An Interview with Andrew Parrott

The English conductor and scholar Andrew Parrott is today one of the doyens of the British early music scene, a musician who has for many years been associated not only with performances of high musical intelligence and integrity, but also with his meticulous approach to matters of performance practice. He is, of course, also the author of one of the most important and controversial books on music to have appeared in the last few decades. Brian Robins went to meet Parrott at his delightful 17th-century Oxfordshire home, ideally set in tranquil countryside, yet only four miles from the bustle of the university city of Oxford.

You are best known for your work with the Taverner Choir and Players and a hugely important book, The Essential Bach Choir  (2000), which built on Joshua Rifkin’s theories on the topic of one-per-part Bach choirs. I believe you founded the Taverner Choir while still engaged in postgraduate research at Oxford. Perhaps we could start with you telling us something about your musical background and your motivation for founding the choir?

My musical background was quite conventional in the sense that I didn’t come from a particularly musical background and my knowledge consisted of odd bits of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th century repertoires. As a boy I played the organ in various Protestant “low” church (non-conformist) establishments and the symphonic repertoire with youth orchestras. Then there were visits from orchestras to Wolverhampton and Birmingham. My great hero was Elgar, perhaps because he came from the middle part of England, where I grew up. When I was lucky enough to go to Oxford, which was on an academic scholarship rather than as an organ or choral scholar, there were medievalists and people studying all sorts of things I knew nothing about. So I thought that rather than learn more about Elgar or Brahms’ symphonies, the most logical and sensible thing to do with my precious three years was to get as much as I could from them. To that extent it was a deliberate choice to come into contact with what I didn’t know, rather than feeling particularly drawn to earlier repertoires. Certainly, at that time contemporary music was as interesting to me as earlier music and among other things I was secretary of the Contemporary Music Club. But the first concert I ever conducted was a mixture of Tudor music including the Tallis Lamentations and music by Byrd.

Was that with the Taverner Choir?

No, it was with an ad hoc group before Taverner had been founded. It’s a great way of learning to conduct, incidentally. You just throw yourself into it with performers who are prepared to work with you, so you get to find out what works and what doesn’t work. You also learn how to plan the programme, print the programme, get the music copies, organise rehearsals and put the chairs out at the concert! I found that essentially I was putting on concerts of music that I wanted to hear, music that was often at that time [the 1960s] not available on recordings. Afterwards I stayed on Oxford for a further two years, working on a doctorate on the topic of English choral performance practice. I have never completed it, although I have drawn on the work I did. During that time the college [Merton] gave me some money as director of music, which was very flattering and helpful. But the bursary was only for two years, at the end of which I was expected to find a profession. The formation of the Taverner Choir came about as a result of my conducting the Schola Cantorum, which was considered the best chamber choir at the university. Its patron was Michael Tippett and it was he who when I left the university asked who I would recommend for a choir needed for the Bath Festival, of which he was one of the directors. I told him I could get some of the best Schola Cantorum people, so it was specifically for one of his programmes that I started the Taverner Choir.

I’m sure it will come as a surprise to many that a choir so particularly associated with early music was formed at the behest of one of Britain’s leading 20th-century composers. Was this the period you worked as an assistant to Tippett?

Yes, it was Tippett who actually gave me my first job. At that point he particularly wanted a musical assistant to co-ordinate the publication of his music with Schott’s. But there were also lots of other things that came with the job and of course Tippett was in a sense one of the pioneers of early music in Britain, having a special interest in the English madrigalists. 

But from there the Taverner Choir, with the addition of the Players, did become a specialist early music group?

Yes, although there was no fixed agenda. It was very much a case of responding to the offers that came in, particularly at that stage from the BBC, who did recordings of all manner of obscure repertoire.

I recall especially a wonderful series of reconstructions of the liturgy for the Christmas octave. In a sense you arrived on the scene at an opportune moment. Early music had suddenly become fashionable and record companies were starting to record a lot of early music.

I wouldn’t dispute that, but would qualify it. There were wonderful opportunities for recording that are not there in the same way now, but it must be remembered that the interest in early music was counter-balanced by a lot of opposition. It was difficult and hard work to come through that.

Are you referring to opposition from critics or audiences?

Not specifically critics, although certainly that was the case in some instances. No, I’m thinking about the majority of music lovers, who were not attuned to it. And a lot of influential professionals, whether performers, critics or scholars felt threatened, because on one level or another they were challenged and we were viewed as heretics or iconoclasts who were deliberately trying to attack their world. From my point of view that has never been true, because although I may have something of the iconoclast in me, I don’t try to smash icons for the sake of doing so. With the Bach dispute, I’m not trying to change received opinion because it is there, but because it needs to be changed. And I do so because I care about Bach. I want to understand more about the subject and I want to share what I may or may not have understood with other people.

