Conductor  Sir  Roger  Norrington

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Sir Roger Arthur Carver Norrington was born in Oxford March 16, 1934, and comes from a musical University family. He was a talented boy soprano, studying the violin from the age of ten and singing from the age of seventeen. He read English Literature at Cambridge University, and spent several years as an amateur violinist, tenor singer, and conductor, before attending the Royal College of Music as a postgraduate student of conducting, studying with Sir Adrian Boult.

norrington In 1962 Norrington founded the Schütz Choir. This marked the beginning of a thirty-year exploration of historical performance practice. With the choir, he gave many innovative concerts, and made numerous recordings for Argo/Decca, chiefly of 17th-century repertoire. These performances were initially accompanied by the London Baroque players, and later, as his explorations moved forward chronologically, by the London Classical Players. As Norrington’s interest in performance practice reached the Classical period and beyond, the London Classical Players grew in prominence, and the Schütz Choir went into semi-retirement, though they continue to give occasional concerts.

The London Classical Players leapt to worldwide fame with Norrington’s dramatic performances of Beethoven’s symphonies on period instruments. The recordings of these works for EMI won prizes in the UK, Belgium, Germany and the United States, and are some of the most sought-after readings of Beethoven Symphonies in our times. Many other recordings followed, not only of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also of many 19th-century composers including Berlioz, Weber, Schubert, Schumann and Rossini. Norrington continues to push the boundaries of performance practice still further with groundbreaking recordings of Brahms’s four symphonies, and of works by composers including Wagner, Bruckner and Smetana.

Norrington’s work on scores, orchestral sound and size, seating and playing style has had a growing effect on the perception of 18th- and 19th-century orchestral music. He is in great demand as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras worldwide, working regularly with orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Salzburg, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London. He is Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and of the Camerata Salzburg, and is closely associated with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (which has taken over the work of the London Classical Players), and with the Philharmonia.

Norrington also has wide experience as a conductor of opera. He was Music Director of the successful Kent Opera for fifteen years, conducting over 400 performances of 40 different works. He has worked as a guest conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at the English National Opera, at La Scala, La Fenice and the Maggio Musicale, and at the Wiener Staatsoper and the Salzburg Festival.

He has recorded extensively for EMI, Virgin and Decca, made discs for Sony and BMG, and appears regularly on recordings for Hänssler Verlag with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra.

Norrington was knighted in June 1997 and is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a Cavaliere of the Italian Republic, Prince Consort of the Royal College of Music and Professor and Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, an Honorary Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, a Doctor of Music at the University of Kent and a Doctor of the University of York.

==  (Mostly) from the website of the Royal College of Music, London  

In April of 1996, Norrington was in Chicago for performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  He graciously accepted my invitation for an interview, and our encounter was a happy occasion, filled with information and good humor.

Bruce Duffie:   How does one get Baroque style?

Roger Norrington:   You get baroque style by learning how to dance.  It’s almost entirely dance.  I can hardly think of any kind of music in the baroque times which wasn’t about dance.  I suppose recitative and plainsong were the only kind of music that weren’t dance-related.  If you think of a piece like the B Minor Mass of Bach, they probably even recognized each piece as dances.  They listened to a piece like that with their feet.  The whole area of music probably was dance, so when you ask somebody what music was, it was dance.  We tend to think of it as something you listen to; they tended to have it as it’s something they moved to.

norrington BD:   Music is something you feel?

RN:   Yes, you felt it, but you felt it with your body, not with the mind, not with the ears.  I exaggerate a little, but music was useful in the Baroque period.  You prayed to it, and you went to the theater for it, and you danced to it.  It was like furniture, not like pictures.  It was more useful.  You don’t look at it like an abstract picture, you sat on it and utilized it.

BD:   Do you expect the audience today to move about a little bit in their seats?

RN:   I sometimes wish they could, I must admit.  The sight of a very staid, very stiff group is a little strange.  We may view music now to listen to, and perhaps the movement goes on internally, but often when people put on a CD in their homes, you’ll see them moving around the room and enjoying it.

BD:   Should they tap their feet during a live concert?

RN:   Tap the feet at least.  It’s not too intellectual.

BD:   I don’t often get to this question so early in an interview, but where is the balance between art and entertainment in music?  And does that change from Baroque to modern music?

RN:   That’s a big jump from Baroque to modern music, because in between you’ve got two distinct eras.  It’s a gradual process, really.  For instance, going back to the analogy of
useful, if music wasn’t so much entertainment, it was more like furniture, more like house decoration in the Baroque.  Then in the Classical period, it came to the fore, still very much entertainment as much as art.  Composers realized that, and they were even taught that.  If you read a book about composition in 1780 or so, it will say things like, “By all means, be learnèd if you want to, and write high-brow music if you want to, but if you don’t write it so that ordinary people will understand it, then you are wasting your time.  That’s the sort of thing that Mozart was taught.

BD:   As a side question, perhaps in the mid-part of the twentieth century, did the composers lose that?

RN:   Somewhere along the line some of them certainly lost it, yes.  That’s the ultimate.  It’s not a side question, it’s the goal of the question.  The point I was going to make was then in the Classical period
right up to Beethovenit was still very much entertainment as much as art.  Beethoven took it beyond entertainment into the art area, but then people straight after him tried to negate that in many ways.  The generation just after himSchubert, Rossini, Mendelssohnpretended as if Beethoven had never existed.  They were still writing music to please people.  You had to be pleasing.  The spiritual quality could also be there, but it had to please.  Then, gradually during the century, and particularly with the advent of Liszt and Wagner, the seriousness grew, and gradually by the Twentieth Century, the entertainment music and serious music took different paths.  So, you went with very entertaining music, and then music which is clearly meant largely for the intellect, very, very difficult musicthe more difficult, the more intellectual you are, and the more worthy of a Lexus you are.  That’s a profoundly dangerous course for any art to take... though it’s fun when music is difficult a bit.

BD:   Was music leading the audience, or was it a reaction to what the audience was already feeling?

RN:   I think the seriousness was a kind of reaction to the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century as a flippancy
the idea that music shouldn’t be fun, but somehow was going to be more sacred.  Finally, it was the end of the First World War that did it.  After that, things got to be different, and people in the 20s got very flippant with the Flappers in the Roaring Twenties.  That kind of light flippancy had everybody saying, Thank God that’s over!  Now let’s have some fun.  That very point in the 20s was when all the modern tendencies came in, and all the big orchestral changes came in with an idea that music was High Seriousness.  Conductors became the High Priests of a rite, which I don’t think they’d really been before in the Nineteenth Century.  They just had an easy relationship with the audience.  Right up until 1918, conductors would saunter onto the stage and chat with some of the players as if something was going to happen, but the lights didn’t come down.  Then it was, Maestro Toscanini is about to lead this orchestra, that went on the air.  Before that, there weren’t these hushed tones.  They come on in their street shoes, had a chat with the players, and then sort of began.  There might have been a smattering of applause, but there wasn’t this reverence.


BD:   There was an informality, a camaraderie?

RN:   There was an informality, a camaraderie, which is a great idea.  Then, of course, the audience applauded between every movement absolutely as a matter of course.

BD:   Should we go back to that?

norrington RN:   I quite like it, I must admit.  Why not?  We sometimes try it as an experiment in our concerts in London.  [Indeed, at his concerts with the Chicago Symphony, he spoke to the audience about this, and encouraged them to applaud after each movement.  They responded, timidly at first, but with greater enthusiasm as the concert continued.]  You can’t really expect it, though.  Perhaps it
s like resuscitating dead languages.  You can’t do that, but the thing about it I like is that the audience gets a chance to participate.  They have a role in concerts.  They aren’t just there to eavesdrop on some sacred rite.  It’s an enjoyable experience.  We’re playing to the audience, for the audience, to entertain them and to uplift themdepending on the kind of music.  They have a part to play, and the more they can clap and laugh in funny bits, I’m very comfortable with that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mention resurrecting a dead language.  Are you not resurrecting the Baroque period in this era?

RN:   Trying to, I guess.  That’s a fascinating question.  Should you play Baroque music in whatever is the style of today?  What would that be?  I suppose a synthesizer, perhaps, would be very hip, very flip.  A lot of Bach would sound like Rap.

BD:   I don’t know...  I’ve gotten turned off by the Stokowski transcriptions simply because now we’ve heard the authentic Baroque style.

RN:   Yes, that’s the big question.  Until the
60s, it was always the creative thing to make the music the way you feel it now, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  For instance, when Mozart edited Handel, he made it sound like Mozart.  He didn’t have any notion that Handel should sound like Handel.  He thought it should be updated, that it should be made fit for modern taste, and that’s fine in a way.  When Mahler played Bach and Mozart, as he occasionally did, I’m sure he made it sound exactly like Mahler, and that is very creative.  It’s just that the elastic band that stretches from around 1750 until today breaks at certain points, and around 1960 it broke.  Then, some of us just said, I just can’t believe that anymore.  Supposing we went back and found out something about what it sounded like then.  What would happen?  Of course, the surprise was not that it sounded poverty-stricken, but when it was well played, it had a tremendous punch.  You hear a great performance of Bach on original instruments, and it has the most amazing qualities of newness.  So, that was the excitement, and from then on we rolled from the Baroque right forward to the later Nineteenth Century just trying to find out, and trying to get in touch with these guys.

BD:   Is there an authentic style, or are there several styles?

RN:   Certainly not.  Of course, there’s no authentic style.  We call it hip nowadays, but it’s directly informed practice.  You can have some sort of name for it.  Every conductor wants to do the music like the composer does.  It’s just that as the composers get further and further away, and as our styles develop, we simply need to get a bit more basic information.  The surprise was when one started reading about these things, how far away we have gotten.  When you read a book like the one by Quantz on how to play the transverse flute, or by someone else in the era of Handel and Bach, you get stacks of information about how to perform the music.  Some of it so different from today, and if you’ve an instinctive feeling about the music, it feeds it.  We don’t have to bind ourselves hand and feet to play Beethoven the way he was played, or Bach the way he was played, or even Schumann the way he was played.  We just have to live, to liberate ourselves to do so.  For a moment there was this fear among quite a lot of ‘modern musicians’ who they feel that learning this information is somehow going to limit them.  We were going to bind them, we’re going to limit their creativity and replace it with a very nature of fear.  But what I found is that it’s always liberating my creativity.  Baroque music has allowed me to dance.  It’s allowed me to go haywire with Beethoven’s humor, and it seems to feed that.  Right through the Nineteenth Century, I keep finding things by doing what they said.


Johann Joachim Quantz's On Playing Flute has long been recognized as one of the most significant and in-depth treatises on eighteenth-century musical thought, performance practice, and style. This classic text of Baroque music instruction goes far beyond an introduction to flute methods by offering a comprehensive program of studies that is equally applicable to other instruments and singers. The work is comprised of three interrelated essays that examine the education of the solo musician, the art of accompaniment, and forms and style. Quantz provides detailed treatment of a wide range of subjects, including phrasing, ornamentation, accent, intensity, tuning, cadenzas, the role of the concertmaster, stage deportment, and techniques for playing dance movements. Of special interest is a table that relates various tempos to the speed of the pulse, which will help today's musicians solve the challenge of playing authentic performance tempos in Baroque music. This edition includes 224 musical examples from Quantz's original text and features a new introduction by translator Edward R. Reilly that considers recent scholarship on Quantz's significant role in eighteenth-century musical activity. On Playing the Flute vividly conveys the constancy of musical life over time and remains a valuable guide for contemporary musicians.

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), son of a blacksmith, enjoyed a long and successful career as a virtuoso soloist and orchestral performer on a variety of instruments. He was also a composer, an exceptional teacher and writer, and a flute maker. Tutor and Royal Prussian Chamber Musician to Frederick the Great, Quantz studied in Dresden and traveled throughout Europe to refine his musical skills and knowledge. Edward R. Reilly is Professor of Music, Emeritus, at Vassar College. He is the author of Quantz and His Versuch: Three Studies.

==  From the listing on  

BD:   Let me ask another side question.  Are we, perhaps, straight-jacketing the next generation by having all these recordings of the new music with the composer present?

norrington RN:   [Laughs]  Yes, perhaps so.  One would also be straight-jacketing the next generation by telling them that that’s how Baroque and Classical and Romantic music should be played.  That’s their problem.  Come on boys and girls, you can do it!

BD:   When you’re playing, say, Bach, or any of the others, how much is Bach, or the others, and how much is Norrington?

RN:   [Thinks a moment]  I suppose fifty-fifty would be kind of a nice idea.  You’re playing all the notes...  A lot of it is Bach, and then I suppose everything else really is instinct, but organized around what has been done.  I’ve always said that if you have the information, that is a starting point.  If you read all the books on how to play, you’re at number one and you’ve got to get to a hundred.  It doesn’t tell you how the play the music.  All that information doesn’t tell you what to do.  It just means you’re less likely to make silly mistakes, and make it sound like the gesture of another age.  That’s the nice thing about playing historically is that it begins to feel like the gesture of the walk, and the talk of the language of that age.  Words change their meaning over times, and so do notes and the way you write them down.

BD:   And yet the audience that’s sitting there has come through two World Wars and the great depression, and atomic bombs and all of this.

RN:   Sure, and they’re longing to go back into the past and hear what the music sounded like because it’s a wonderful trip.  We’re all involved in that.  We do up old houses to look old, not to look new.  In the
40s, one may do with Victorian houses, but modernizing in the 60s we made them look Victorian.  This is what happened in London.

BD:   But you’d still have modern conveniences?

RN:   Yes, we have refrigerators and all that, sure.  But nevertheless, the visual component in the surrounding house is made to look like the old car magazines, the old boat magazines, the Civil War re-enactment groups.  There’s an interest in the past.  The past is our uncles and aunts.  The past is where we came from, and also the past is quite often not that far away.  When it is far away, and you can travel back, as you can with music or with painting, it touches you.  You touch it, and it touches you because they tell us all sorts of things.  It’s like reading Jane Austin.  There’s lots of Jane Austen films around nowadays.  It’s a touching, wonderful time, and if there’s a great art like Shakespeare, or Jane Austin, or Beethoven, I want to get near it.  I don’t want to modernize it.  I don’t want to turn it into an ice sculpture.  I want to turn it.  I want to go back there and try.  [Pauses a moment]  To continue to answer your question, there is no answer.  There is no final goal.  All you can do is go in that direction.  The analogy I often use is that if you want to study Eskimos, don’t head south.  At least head north.  You’re going to find out more on the glacier than you are on a Caribbean Island.  So that’s where we head for, but you never get to the North Pole.  You never know where it is.  It keeps moving... a magnetic pole keeps moving.  You don’t know the answer but it’s a curiosity and a fascination to travel backwards.

BD:   But if you’re going to study the Eskimos, you don’t want to go out there without a backpack, and meals-ready-to-eat, and all the modern conveniences including thermal underwear.

RN:   Probably, if you’re wise.  [Both laugh]  But there were people who went to live with Eskimos back in the teens and twenties this century.

BD:   So, we take the thermal underwear if you’re wise.  How wise are we being with Baroque music?

RN:   Oh, we’re just enjoying it.  We love it, and we respect it, and we honor it, and we just think it’s wonderful stuff.

BD:   Is it our pal?

RN:   No!  It’s not Lassie, but we love it.  [Both laugh again]  But you talk about Baroque music as if I did it quite a lot, and I don’t actually do very much Baroque music.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But this is what you’re known for!

norrington RN:   I was once, but what I’m known for now is Nineteenth Century musicHaydn to Brahms.  In the 60s I was known for baroque music, yes.

BD:   Is it nice coming to Brahms from the Baroque rather than from the Twentieth Century?

RN:   Oh, boy, yeah!  It’s very fascinating.  That’s what we’ve been able to do, by starting back in 1600 where we did a stack of Schütz and Monteverdi, and then Purcell and Rameau and Lully, and so on.  We got to the Baroque from the right direction, so we knew what the actual instincts of the musician were when they moved to the next step, and the same has been true with Beethoven.  I had an orchestra, most of whom had played a lot of Baroque music, and then we studied Haydn and Mozart.  When we hit Beethoven, then it was like hitting Bartók.  It was really exciting and wild, and then we’ve gone on from there to Berlioz, to Mendelssohn, to Rossini, to Schumann.  Then, when we’d done a lot of Schumann, we’d tackle Brahms with this curious awareness of the past... or actually a great awareness, probably, because even he was extremely interested in early music, and performed Scarlatti, and Palestrina, and Schütz, and Gabrieli...

BD:   ...on his big piano?

RN:   No, with his choir.  He had a choir and an orchestra.  I’ve seen a piano continuo part for a Bach cantata which he realized.  So, he was fascinated in that music, but he didn’t know as much about performing it as we do now a hundred years further on.  But it was, nevertheless, fascinating to come to Brahms from there because that’s what he was so interested in.  What we tried to do was to place him in context, and we tried to find out how they played the music, and play it with all the passion that Brahms demands, but not necessarily with all the kind of cream on top.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned that you conduct many things.  From the huge array of musical literature, how do you decide what you’re going to conduct, and what you’re going to let go?

RN:   You just go for the best, really.

BD:   Only the best?

RN:   Yes, pretty much.  Sometimes it’s the sort of more amusing or frivolous best
like Rossini, or Sullivan, or Offenbach.  With the Classical Players, we’ve been hired to re-examine the best because of the first thing you do.  You don’t start by unknown composers, you start by doing the best ones.

BD:   Are you looking to eventually get to lesser and lesser lights?

RN:   Well, if they’re good, yes, but on the whole there’s so much absolutely wonderful music that one doesn’t tend to go very far down the back row.  I do a bit of Méhul and a little bit of Spohr...

BD:   What is it that makes a piece of music great, or even good?

RN:   Wow, what a question!  An extraordinary convincingness is one of the things, and an instinctive convincingness.  You hear a few bars on the radio and you think,
Wow!  I want to know more about that!  It’s doing something for me!  When it goes on a little longer, you might just find that that was just a spark, and there isn’t any structure there, or it doesn’t satisfy you over a longer period.  The great composers can do that, too.  The other feature of a great work is that it creates instantly its own sound world, its own emotional world.  All the great works have that quality.  You hear it at the beginning and you’re immediately transported straight away to that particular thing that it’s doing, just in the same way as a picture does.  A good picture will do it and a poor picture won’t, so I suppose an evidence of mastery is the short answer, but there are many, many other things like wonderful harmony, like wonderful tunes, like wonderful shapes, like a wonderfully engaging interaction between instinct and intellect.  The great art always has all of those things.  It isn’t just superficial, it’s also got depth.  It’s like an onion!  You keep peeling it, and there’s no center, but there are all those wonderful onion rings that come out of it.  You can fry them up!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Is that what you do
are you a musical chef?

RN:   I am a musical chef, yes, because the ingredients are there
the notes and the instruments.  A chef will take what seem to be very simple ingredients and turn them into something extraordinary.  If he is making a sauce, he will make it into something which is more than the ingredients.  In fact, you may not even be able to tell what those ingredients are.  Oh, yes, you are magician, you’re a chef.  It’s very much what you do.  You cook with the raw ingredients, which are the notes, and your assistants are the tools, and you heat the orchestra.  Yes, you’re a cook!  It has to be creative on the sum of the parts.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s move to another section of your career, and that’s recording.  Do you conduct the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

norrington RN:   Yes, absolutely.  Exactly the same, yes, and I try and make all recordings sound as if we’re just playing them.  We do lots of long takes.  They aren’t always all used, of course, and we may even do some inserts, but however short the inserts, I go for a live sound, a live performance.  That is the way in which I work with all the record producers.  I let them look for the faults, so to speak, and I go for the performance.  So it’s like doing a concert.  In rehearsals you’re looking for faults, but in the concert you’re not looking for faults.  The danger with recordings is that you treat them like rehearsals.  If I’m looking for faults, then I’m not going to get that forward motion.  I would like our records to sound just absolutely bright and live, and some of the best ones do.

BD:   Are you pleased with your recordings?

RN:   Yes.  I don’t listen to them much, but when I do, I’m usually quite impressed, yes.  [Laughs]  Sometimes I listen to one because I’m just going to conduct the piece, whatever it might be, and I think maybe it won’t be so good now.  But on the whole, I usually sit there thinking it’s pretty good.  So, on the whole, yes, but there a lot that I haven’t heard for a long time.  Partly because quite a few of them existed for a long time without any comparison
like Berlioz Fantastique, and Schumannthat was the only way that you could hear anything like I had in mind.  It was easy to be impressed by the only recording with original instruments and tempi, and so on, and so there was a certain uniqueness.

BD:   Does it please you that there are others following in your footsteps?

RN:   Oh, yes.  They’re absolutely bound to, aren’t they?  People will come along and they’ll do it differently.  They’ll do it better, and another generation will build on this.  I hope it leaves them room to have things to do, because the glorious thing about the last thirty years is that we’ve been able to stray across these empty prairies with no one having done it before.  It’s such a marvelous thing to do.  Of course, they
ve played the music before, but they haven’t thought about it this way, and to be able to do that firstnot in order to be first, but because no one else has done it beforeto stand there and hear the Fantastique in the first rehearsal come out sounding completely differentlysome of it the way you expected, and other bits the way you didn’t expect at alland to have to deal with that in rehearsal and give a concert in three days’ time, and make a recording a couple of weeks after a tour, is a very incredible experience.  I’ve had that several times a year for the last thirty years, and it’s been mind-bending, really.  There is a responsibility, too, to deal with in a new situation because you can’t just play it the same, even if you decide to.  There were pieces I thought would sound different because the instruments are different, but the tempi will be the same, and the concept of the piece will be the same.  I always start there, and then you start looking and you start thinking, and then you think, [muttering] That’s not going to work, and that’s not going to work.  Then, even in rehearsal you find things won’t work, so you have to change it, and then out comes this extraordinary product, a rabbit out of the hat which is different from anything.  It leads you that way.  That’s what’s so good about the instrumentsthey lead you to different use of the things.  Even if they’re wrong, at least they’re creative.  It’s the creativity which has been really exciting, to be forced to be creative.

BD:   On your part or the players’ part?

RN:   On the players and mine!  Absolutely, particularly on mine, of course, because I have to put the concept together.  But they often contribute ideas.  
Can we go faster, Rog?  Come on!  It says andante, Rog!  Didn’t you know that meant fast?  I get a lot of help from them, and it’s a kind of counter-challenge.

BD:   Is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that night of the performance?

RN:   No, all the work is done in rehearsal, but of course extra things just may turn up in performance.

BD:   But once you get your concept, do you want that same concept in every performance that you give?

norrington RN:   The way it actually comes out will be slightly different.  The concept will be of the kind of grace and gesture that this piece has, or the life that it has.  That may change over time, but I don’t try and do stamped-out performances that are precisely the same.  No, I’m not one of those, particularly when you get to the later repertory.  When you’re doing Brahms, for instance, you can’t do two performances the same.  A Beethoven symphony you can do the same if you want to, but you will change, of course, if you’re creative.  But Brahms, by definition, is just in a different world, like Wagner or Bruckner.  There are going to be changes because it’s that kind of changeable animal.  The difficulty in Brahms, in fact, becomes when you record.  If you’ve just been in tour and you’ve done seven performances, which shall we put on disc
one?  Three?  Six?

BD:   If you’ve done seven performances, maybe you should record number eight.

RN:   We probably end up doing number eight, but you think that was great when we did it like that or that.  And I can understand when people were first asked to make records – Weingartner and Bruno Walter and so on, they said … we can’t fix it.  You can’t fix it because their whole concept was of ebb and flow, even across with baroque and Classical, they make it sound very romantic, and the idea was constant change, so it becomes quite difficult there.  

BD:   Having done all this work with Baroque music, is it possible at all today for someone to write in the Baroque style, or is that just ridiculous?

RN:   You can write in any style you like, but it would be an imitation.  I’ve heard lots of pieces
margarine advertisements, and so onthat sound like a bit of the Seventh Brandenburg.  [Laughs]  But I don’t know if it’s ridiculous.  Stravinsky wrote in the pastiche style very successfully.  The Rakes Progress is sort of a Baroque/Classical piece.  So, you can do it, but it will always have that reference to another style.  People are always writing in the style that came just before, and changing it.  I have had some people who wanted to write modern symphonies for Classical instruments.  Its quite an interesting notion, too, but they haven’t done it so far.

BD:   Would it work to have the modern concept with Baroque instruments?  The harmonies would be new, but the instrumentation wouldn
’t be.

RN:   Yes, it could do.  A great composer can write for anything.  He can write for a steel band, or whatever.  It just doesn’t matter.  It’s the ideas, and it’s the ferment of ideas that’s important.  Anything will go if someone is really creative.  It’s when it’s not that the music sounds ghastly, whether it’s very modern or very old.  There’s thousands of really tedious symphonies that have been written.

BD:   How do you weed out the tedious from the brilliant?

RN:   [Sighs]  I don’t!  I take the brilliant, while keeping an eye open for the mildly interesting, but I don’t weed.  My job has been to rethink the central core repertory, and we’re just about coming to the end of that now.  We might go back and look for some other bits.  Why not?

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   To another phase of your career, tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

RN:   Because I was a singer myself, I feel very at home with the voice.  I sang as a boy a lot, and then I sang as a professional tenor for seven or eight years.

BD:   Are there any records exist with you as a singer?

norrington RN:   A couple.  Some Schütz and Monteverdi.  They were on Pye Golden Guinea, and were made in the 60s.  I was a very keen, very able singer.  I sang the Matthew Passion as the Evangelist in the Festival Hall, and Ferrando in Così Fan Tutte for Yehudi Menuhin, and all sorts of stuff.  I was very busy, pretty well a full-time professional solo tenor.  So, it gave me a very good feel for singing when I started, having given up the violin before that.  I gave up singing eventually and stayed just with the conducting, but I was always at home with singers.  It was easy to work with choirs, and it was easy encourage professional singers to do that little bit extra, or to do it slightly differently.  They felt fairly at home with me.

BD:   When you do Baroque music with Baroque instruments, you go and get reproductions, at least, or even some authentic Baroque instruments.  With the voice, you are only going to have people who have grown up with vitamins, and healthy foods, and clear air... or dirty air, if that makes any difference.

RN:   Yes.  I don’t do Baroque music nowadays, so it isn’t a problem with me, but I do a lot of Classical and early Nineteenth Century music, and that’s just the same, really.

BD:   But even then, weren’t the voices different?

RN:   The voices weren’t different.  The way they were trained was different.  Humans haven’t changed.  Fundamentally, they haven’t changed in a hundred years, no.

BD:   [Pursuing this just a bit]  But in athletics, we’ve gotten now to where the participants are so much different than they were a hundred years ago.  Isn’t the voice part of the athleticism of the human body?

RN:   I guess so, but you can certainly develop more and become muscle-bound.  Maybe some people sing louder nowadays, but they start at the same place.  As I said, it’s to do with the training.  The athletics is not because the body’s changed, it’s because the training systems have changed.  If you had taken a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old good robust farmer from lower Styria, you could have turned him into a great Olympic runner.  It’s the training methods, along with what you feed them.  I bet you they ate very well in the Eighteenth Century in the country.

BD:   Lots of vegetables!

RN:   Lots of vegetables with lots of meat, lots of fat, lots of good cereal, but lots of clean air.  No, I never think ontologically like that, or teleologically that somehow things are always getting better.  We’re through that one.  We don’t think that anymore, do we?  As part of the Green movement, we’re going back.  You’ll find salt creeping back into the diet; you’ll find meat creeping back soon.  Margarine is a great deal more unhealthy than butter, for instance.  That’s world proven.  All these particularly American fads will gradually all go away, and the good Eighteenth Century diet will come in!  [Both laugh]

BD:   So the answer might be the Eighteenth Century diet with a Twentieth Century vaccines.

RN:   That could be great.  The alternative is just to have everybody who’s sick dying off, which was their system, like five out of seven Mozart children.  Only two survived, and one of those didn’t make it beyond thirty-five.  That was their system.

norrington BD:   Does the sick music die off?

RN:   What is sick music?  I don’t know about sick music.  Is there sick music?  What you think of?  Is it Gesualdo or Wagner?  You mean less good music?  Yes, there’s sick music in the sense of less successful music, and that dies off.  It doesn’t get played on the whole, does it? It just gets left out.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

RN:   Do you mean performance or creation?

BD:   A and B.

RN:   Yes, I suppose I am optimistic.  Composing can only get better than it’s been for the last twenty years
... with some particular exceptions apart.  There’s such a lot of incredibly bad and boring music that’s been written, soulless, heartless above all that’s been written and inflicted upon us, that we’ve really had to sort out the heartier from the unhearty.  So, it can only get better.  People will want to express themselves, so they will write music.  All periods of humankind have expressed themselves.  Sometimes the music is not as good as the paintings, and sometimes the painting’s worse than the music.  If you take the Classical period of music, painting in Austria and Germany was incredibly bad, and the architecture wasn’t that great.  It had been very great just before, so you go through different times.  Architecture in Britain in the Nineteenth Century was pretty crummy, and so was music.  The writing was fantastic, and so was painting, so these things come and go.  Yes, I’m optimistic, of course.  As for performance, we will get the performance we desire.  If we elect governments who take music out of schools, then music will disappear in some areas.  If we turned it into what people call in England an upper-middle class ghetto where everything is luxury packaged, it will lose its nutrients, it will lose its vitamins.  Music is a food, and we need it.  We don’t necessarily need terribly intellectual music; we need good, strong, hearty, credible music.  Then people will go on writing it, and people will go on listening to it.  It might sometimes be in small groups, and it might sometimes be in large ones.

BD:   Is the music that you conduct for everyone?

RN:   The music I conduct is for everyone, yes, and I try and make it for everyone.  I’m very, very, very keen that that should happen.  I don’t try and popularize it, but I try and make it popular.  When it’s witty, I try and make witty, when it’s fun, I try and make it fun, and when it’s touching and tragic, I try and bring that out.  I try and make it so that my children will understand it and will be touched by it... not by climbing down, but by making it accessible in some sort of way.  It’s curious how the Classical, Baroque, and early Romantic periods have become more accessible to young people in some of our performances.  A lot of people say, “I couldn’t stand Beethoven
s Pastoral.  I just never could listen to it.  I could not bear it, and then I heard your performance and realized it was just wonderful, delightful, a marvelous piece.”  If you play it very slowly, and somberly, and impressively, who’s going to think it’s fun?  Who’s going to think it’s nice to be in the country?  So yes, I really want it to be for everybody.  We’ll be playing somewhere like the Proms in London, and there’s 8,000 people listening to Haydn’s The Seasons.  It’s a great experience.  People really love it.


See my interviews with Thomas Allen, Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Robert Lloyd

BD:   One last question.  Is conducting fun?

RN:   Conducting is fun.  It’s great fun, yes.  Sometimes it’s very demanding, sometimes it’s a little frustrating, but most of the time it’s great fun, and more and more because people are beginning to understand what I’m after.  I go back and back to orchestras, and they don’t throw up their hands in horror at reseating, or different speeds, or the idea that they might actually phrase the music.  So, that gets easier, and that means I can make the music more accessible.  I can go back to the way I felt about it as child, rather than treat it as a technical exercise, or dealing with notes.  I can go back to the inner music to try and light the music up from inside.

BD:   Lots of continued success to you!

RN:   Thank you very much.

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© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 26, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.