light. Of the works, and not of individual producers.

Opernwelt: Nevertheless you are going to work at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin with Achim Freyer, a producer with a strongly developed individual imagination, one who can be placed firmly in the area of ‘producers’ theatre’...

Hogwood: Since we are dealing here with a stage version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ for which there is no historical precedent, I don’t have a bad conscience in this connection!

Opernwelt: Mr Hogwood, thank you for talking to us.

Interviewer: Gerhard Persch
English Translation: John Kehoe