An Interview with Sigiswald Kuijken

One of the “founding fathers” of the early music movement, Sigiswald Kuijken played a leading role in pioneering the re-establishment of Baroque violin playing techniques. In 1972 he founded La Petite Bande, one of the first period instrument orchestras, an ensemble that went on to perform world-wide and make an impressive series of recordings that is still in progress. In addition Kuijken frequently guest conducts other period instrument orchestras, among them the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose debut concert he directed in 1986. Also active as a chamber musician, Kuijken often collaborates with his brothers, the gamba player Wieland and the flautist Barthold. His list of pupils is extensive and distinguished and, following 25 years at the Hague Conservatory, he continues to teach at Brussels Conservatory. His long association with the music of Bach made Kuijken a natural candidate to interview for this special Bach edition of GOLDBERG. Brian Robins travelled to his home just north of Brussels, where he had the privilege of enjoying the warm hospitality of Sigiswald Kuijken and his wife Marleen Thiers, a viola player with La Petite Bande. Now 60, Kuijken retains a zest for life and enthusiasm for a wide range of topics that would shame many half his age, but eventually the conversation settled down to the appointed subject.


Bach has obviously played a large and important part in your career. There can be few who both play the unaccompanied violin works and direct the B minor Mass. When and how did you first come to his music?


My first encounter with Bach was as a boy of seven or eight, when like other children I tried to play things like the 2-part Inventions and the little preludes. I was fascinated by something that I could not of course then identify, because I was too young. But I was struck by the fact that this music seemed to be different to everything else. That has never changed; it is something that has always stayed with me. Naturally I see Bach as part of his time, but always with the feeling that he is not the same as his contemporaries.


Yes, I think this raises an important point. If we hear the music of a Telemann, a Stöltzel or a Graupner, we can see that they are essentially coming from the same place, but you can’t do that with Bach. Can we define a recognisable “Bach style” and what it is that distinguishes him from his contemporaries?


Well, I think we can at least partially place him in that context. When you talk about style, much of Bach’s style is in fact similar to that of Telemann and his contemporaries. In his later life, for example, he does things that are very similar to his son Carl Philipp. In fact the third movement of the Trio Sonata in the Musical Offering is for instance very Rococo. And there are other examples that could have been sentimental if they were not by Bach. They are at the edge. But even in such pieces that on paper look quite similar to the music of his contemporaries, there is another more profound dimension. There is something strange that Bach shares with Mozart. It appears that their music has a deeper source. I know it’s a romantic idea to say that, but I’m not ashamed to do so and in fact I feel it increasingly.


A strong spiritual element is so often discerned in Bach’s music. Is this a part of what you’re saying? 


I think it is. And the spiritual aspect has nothing to do with whether the music was intended for the church or otherwise. It’s a quality you will also find in the instrumental pieces. The most obvious example is the Cello Suites, because of the tessitura of the instrument, which is so similar to the human voice and doesn’t have that kind of shrill tessitura you get with the violin, which is much more ambitious. It is not as generous an instrument as the cello or gamba. In the suites and sonatas for those instruments, and some of the ensemble music such as the 6th Brandenburg Concerto, the low sonority serves to increase the spirituality of the music.


If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that you can define the degree of spirituality in Bach’s music in terms of pitch.


No, no, but I think you are more likely to find it in a piece that has complete harmony or a low point of density, rather than in some of the solo violin works. You need a bass to connect with what we call the spiritual. That might be nonsense, but that’s  the feeling I have. Having said that, you then have “Aus Liebe”, the soprano aria in the St. Matthew Passion, which has no bass and is the most incredibly angelic music!


We were talking earlier in general terms about paradox and it often seems to me that Bach presents something of an apparent paradox in that the image of him so often conveyed is of a rather fusty figure whose music was already thoroughly out-dated by the time of his death. Yet we know that he took a keen interest in such contemporary developments as the Venetian concerto. Is this something we need to reconcile?