Looking back, do you consider the 70s and 80s as something of a golden age for early music or an evolutionary period?

Everything is evolutionary in one sense, and certainly things have changed. There are many laudable things about the state of the art today, but there are also many worrying things. We live in a highly commercial age and this does raise issues about questions of “authenticity”. It is a pick and match age – you can prefer it fast, or prefer it slow. You can go high, or you can go low, you can want it loud and brash or want it quiet and subtle. Certainly, there are works in which some or all of those elements are present to some degree or another. But the idea that composers themselves did not care to the degree that we don’t care is false. You could say they’re all dead, so what’s the difference? But my view as a conductor is that I have a responsibility to represent the composer’s ideas and that the public has an implicit understanding that I am doing so. Tackle most performers and they will tell you they are being true to the composer. They may define the manner in which they are doing so in rather woolly terms, with lots of disguised escape clauses. Yet in so many instances, we are clearly not representing the composer. Then comes the argument “Ah, but our ears have changed and our prime responsibility is to satisfy people.” I simply don’t believe that is our first responsibility, which is rather to offer what is there. There’s plenty of music out there and if people don’t like the sound of 14th-century music they can go to something else. I think it is insidious to feel you must make 14th-century music appeal to modern ears. And that raises the question of what “modern ears” are. Yours? Mine? Someone with no experience of classical music? Everybody listens differently and one of the key things is that we can learn to listen with different ears. And that I think sums up what I’m all about. I have learned with immeasurable pleasure to listen to all sorts of repertoires differently. When I grew up, equal temperament was in tune and everything else was out of tune. Now I feel the opposite.

Reverting to your question about a golden age, I think in some ways it was, but it is often said that standards were then low and now they are high. In matters of technical execution, it is true there are now more people who achieve high standards, but the best musicians of that era were musically not only on the same level and in some cases further ahead, but also technically equal more often than we tend to think. Partly the perception is that we have learnt to listen differently and people will produce a bad recording from 30 years ago and claim it proves their point. But find a good recording from the same period and it sounds as if it was made yesterday.

I’m delighted to hear you make that point, because one is constantly coming up against the notion that the standard of period instrument playing today is so much superior. If you actually take the trouble to go back to the best of that era it soon becomes clear that is manifestly untrue.

I’m glad you find the same. The other point is that although standards may appear to be higher, we are compromising more and making the music subconsciously easier to listen to. We’re not using strange tunings, or strange scorings and we’re giving audiences something that does not provide too much of a challenge. I would also add that you also get wonderful period instrument bands bringing in star instrumental and vocal soloists to pull in the crowds. There are good modern singers who have even learned a little about period performance from a couple of CDs, but are still miles behind in terms of understanding.

I think there is a general perception, and it’s one to which I certainly subscribe, that singing has lagged behind instrumental playing when it comes to period practice.

Oh, absolutely. It’s the bane of my life! There is one obvious reason and that is that you don’t have to buy a new larynx or take the chin rest off. What Sigiswald Kuijken and other good professionals did was risk everything. There was no one to teach them and no back up. It was a lonely business, which people tend to forget. Whereas singers just turn up and say OK you want me to use a funny tuning or less vibrato. They haven’t had to make that same investment intellectually and therefore the all-purpose singer is more common than the all-purpose instrumentalist.

Your career as been marked by a meticulous approach to matters of performance practice. Often, as in the case of the downward transpositions in Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat in Monteverdi’s Vespers, they have led you into controversial areas. How important to your work as a conductor are such considerations?

They have considerable prominence, but are not all-important. They are areas where there is something I believe is worth pointing out and may be a help to others in understanding the music better. I hope that what I do is to take care about using the forces Monteverdi would have employed, the style, the pitch, and the nature of the instruments. It’s just that I had this particular take on chiavette and to be honest when I wrote the article [Early Music, 1984], I was not entirely sure that those movements should be performed down a fourth, but was sufficiently convinced to think it worth experimentation. Risks were involved and I was attacked for performing it with the transpositions. Later I wrote the article, something that’s happened several times, because I often don’t have time to write things up until later. So the article was a response to the at-times violent criticism. Even when I’d written it I couldn’t say that this is so, only that it is the most satisfactory interpretation of what facts there are. When I came back to the question a couple of years ago, I went over it all again and am now 100% certain.

Related to this question is the gulf between scholars and performers. It is unnecessarily wide and in many cases scholars will say performance practice was all the rage as a subject in the 1970s and we’ve now moved on to some nebulous subject like performance studies. In the 1970s it didn’t feel like the rage, but something a few of us were trying to take seriously. The majority of scholars kept at arms length, not liking performance practice because it was a messy subject. It wasn’t one manuscript that you could you date, it didn’t stay still and it had this message element in it that was dangerous for one’s reputation. Today performers tend to say they don’t have time to be a scholar and have no direct hands-on experience themselves. The scholars, on the other hand, don’t want to get their hands dirty with actual performance and have increasingly created hermetically sealed subjects. If you look at most conference timetables over the last five years, many of the titles of papers are utterly impenetrable and not in any way enticing. It’s a hard job trying to bridge these differences.

I’d like to turn to another aspect of your work, although one that is in some senses interrelated to the topic we’ve just been discussing. One of the threads running through your performing career is liturgical reconstruction, of which you are a strong proponent.

Yes, I am. Obviously, it does relate to what we’ve just been saying, but it also goes back to the question of learning to listen differently. It is importantly musically to understand the shape of the liturgy and to have some grasp of what Vespers or a Mass is. To hear the component parts in a concert setting does not reveal what the music has to offer and in fact in the case of the Mass it can go against you. If you perform the Gloria and Credo adjacently you may well feel they are rather similar and they are meant to be, but bound within a much larger framework.

Which in itself defines their very different liturgical purpose

Exactly. And if you’ve had the intervening plainchant and liturgical ceremony, it not only sets off the movements of the Ordinary, but you tells you what the function of those movements is and how they relate to other sections.

This comes across very tellingly in your most recent recording, the Biber Missa Christi resurgentis, where the contrast between the plainsong and Biber’s brilliant score is particularly strong.

Some people have a strange attitude toward the plainchant sections and tend to fast forward when they get to them. They feel its an embarrassment and not really music. It isn’t music in the same way, but it’s a musical element that can be very beautiful in its own right and it is a necessary foil to the polyphony.

And for anyone prepared to immerse himself within the context the totality can be extraordinarily evocative.

Yes, I wish there was a verb one could use in place of “evoke”, because I use it all the time! My aim is not to recreate, but to evoke and supply the listener’s imagination with whatever is needed. Radio and recording are so effective because they allow the mind to roam freely. Paradoxically, recording even allows for better presentation of instruments like the lute that don’t really work in a concert hall.

Sooner or later we have to talk about The Essential Bach Choir, because it has had such an impact. I don’t want to go over the central thesis with you, because that has now been sufficiently well rehearsed for anyone remotely interested in the topic to be aware of it. What does interest me is where we now stand in the debate. I understand, for example, that the book has recently been translated into German, from where some of the fiercest opposition to the views of Joshua Rifkin and yourself has emanated.

Oddly enough, I have recently been working on an article that is an update on the debate, although I’m not sure there is a short answer to your question. What we have are two polarised positions. One of the reviews of the book made the point that it had given a useful summary of one side of the argument, but that we must now look forward to hearing the other side. I did not intend to write one side of the story. My intention was to write down everything that I thought was relevant and the facts tended to lead in a particular direction. Indeed, it would have been easier to go in one direction and the notion that by the end of the book I had deliberately led readers to believe its conclusions is plainly wrong. My purpose, unlike certain traditions of German scholarship, was to express a point of view, but to build it up point by point. And in fact more information now comes in on an almost daily basis, so that will be included in the article.

Does that mean that you are now the natural repository for such information?

No, its not that people necessarily come to me, but that I have uncovered new information, although that doesn’t yet include a letter from Bach saying I hereby insist that henceforth everybody uses small choirs! The important point is that the case for the modern choir has still not been put coherently and rests on the slenderest evidence. Critics like [Christoph] Wolff have said they disagree, but they have not said why they disagree. The review of the German edition in the Bach Jahrbuch is very interesting because there are a lot of cultural differences the reviewer cannot cope with. Although he lays into the book, it is the methodology he is attacking; he doesn’t dispute or correct a single fact. And this is five years after the original book and 25 years after Rifkin! It’s all beginning to look a bit thin and if there is a valid counter-argument, I’d love to hear it.

Certainly the paucity of some of the arguments is striking. If people can up with nothing better than saying certain conductors accept the reasoning in the book because it means they can perform Bach’s choral works more cheaply, they are obviously on a loser.

And even that is not true, because it doesn’t apply if the choir is amateur and if it is a professional choir, it is not infrequently at least a part-sponsor, so it is buying into the concert. I don’t think Bach was too concerned with touring rates and hotel bills, however many performers he had. In fact the difference in rates between a small professional chorus and good soloists is so small as to be irrelevant.

And presumably if you do a Mass in B minor with solo voices having to sing everything rather than just certain passages those soloists are going to have to be paid more?

That in fact raises another matter, because another emotional reason why certain people are unwilling to entertain the possibility of single voices is that they are wedded to employing solo voices of a certain sort and they don’t want to lose them. But those are people who are either not going to want to sing together or are not going to form a good vocal quartet in polyphony. So you need a new type of singer. It is probably easier in Britain than in many other places, because a lot of people emerge as soloists from the choral tradition and have ensemble experience.

Moving on from Taverner, more recently you were appointed Musical Director of the London Mozart Players. That was perhaps a rather surprising development for a conductor who has always been at the cutting edge of performance practice, since historically the LMP have always been a rather traditional, even staid modern instrument chamber orchestra.

There were several factors involved in my taking up the post. One was that I wanted to stay in this country more so as to spend time with my young daughter. Secondly, I’ve of course always conducted modern as well as period orchestras. And then despite my being labelled or damned as a purist or idealist – something I’m quite happy with because these should not be dirty words – I’ve always thought that the gestures are more important than the equipment. Period instruments have certain characteristics of their own that help you get closer to the essence of early repertoires, but the main thing that will determine the nature of the performance is the mental approach.

So you have attempted to stamp your own ideas on the LMP?

Yes, although I think it’s important to stress that we don’t aim at an imitating period instruments. Rather the objective is to produce a greater sense of style. Good London professionals are famously quick at picking up new ideas. The sound of the LMP has been transformed, not something for which I would want to take credit. That goes to the orchestra for having been able to effect such a transformation. My work with the LMP has not therefore been a kind of second best to period instruments, but concerned with producing good performances that do justice to the composer’s intentions. The conditions for working there have been exemplary and I’ve greatly enjoyed myself with them. But I am now moving on and this will be my last season with them, mainly because I want to devote more time to writing.

I was going to come to that, because I believe you are working on a new book, a history of music before Mozart. There are many histories of music, so I imagine you must have some particular angle?

It’s a little difficult to describe and I don’t want get too excited about it at present, because I’ve no idea when it will be completed. It deals with music from the Middle Ages until 1770, but it’s not my writings. Rather it’s an assemblage of prime sources. I can’t go into detail at present, but the approach will be very different to that of Strunk’s Source Readings. It will be equally serious, but I hope more fun. It will cover aesthetics, but also performance and the extracts will be arranged according to topic rather than chronologically. It will include commentary, but the main thing is selecting and editing the extracts. I would never had embarked on it had I realised how difficult it was going to be! The end is in sight, but I’m not yet near it.

Returning to your work as a performer, your most recent appointment was as Music Director of the New York Collegium, which took effect from 2002. The NYC is rather closer in make-up and objective to Taverner, so where do you see that new association going?

One thing about that is precisely that it gives me the opportunity to do the kind of things I used to do with Taverner here. It’s not that financing is easier in New York, and politically things are like they were here ten years ago here. Early music there is still very much a minority interest, although performance standards are high. But we do get very good houses for a limited season of interesting repertoire, the kind of experimental things I’ve not had the opportunity to do here recently.

Perhaps we should make clear at this point that Taverner still exists.

Yes, it still exists, but only a sporadic basis. I sometimes liken it to a mushroom which is somewhere in the ground, but where and when it will spring up you don’t know!  I’m quite happy about that, because I’m relieved of being responsible for the financial burden that goes with running it. I don’t have the energy to recreate an administration and the attendant raising of major finance that you need nowadays to survive in Britain. It is very enjoyable to get together for the odd special event, but I can’t do everything I want to do and at present my year balances out very satisfactorily.

What plans do you have for the NYC?

We’ve just done a big Gabrieli programme with lots of sackbuts and cornetts, the kind of thing I’ve not done in this country for years. Some of the music was familiar and some not, so it was wonderful to be able to introduce it to the New York audience, particularly as the NYC has some really excellent players. The next big project will be Telemann’s “Donner” Ode, which was commissioned by Hamburg to commemorate the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The other main area of conducting work at present is working with the specialist Baroque opera company Opera Atelier and Tafelmusik in Toronto. There are many very good things about the company, which is now 20 years old and provides opportunities for Baroque opera to be staged with great commitment and a first-rate orchestra, with whom I’ve worked a lot. Up to this point, I’ve only done Mozart with them, but next month [November 2005] we will be doing Lully’s Armide. One of the strengths is that the company works as a team, so as a conductor I don’t just come in the scene when the choice of opera has been made and the director and singers have been chosen to make up an ensemble that might or might not gel. I’m there at the start of planning and everybody knows and likes each other. So it’s an excellent opportunity, particularly since you have to ask yourself how much seriously staged Baroque opera there is in this country.

While admirers of Andrew Parrott’s former work with his Taverner forces may more recently feel deprived, there seems little doubt that as he approaches 60 Parrott has found the equilibrium of a man at ease with his life. There is much to which we can look forward with keen anticipation, both as to his musical activities in New York and Toronto, and from his pen.

This interview originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine