Interview with
Trevor Pinnock

Illustration: Geles Tomás // // Instagram: @flipadina

With a performance career spanning over fifty years, highlighted by countless awards and high honours, conductor-harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock discusses his musical motivations and experiences when shifting between the realms of period and modern instruments.

I have to tell you that out of the many quotes that I’ve heard in my still-relatively short orchestral career, one of my favourites comes from you. It goes, as I recall, “There are only two kinds of musicians in this world; ones that rush and ones that drag. Figure out which one you are, and please don’t do that!”

Yes! It’s just a bit of simple practical advice.

I was wondering, though, which one are you?

Oh, I’m a rusher. And then sometimes, I overcorrect. We all have to find that place in the middle. That’s the interesting thing. There doesn’t seem to be anybody who naturally falls in the middle.

Of course. I usually drag, by the way. Once in a while I rush too. So how did you come to this? It’s such a beautifully simple thought.

It was just a realisation at a point. I think all the best things come as realisations while working through the inspiration process. You suddenly understand something about the music or understand some very simple thing that comes to you. There’s no place for long, complicated sentences and didactic stuff, as far as I’m concerned, in making music. But sometimes we need a very simple something for clarity or in order to show what an atmosphere should be.

You said it some years ago, but it has stuck with me ever since.

Haha! That’s fine.

So, as a pioneer of the historically informed performance practice, you said that at the beginning, it was a journey of discovery into the unknown. What new discoveries have you made? Or better put, looking back, have you become historically informed about the movement itself in any way?

In a sense, yes. I never considered myself an historical musician. I’m just a musician, and I was seeking to play a certain sort of music. I thought it was a good idea to use the instruments they’d used, to find out how to make that work. I don’t come from any sort of scholarly background, so most of my learning comes primarily from musical instincts. I remember in the early years, I felt quite intimidated by a lot of my colleagues who’d all been to university and seemed to know everything about everything. But then I realised that actually by gift of music, I do know something about music. I had to learn to trust my musical voice, then follow it up with my analytic brain.

Have you seen this early music movement evolve over the years?

Yes. You know, it’s a very interesting thing because when we started, hardly anybody played the period instruments. As time went on, I have the sense that certain styles of playing grew up. Whether they’re historical or whether they’re modern ideas of how to approach the music is a big question. Some of them may not be historical at all, but there’s no doubt that those instruments can sound very wonderful and bring this music to life naturally. And one of the reasons I wanted to use these instruments was that you could play them to the full without compromising. When you’re playing on instruments designed for heavier, louder repertoire, the density of the sound is such that you have to use special tricks for it to work. But ideally, with the instruments for which the music was written, you just have to play the notes and everything should work naturally.

You mentioned the modernity of some of the ideas. Is that a discussion, or maybe even an argument, you ever have with your colleagues?

The funny thing is that in a sense, I’m not in the early music circle very much. I haven’t had my own orchestra of period instruments since 2003. But of course, I still play with some really fine period instrument musicians. And in that realm, that sort of discussion never happens. When I do work with an old instrument orchestra, there are certain things that I ask for that aren’t the musicians’ normal way of doing things, just as with a modern orchestra. I have a pretty clear idea of the sort of sound and effect that I want, so I have to try to find a way to achieve it. And it comes out of the sounds around me. It’s not a scholarly exercise for me. 

That leads very nicely into my next question. I wanted to ask you about the difference between working with a modern group and with players that are trained on period instruments.

Well, we’re currently working with a Haydn Symphony and the process started rather slowly. The orchestra had been playing some very big repertoire, and they were out of touch with the language of Haydn. It simply takes some time and work. You can see that over the past few days, we’ve managed to transform certain things to allow the music itself to speak to the players – so that one instinctively knows some of the things to do and some of the things to not do. And it comes out of the music; that’s my main aim in the rehearsals. I trust the musicians very much and I know that if I can get them into the music, then the music itself, Haydn’s music, will work on them. That means setting up some basic elements of language, but not being overly prescriptive. Because if I become too prescriptive, everybody will concentrate too hard on these rules and run out of time for the music to get to them. There wouldn’t be any space for it, and I think it’s really important to leave space for the musicians to be able to make music, rather than follow a whole series of instructions.

Is this something that you have experienced differently with groups that specialise in this type of music? Those who speak the language every day?

Of course, when working with an old instrument group, I have to take their established language as a starting point, and then explain how we might explore other colours, so it’s a sort of reverse process. The important thing is that one has to work with the instruments one has. There’s no point in trying to make a modern orchestra sound like a period instrument orchestra because it doesn’t. You have to use the best things that a modern orchestra can offer, but you should still have a basis of clarity and colour to let the music speak. In the end, the only important thing is the music. It has to speak.

I absolutely agree. In the last several years you’ve released a few recordings of composers such as Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner…in this direction. Can we expect more of that from you?

Not necessarily. One of the things that I don’t like is constantly being pigeonholed by people as an ‘early music specialist.’ I am and always have been just a musician…with a great love of early music. But, of course, there’s other music that I love too, and I feel that I do have some access to that, so I shouldn’t hold back. I remember when I was asked to do the chamber version of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, I asked, “Are you sure you want me to take this on?” The principal of the Royal Academy answered, “I’m absolutely sure you’re the person to do it.” I thought about it because I’ve always loved that symphony. Soon after, I started working on the piece – it felt very organic, so I was happy to take it on.

You’ve managed astoundingly enormous output in your career. From listening to some of your recordings, and more recently, having the pleasure of working with you, there’s always such a fresh energy in your music. You manage to have such a natural breath in the sound and phrases, so to speak. How do you find the energy to keep going?

From the music. I get it out of the music. As soon as the music starts, I come alive. That’s me. That’s somehow what I’m made for.

Has it always been that way?

I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told that when I was two years old, I was taken to the seaside where I heard a brass band. I insisted on dancing to that brass band music until they stopped. I wouldn’t allow my parents to take me home. I have the feeling that when I heard that music, I realised why life was worth living. This was it. And so, I get the energy from that…and I just love it.

So in that vein, do you still find time to listen for pleasure?

Not enough. I love to go to concerts and I’m not tremendously critical when I go to concerts either. That’s not the point for me. If I saw somebody being very offensive to the music, then that would upset me, of course, but normally I go to enjoy. I prefer that to listening to recordings. I live a lot of my life in silence. I love silence. It’s really important to me. I don’t think I’d have the energy to make music if I didn’t live in silence. 

Do you have any regrets?

By the time you get to my age, everybody has a significant number of regrets. At the same time, there are significant joys and achievements that we can all celebrate. We have to take those positives and accept the regrets. The things that don’t work out are sometimes the things that contribute most to us doing something better later on in life. So we have to learn to take them on, process them, and put them into perspective, so that we can let them go enough in order to move on.

Any goals that are yet to be accomplished?

I just fulfilled one: playing the First Book of Bach’s [The Well-Tempered Clavier]. When I got to 70, I thought, “All your life you thought you might play Bach’s huge 48 preludes and fugues. Somehow, you keep putting it off. But now you’re 70 and you can’t put it off for another ten years and another ten years after that.” Whatever else I’m doing, I get up early every morning to practice my Bach.  I’m now working on Book Two. Of course I’ve played some of them before, but not all by any means. I’ll record the second book in the summer of 2020. It’s a big project. 

You’re in such fantastic shape! How do you stay so fit? Is part of it getting up early and practicing Bach or are you keeping other secrets from us?

Maybe it is. I don’t have any special secrets. Oh, I have the joy of my grandson. You can’t be old when you have a two-year-old grandson. They teach you so much. There’s some sort of wisdom that can come out of these little people. They’re so connected with things. In our lives, we construct so much around ourselves. To see a little person who reacts immediately to this or that, it’s a big lesson. I’m lucky with my health and I think I’m lucky that I’m very positive in nature. Really, I find it much easier being older. I’ve had a fairly chaotic life and I just like this whole process of celebrating music with a whole lot of musicians. Sometimes I meet a group of musicians and they seem tired and beaten down by all of the things they have to do. I see my mission as reconnecting people with the joy of music, whether it’s players or listeners.

If you were to happen to run into one of your favorite composers in heaven, let’s say at the café or the pub, what is the first question you’d ask them?

Probably something not musical, because I see them as people. I do, in a sense, keep a sort of telephone line open to these people. The energy from the music of a really fine composer is so strong that it’s a sort of living energy, so if I really want to do something in a piece of music by Haydn or Mozart, I wouldn’t be worried if I had to have an imaginary telephone call asking their permission only to hear back, “Actually, that’s just an ego trip, isn’t it?” Maybe it’s a way of finding our musical conscience, but there is a very strong energy from that. I’m more worried about picking up the telephone to Bach. He’s quite severe, I think. I have to think very carefully. He doesn’t like little telephone calls the way Haydn does. With Bach, you need to arrange a formal meeting. 

He has an office secretary?

Well, he doesn’t want to be disturbed, I think.

The traditional final question for MOUNT DELA: What’s more important, knowledge or fantasy? 

It’s an interesting question, because the two are so important. What I can tell you is that just as musicians are rushers or draggers, all musicians are divided between ones who are led by the analytical brain and ones who are led by the stomach. I’m a stomach-led musician…stomach, heart and instinct. I suppose that falls under the label of fantasy. But it’s important that the musicians led by fantasy support it with knowledge. Otherwise, it’s completely undisciplined. The musician who’s led by knowledge must try to find some room to bring in fantasy, which is surely there, but may be covered.


// Benjamin Peled is a violinist in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and a member of the Alma Quartet