Paradox is the crucial thing about Bach and it probably was always with him. But if you find a paradox, you should not necessarily try to understand it logically. The essence of a paradox is that you can’t understand it and if you want full value from it you must accept it for what it is without too much analysis. And that’s the richness of paradox, because it goes beyond our normal thought processes. So we don’t need to attempt to reconcile these two sides of Bach; he did it himself. Bach had an old-fashioned sense of structure and he also, although not very frequently, wrote modern music, of which he was a master. The secular cantata “Pheobus and Pan” [BWV201] provides a good example. Bach has Pheobus sing in “learned” style and Pan in simpler, more popular style. Any other composer would have arranged it so that Phoebus emerged as a clear winner in their singing competition, but for Bach both are very good, if quite different. Of course we know that Bach was in favour of the more old fashioned and complicated “art” style, but even the aria he gives to Pan in the competition is a fantastic example of its particular style. He could do everything.


That’s a work in which we encounter Bach as an effective dramatist, an aspect of his musical personality that is frequently overlooked. Could he have been an opera composer, if, for example, he had moved to Dresden and had the opportunity to do so? 


I think he could, although I don’t believe he was aiming at Dresden in order to write operas. He wanted a secure post and the commissions that were possible from Dresden. Bur his secular cantatas, the dramme per musica, are outstanding and he understood rhetoric better than virtually anyone. But anyway the St. Matthew Passion is also a kind of opera and structurally all the cantatas are miniature operas, although they don’t of course have any action. Speaking of that, I am very much against attempts at staging the passions. It’s a horrible affair and nonsense. I would pay not to be obliged to attend such events.


I totally agree and it’s a topic we could probably talk about for a long time, but let’s for the moment talk more specifically about the instrumental works. Inevitably that means above all the solo violin partitas and sonatas, which have become so associated with you through the two recordings you’ve made of them. The first was made in 1981, a time when period style was still in a relatively evolutionary phase. You must have been conscious that it was a remarkable pioneering effort. Looking back do you recall any special difficulties with works that represent a huge challenge to any violinist?


I knew it was necessary to do them, but it was not easy. I had only started to change my violin technique between 1969 and 1971, when I started to adopt what people call “chin-off” playing, a technique I’m still using for playing and teaching. It was a very important period in my development as a musician.


For the benefit of those who might not understand it, would you briefly explain what the “chin off” style is, please?


What people normally do today is hold the violin between the chin and the shoulder.


Does that apply to some period instrument players as well as modern violinists?


Yes, even today not everybody has accepted my principles and they don’t have to; it’s up to them. The modern way of playing is with a chin rest or a little wooden device fixed to the violin. The chin rest was first proposed by Spohr in 1832, but it did not have great success until later in the nineteenth century, and even then there was considerable resistance. In the eighteenth century there was no question of any chin rest, so if you wanted to hold the instrument in the modern way you were obliged to put your chin on the table of the instrument, which makes for a very thin sound, removes a lot of harmonics and damages the varnish. So at least until the time of Beethoven, nobody played continuously like that. What I therefore did at the end of the sixties was to try to recapture a technique where my chin never touched the instrument, so the instrument just rested on my shoulder, giving the left hand the double task of both playing and holding the instrument. And that’s very difficult when you have no examples apart from a few texts, of which Geminiani’s method is the best. He explains exactly what to do, so that was my guide. I have to confess that I tried twice and I gave up twice, believing it was not possible. But then I tried a third time and found a little light at the end of the tunnel, so I continued. But there was not more than about ten years between that moment and my first recording of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas.


Presumably you had previously played the Bach pieces on a modern violin?


No, never, really. I gained my conservatory diploma in 1964, when I had of course to play a bit a Bach, but my background as a child was in Renaissance music, having with my brother Wieland taught myself to play the fiddle and the gamba. The first music in my life was Josquin and Orlando di Lasso, but when I went to the conservatory in Bruges they had never heard of them, so they said why don’t you just learn violin. But when we did Corelli or Bach, I felt instinctively that the way they treated Baroque music was wrong and that our little fiddles were closer to its spirit.


So your approach to the Bach unaccompanied pieces was purely through the Baroque violin?


That’s right. I learnt them that way, by myself. And with using Baroque technique, even more by myself, because there were no exemplars. I spent hours and hours practising in front of the mirror, which was my best teacher, better than any recording you make of yourself playing, because the sound is depressing. It’s better to open your ears, look in the mirror and see the position of your hand. Even today I tell students not to come to me but just go home and practice in front of the mirror. It’s the best teacher: it doesn’t shout at you, it’s always there, is not expensive, and is friendly and reliable.


For many people interested in period performance, the 1981 recording of the sonatas and partitas became something of a paradigm. Nearly 20 years separates it from your second recording. How far do you feel your interpretation had evolved during that period? 


Ultimately, I don’t think they’re that different and I certainly didn’t do the second recording with the object of doing the pieces differently. I just wanted to mark in an audible way the distance I had travelled in those twenty years, but I find that many things from the first recording have remained very valid. My fundamental ideas have survived the passage of time, the tempos are not very different. What is different is the inner strength and that’s more important than other considerations. So I think there’s more maturity in the second version, but I also think the recorded sound on the earlier set is better. The biggest difference is pitch, because the first time I played them at 415, the standard Baroque pitch, but the second at half a tone below 430, which works out something like 405 or 408. It’s the same violin and the same bow.


Yes, that’s a thing I was going to mention. Did you have any particular reason for your choice of instrument [a Giovanni Grancino dating from around 1700]?


The first reason is that I don’t have the money to buy another instrument that is as good! The second is that I love it, although it is not the best violin in the world. As I get older I believe that if the instrument is more or less right in the historical context, it doesn’t have to be from the same era and the same city as the music. That’s nonsense. It’s a subjective thing, but if you feel a certain harmony with the instrument and that it is suited to the music, I think that’s sufficient. It’s far more important to play well than to have an instrument that is ideal for the music. I prefer a good pianist playing Bach on a Steinway to a mediocre player performing on a beautiful harpsichord.


That suggests that you approach something like the Bach solo violin pieces from a purely musical angle, without delving into the historical background?


Yes, but having played all this French orchestral music and so on, I do feel in my bones what a gavotte, a minuet or a bourée is. After playing Lully and Rameau, you don’t play the Bach solo sonatas as abstract music. A minuet in a solo violin partita is still a minuet and although the Chaconne of the D minor Partita was never danced, it is  not just a series of variations that you can interpret as if they were some deep and profound abstract statement to be performed with total freedom. To me, that’s rubbish.


I would agree, and also believe that one of the things that undermined the dance element that is always present in Baroque music is the pseudo-mysticism that developed around Bach’s music in the 19th century.


I must confess, though, that I increasingly understand how these romantic ideas came to develop.


Tell me 


Because there is something mysterious about Bach, just as there is about Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart, or the late Beethoven string quartets. There is a certain point where faced by pieces of art, you say “My God, where is this coming from.” And from there the Romantics invented the mysticism they applied to Bach, the aura of the “holy Bach”. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except it was overdone.


But it has surely damaged complete understanding of Bach by creating a false image of this terribly devout, serious figure that never smiles. Take the third of the solo violin Partitas, the one in E, which is a marvellously extrovert work full of joyous, dancing music. Talking earlier, it emerged that you have some extremely interesting theories on the place of the cello in Bach’s music


During the past year or so, I’ve been studying this closely and am gradually realising that there is something about the Baroque cello that is another paradox. In the later 17th and earlier 18th century you find that the cello was seldom asked for. The name existed, of course, and you find some scores where it says ‘violoncello’ or violoncino’, but it is very rare. Normally the bass part is written ‘basso’ or ‘basso continuo’ or ‘violone’, and we’ve always assumed that means cello. Now I think it is time to recognise that this is wrong and that it does not mean the violoncello, at least not in the narrow historical sense. In definitions of “violoncello” in German and French lexicons until about 1730 or even later, you only find mentions of the cello being played da spalla, or ‘on the shoulder’. In Venice and Bologna you can find pictures in churches of musicians who play in this way. It is almost as big as our cello today and played like a viola, not of course under the chin or on the left shoulder, which would be impossible, but against the right shoulder with a strap around the player’s neck. The larger examples extend beyond the right shoulder, so the left hand can play comfortably not further down the neck than on a viola. The instrument is almost horizontally positioned and resonates in a totally different way to the traditional cello. I would imagine that in the late 17th century it was mostly used in churches, because I cannot imagine playing virtuoso divisions on it. But gradually more virtuoso things did appear and we know that Giovanni Bononcini and Caldara were appointed to San Marco around 1690 as viola da spalla players. The definition of the cello as being da spalla can be found even as late as a German lexicon of 1758, and in his famous violin method Leopold Mozart tells us that the gamba is played between the legs, going on to make the point that ‘today even the cello is played in that way’, which implies that previously it was not. Many previous writers such as Mattheson (1713) speak of the cello as da spalla. Brossard in France explicitly says that ‘what the Italians call the “violoncello” is what we in France term the Quinte de violon,’ the biggest of the violas used in Lully’s 5-part string orchestra. So the evidence is too striking for us to ignore anymore. What we erroneously call the ‘cello’ was at that time never given that name. It was also a larger instrument that the French called the basse de violon, tuned on B flat; that same instrument existed all over Europe, usually tuned to C like ‘our’ cello. Around 1725 to 1740 people started to make new instruments of this kind smaller to make them more comfortable for the player and a solo repertoire starts to emerge. Then you start to go into the Rococo and the old-fashioned spalla cello goes out of fashion.


So this is the instrument for which you believe the Bach Cello Suites were written?


I’m quite convinced of it. The idea that Bach ‘invented’ the viola pomposa is very doubtful. It is a later invention and Bach himself never spoke of the instrument. He did however write parts in his cantata arias for violoncello and violoncello piccolo, but those parts he or his students copied out never appear in the bass, so the bass players never played them. It would have been so easy to put in the continuo or basso part, but it is never the case. It’s either in the first violin, where it would have been easy for the concertmaster to switch instruments, or on a separate sheet of paper. Initially, I was shocked myself by this new reality, which I thought could not be true. But as I came to realise how seldom the cello was specifically asked for in the early decades of the 18th century, it started to explain the whole situation. Not many instruments survive, there is little iconography, all of which points to the fact that the cello at the time was a rare and not very important instrument. The violone was the bass instrument in an ensemble, and it’s very interesting to find from lists of payments to Corelli’s big Ottoboni orchestra that they were made to violinists, violas, ‘violoni’, and contrabassi. That clearly shows that it is the violone, the big cellos, that are what we today call cellos. I’m increasingly convinced that in chamber works like the Brandenburg Concertos and the cantatas there was no 16ft bass. In bigger works like the Handel oratorios, yes, but not in smaller scale pieces. So in Brandenburg 3, for example, you would have nine players standing: three violins, three violas, and three viole da spalla, along with a violone (the ‘big’ cello on C) and no double-bass. It would make the sound quite different to the one to which we’re accustomed. It’s also notable that in the first versions of Brandenburg’s No’s 1 and 5 there is no cello part, only basso, but by the time he came to write out the beautiful manuscript he dedicated to the Marquis of Brandenburg he says in the preface that he has re-worked them and one of the alterations is the addition of a cello part. The cello part is not more than the concertino bass of the kind you find in a concerto grosso. It doubles in the tuttis, but when the soloists play as in No. 5, it’s not like it is in the first version, where the violone is accompanying, but a concertino in which the cello plays. And I can very well imagine this part played by a spalla.


This is absolutely fascinating and something I’m sure will make you as popular with cellists as Joshua Rifkin is with choristers! I’d like to turn now to the sacred music and what seems to me one of the central problems. Without exception it had a pedagogical function that played a central role within a Lutheran liturgy that has little relevance today. So once again we have a paradox, in that Bach’s passions and cantatas are probably more popular today than they have ever been. How do we reconcile the liturgical and spiritual context of these works in a modern world that is not very spiritual?


In my own life I have found that one possible way to gain maturity is to look increasingly inwardly, to increasingly put things in a broader and ‘milder’ context. Take for example the St. Matthew Passion, which is increasingly performed in concert halls and throughout the year, not just at Easter. I regret that, but at the same time accept that you probably can’t avoid it anymore. Perhaps with times being as they are we should be happy that people play the St. Matthew Passion throughout the year. But the only way of respecting the essence of the work is to go to that essence, not giving in to fashionable ways of doing it, or simply try to please the audience. One thing that is clear is that you’re not going to learn it from books about interpretation and so on. You have to draw on your own inner experiences to express yourself. For instance, we walked the pilgrimage route to Santiago. That kind of experience helps me to be drawn into what I feel is the centre of Bach’s music.


In your notes for a disc of three of the cantatas, you make clear that you have increasingly become an adherent  - although by no means a dogmatic one - of Joshua Rifkin’s arguments in favour of a Bach “choir” consisting of single voices to a part. Can you explain something of your personal reasons for adopting such an approach?


I have to confess that when I first heard about Rifkin’s research some twenty years ago, I thought “Oh, my God, here’s some pushy American who has come up with something new”. But I have to admit that I was wrong, because I judged without reading it. That’s never good.


I don’t think you were alone in that. Rifkin came in for some ferocious attacks, some by people one suspects had not read his work.


That was to be expected, of course, because he was attacking a sacred subject. He was very daring to publish his findings, but had I been him I would have done the same. It was necessary. But I did not originally follow the whole story; I’m not a subscriber to Early Music and such scholarly journals. Then Graham Nicholson, the trumpet player and builder, drew my attention to the controversy going on between Rifkin, Andrew Parrott and Ton Koopman and said it was so interesting that he would send me copies. And when I read what both sides had to say, I thought the arguments of Rifkin and Parrott were so superior to those of Koopman. So I started to become interested, but I have to admit that I have not conducted my own comprehensive research on the topic. Why should I? You could say that’s weak, because I’ve just accepted something someone else has said. But I’m not a musicologist and I’m not going to become a musicologist.


But you must have your own practical reasons for accepting Rifkin’s theory?


My practical reason is that I had already lost faith in the fact that, for example, when you have a choral fugue you’d have four or five singers in unison on the first entry. I was already doubtful about such things. And then when you start to think about the fact there was virtually never any distinction made in Bach’s scores between solo and tutti, such things fell naturally into place. So Rifkin’s findings were in some sense confirmation of concerns I already had. It has proved that my feelings about fugal expositions were right; they were never meant to be performed by a group of people. Even in rare examples where Bach uses two singers to a part, such as the Leipzig version of Cantata 21, the fugue entrances are still marked as solo and the ripieno quartet only enters, doubled in this instance by trombones.


But I believe that this is also the cantata in which Bach says the added ripieno parts are optional.


That I don’t remember. But take the St. John Passion. There you also have four concertists, who as usual sing everything, and another quartet added to the chorales and turbae choruses. We’re going to do it like this next year, with eight singers. I think it will produce a very beautiful effect. It reminds you of the Bach motets with double choir or the double choruses in the St. Matthew Passion, where every so often the two choirs join forces.


It is interesting that, as Parrott noted, the vocal forces required for the two passions are the same, eight singers. And that’s because extra singers were available on Good Friday, when there were no singers required in the other churches.


Yes, except that the St. Matthew Passion also has the extra ripienist normally called the boys choir. We’ve just done it like this, and without a conductor. I did the whole thing from the leader’s desk. It was a fantastic experience and everybody was very happy with it, because it became something quite different.


A rather strange CD of extracts from a performance of the Mass in B minor you gave in Mexico, part of a worldwide tour in the “Bach Year” of 2000, has recently been issued [Urtext JBCC 0050]. I was struck by your comments in the accompanying notes to the effect that you viewed this performance as “work in progress”. This seemed to me to display considerable humility from a musician of your experience.


Yes, it was a rather stressful experience. We’d had a singer drop out and various changes, so it was not possible to issue the whole recording. It’s not good enough and I rather regret doing it. And we had a trumpet problem in that I’ve always been fanatical about doing things the way they were done in their day. If they could do it, so can we. Up until now most Baroque trumpeters (and even some horn players) have been helped by using an instrument that compromises by having holes added to secure the production of some overtones. For these performances we had true Bach trumpets without holes, made by our trumpeter Graham Nicholson and employing players brave enough to experiment. In the B minor Mass the trumpet parts are horribly difficult. It is obvious that in an experimental age you cannot produce the finished product of mature playing. Things are now changing and playing without holes is progressing rapidly. I don’t blame players for having used the easier instruments, but ultimately we have to move on. So that was what we did in the B minor Mass performances, which represented a reckless kind of attitude on my part. That at least partly explains why I described the performance as ‘work in progress’; if I was the doing the piece when I was 99-years old it would still be work in progress!


Well, that leads to the question of what you feel you learned from that tour of the Mass in B minor, which I believe you gave about 20 times.


We learned a great deal. The performance was very much better at the end of the tour. As I’ve said it was a reckless undertaking, because I introduced one-part-part choruses, trumpets without holes and directing from the first desk of the violins all at once. So one can’t be too surprised that initially it had some weak points. But by the end some things were very good and doing the work so many times offered a marvellous opportunity to experiment. Of course we had people saying that because there was no chorus they did not like the balance. We have to remember that Bach had his singers in a gallery with the organ, standing and singing right out into the church with the instrumentalists sitting or standing behind them. It was therefore all very different and acoustically they had a much greater chance to project. I always place the concertino singers in front of the orchestra.


And of course by using only one-singer-per-part you are challenging the singers a great deal more.


Absolutely, and it’s interesting that the traditional kind of soloist are in most instances not apt for this kind of performance. Some are simply not interested, but even when they are it is simply not their world. You have to find new people who are happy to experiment and try this style of performance.


Do you find that it is a strain for solo singers to sustain their parts in a big work like the St. Matthew Passion or the Mass in B minor?


Before they do it, they tend to think it is going to be very tiring, but then after the first performance they think they are in paradise! They keep singing and remain so involved. And, of course, they have pauses during the other singers’ arias. So its not as if they are singing all evening, just as they are not in opera. They also have to drop the idea of singing a big solo role, to change their disposition. If they can’t then they should not be doing it. From the start everybody involved has to change his or her perspective.


I think we’ve reached a point where we should be bringing our conversation to an end, and perhaps we could do so by having your brief thoughts as to where Bach interpretation goes now from the point it has reached.


There is a kind of evolution in progress at present. There are those who still tend to concentrate on producing a kind of brilliant show that people will clap. OK, let them. Why not? They will do the Matthew Passion and they will do Messiah. But I think that is not interesting. Then there are others, perhaps crazy people like me, who will try to concentrate on inner things. What does that mean? I don’t know, but I feel that when I say that it does mean something, even if I can’t exactly explain it. What is the essence of beauty? It’s not so-called historical authenticity. That might be part of it, but it’s not a guarantee. The most important thing for me is to make the deepest contact I can with Bach’s art, to try to penetrate that richer world that was his. That certainly is something that appeals to all of us.


This interview originally appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine