Trevor Pinnock: Following the musical instincts

One of the most known British harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock is best known as a founder and leader for 30 years of the period of baroque and early classical music performance orchestra The English Concert. As a pioneer of bringing the historically informed performance and original instruments onto the modern stage, Trevor Pinnock had led an extremely successful career, appearing with major orchestras and opera companies around the world and recording numerous harpsichord solo and chamber music CDs. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 1992 and an Officier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998. Today in this interview Trevor Pinnock elaborates on the meaning of ancient music, and humanity in the field of classical music.

Through you focus on ancient music, you claim to be the person of today and you don’t consider yourself as historical musician. How do you find balance between historically informed performance and the modern thought and interpretation in your creative work?

I find it important to have knowledge about style of performance for any music I perform however ancient or modern. My knowledge of playing ‘ancient’ music on period instruments underpins my performances in modern concert halls whether on period or modern instruments.

But for me there is no ‘ancient’ aspect to this music for when we take it off the page into sound it has to be living as freshly as if composed this morning. Historical knowledge is just one aspect of many in our performances. I would put it more in the category of preparation and process than of inspiration although knowledge can open doors to inspiration. I have always performed music more by musical instinct than by books but I believe that my ‘gut led’ music should also be fed by learning from the brain.

I’ve read that you see composers and musicians firstly as people. Would you say that it is typical in the world of academic music to put performance above humanistic needs, such as health or social life? What is your take on the worship of academic music itself?

I am surprised by this but I would agree that I see composers and musicians also as people. They are after all my colleagues with whom I work intimately. I don’t think much about their health or social life although sometimes that might be important. Think of the torment of Beethoven whose hearing was so distorted by Tinnitus. Perhaps it was a relief to him that he went completely deaf before composing his last string quartets.

I do like to keep an imaginary telephone line available with my composers so that I can ask them questions – although Bach is rather terrifying and I feel I should write him a formal letter and Beethoven has a problem on the phone. But seriously, this is what I mean by having a human connection.

How did you imagine your profession at the beginning of your career? What was your motivation and aspirations? How does the reality differ?

I don’t think I imagined my profession at all. After Music College, I played concerts and worked as a piano teacher in schools to earn my living.

I was always driven by the music and gradually opportunities opened for me. I was lucky but my greatest luck was that I had the gift of music so I had something to say. What I did not know is how rough and tough the world is and how success is balanced by failure. As performers we have to learn how to survive.

How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?

When I listen to music I want two things – structure and story. The architecture of music is of supreme importance and the musical story must create an inner response. This is true of compositions or of performances. While technical mastery is necessary in both fields it is only a means to an end. As performers we have to go far beyond the technical process of music-making to reveal its heart.

What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn? How did it shape you as a musician?

Creativity can grow from a close communion with the music itself, not out of an imposed wish of the performer. I was lucky to learn a lot about listening when I was a choir boy at Canterbury Cathedral but I did not understand then that listening is the fundamental tool to opening musical insight. We have to develop the level of trust and understanding in the music and then listen as the music itself  tells us how we should perform it.

You are named as a pioneer of performance on historical instruments. How could you describe the culture of harpsichord music in Great Britain? Is there an identity of British historical music?

I found it so important to discover what the historical instruments have to offer. They were good enough for Bach so why not for us?  We were at a crossroads fifty years ago.

I don’t know much about ‘culture of harpsichord’ but I hope it is accepted as an important and valid instrument. I have just recorded the first book of ‘Das Wohltemperiert Clavier’ and the harpsichord is still a major part of my life.

The question about historically informed performance is huge. In my experience even major symphony orchestras have some sort of idea about a basic ‘historical’ approach and I am glad that the early instrument pioneers have had a strong influence on music making in general.  ‘Historical performance’ is now in the mainstream of music making. There are some wonderful specialist ensembles with varying levels of historicity. What we all have to ask ourselves, whether we play on historical or modern instruments, is how the music is best presented today. There are so many factors to consider. Perhaps the most important is the performance space – size and acoustic. And if we are aiming for ‘historical authenticity, what sort of authenticity do we want?  Do we want the conditions and musical results  that Bach had in Leipzig at early morning services in an unheated church with musicians sight reading fresh manuscript copies in flickering candle light or do we need something more sanitised for our modern ears? And what of those ears – are they in any way attuned to listening to the music as it was heard originally? And what of our minds – can we think as a person of the baroque age before any of the new enlightenment thought of the later 18th century?

I think there is a future for many different types of performance of music written in the past and I myself feel happy to have some knowledge of historical practice to support my very present day performances of works which are timeless source of energy and inspiration.

Thank you for the conversation!

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