Sir Roger Norrington

A landmark interview with one of the leading pioneers of early music

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Sir Roger Norrington - A landmark interview with one of the leading pioneers of early music
Sir Roger Norrington (credit Manfred Esser)

On behalf of Continuo Connect, Alastair Ross (principal keyboard with the Academy of Ancient Music and The Sixteen) spoke with celebrated conductor Sir Roger Norrington, a towering figure in classical music and one of the principal pioneers of the early music revival. In this fascinating interview we'll hear unique reflections on his remarkable career working with internationally renowned artists, choirs, and orchestras, along with convincingly-argued opinions on everything from orchestral seating arrangements to the use of vibrato and, of course, Beethoven.

So, Roger, who taught you to play the violin?

Oh, people at school. After school I taught myself. My last teacher had been a member of the BBC symphony – a lovely lady. You see, I wasn’t ever trying to be a professional violinist – just a good amateur. In fact, I had no plans to be a professional musician at all until I was 28 – I had just planned to enjoy music – as my sons and my siblings do now. They are all keen amateurs. So it didn’t matter to me whether or not I was terribly good, just good enough to play what I wanted to play.

Singing, though – I got a bit more serious about that as I had a good tenor voice. I did have a lot of lessons as a singer so when I decided to jump ship in 1962, founded the Schütz Choir and decided to become a musician – I could make a living as a singer – either a solo singer or a session singer. And early music for me was mainly about singing.

Of course the whole of British choral tradition was early music?

Yes indeed. I was a choral scholar at Clare (Cambridge) and we did a lot of early music there, but all singing. There were no early instruments in the 50s.  Groups such as the Deller Consort used to sing madrigals – but no instruments. At that point early music performance was an interesting but unknown concept – somewhere over a misty horizon. We wondered what it might be like over there…

What happened in the early ‘60s to make you decide to go and explore "over there"?

It is difficult to remember now – it is over 60 years ago! 1962 – I had just started the Schütz Choir. At that point we weren’t trying to change anything – we hoped we knew how to perform Schütz. Indeed we thought we knew how to perform Handel and Bach – but how wrong we were!

I had sung Byrd, Palestrina, Josquin des Prez – I was very interested in early music – and compared to them, Schütz was quite modern. The 17th century was a black hole in those days. Nobody knew anything about anyone except Purcell – and we knew nothing about German music. So how were we to perform this music which was so dramatic – not a bit like Byrd or Palestrina – but what they called Seconda Pratica – a second way of making music? And of course it coincided with the birth of opera.

The 17th century was the time when music came out of the cupboard and everyone started talking about the ‘I’ and the dramatis personae. A sort of Age of Enlightenment before the Age of Enlightenment – a growth of self awareness. Mediaeval music was involved with God, courtly dancing and so on. But this music was saying – ‘Look at me!’ And that needed to be dealt with in performance terms.

What forces were you using in the early days?

I was using a choir that was much too big – 25-30 – because that’s what we thought choirs were. And then we had to start finding the right instruments – chamber organ, lutes, cornetti, early trombones, different kinds of violins. We gradually found our way, but getting to grips with the new style gave me the hunch that maybe we ought to be looking at the next generation too. Bach is 100 years after Schütz – and maybe we should look at the music in between.

That nagged away a bit at me and gradually we started doing more and more 17th century music – Gabrieli, Steffani. And then getting on to Purcell without a huge orchestra and without double basses – and that I suppose led inevitably to Handel.

We did the first performance of Messiah with original instruments in St George Hanover Square, Handel’s own church, quite a long time later – early 70s maybe. That was with the professional Schütz Choir and the London Baroque Players, and of course a lot of research into playing style. It was just thrilling.

We were often accused of knowing it all – but not at all. We didn’t know – that was our strength. It is always a strength not to be sure of your position. We had to search for answers, not just accept modern tradition.

Sir Roger Norrington conducts The Schütz Choir (credit Paul Armiger)
Sir Roger Norrington conducts The Schütz Choir (credit Paul Armiger)

Tell us more about the use of the early instruments...

The idea of using early instruments came from my curiosity but also from the players who had read widely and knew much more about their own instruments than I did.

The first time I conducted a Baroque string group was for Monteverdi, when I took my new edition of Poppea to Lisbon with Kent Opera. We decided to play on early stringed instruments and with a smaller orchestra (large orchestras of over 24 players were unheard of in Monteverdi’s time). We rehearsed the string parts for Poppea and then the players said they would also take in their modern instruments just in case they got into trouble. I said ‘No! We do not take modern – old only!’ It was truly crossing the Rubicon – and it worked!

We then did all of the Monteverdis, and some Handel and Purcell with old instruments with Kent Opera. I wanted to go on and do Mozart with old instruments but the boss wouldn’t allow it as he said we could never play in tune!

Didn’t you first do Poppea with Raymond Leppard at Glyndebourne?

Yes, I’d forgotten. We did it in his first edition with a great many extra players. When we came back to it, it was the very opposite. One to a part, lutes, harpsichord maybe an organ but very limited. That was a big jump. And then it became very interesting to see what would happen next. I also remember vividly the Monteverdi Vespers – playing it for the first time not with an orchestra but with one to a part – one cornetto, one violin – usually about 12 singers. I remember playing the Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria without orchestra for the first time in Cecil Sharp House. We wondered what it would sound like – one to a part like a huge string octet. It was amazing! We got to the end and we all burst out laughing. It was unbelievably convincing. And instantly convincing – that was what was so amazing.

On another occasion we were doing a big mass, Cavalli, in the Oratory – it was being taken by the radio and the technicians were saying – ‘No – you will never hear the violins, the cornets will be far too loud – it will be hopeless!’ They were so sure. So in rehearsal we played away and in a break I asked how it was going. ‘The violins are too loud…’, they said.

It just wasn’t a problem. All the instruments made the same sort of sound – balance was easy.

It was another discovery! We were getting five discoveries a week! Each time we played a new piece a new way it was completely convincing.

The next step. Now that we knew a bit about the early and late Baroque, how about the Classical period? Once we had looked carefully at Handel and Bach, maybe we could try Haydn and Mozart.

When I was 15 my father had given me the first English translation of Mozart’s father’s Violinschule ('A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing') which he had just published – he was at the OUP – as he thought I would be interested – which, at 15, I wasn’t at all. Surely I was a modern player? But then in the 1960s when I was starting to wonder about how to play Mozart I remembered. "I’ve got a book about that – by his father!" I dusted it off and found a gold mine. It showed us exactly how he taught his son to play the violin. And sure enough, it sounded amazing.  

And so we went on – and in due course got to Beethoven.

Your treatment of Beethoven caused quite a stir among more traditional conductors, didn’t it?

Yes, it seemed I was a sort of absent-minded professor, straying in amongst the professionals, not quite knowing what I was doing but being very interested. The London Classical Players wasn’t a career for me – it was an experiment – a laboratory. I wanted to know how it all worked and once we had worked it all out, the experiment was finished. But of course it has also affected all of the music I have performed since – Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, Elgar. It is the same approach. The results are different but the approach is the same.

But I am afraid that my experiments, especially with tempi, did not go down well with the established conductors - the heavyweights!

I knew Colin Davis very well as a young man, admired him very much and learnt a lot from him. But he said ‘I think you are completely mad, Roger. We know how this music goes and you’re trying to change it all.’ He never got the point over tempi. Haitink was furious with me and never got it; Blomstedt was very friendly and got quite a lot of it; Abbado by the end of his life was really on to it.

And it is actually a matter of right or wrong. For Beethoven’s tempi there is a right and a wrong. Every single movement in every single symphony and every single change of tempo has got a metronome mark which Beethoven thought extremely important. So the correct tempi are provable. The second movement in the first symphony – that’s the speed it should go. Listen to Furtwängler! He turns it into a death march. What did these guys think they were doing?

In other music it can be a matter of taste. But in each case you have to ask the question. That is what early music people do – they ask the questions. And of course early music nowadays is brilliant – Corelli, Bach – that is a fait accompli. No one even tries to do that differently any more.

Nonetheless, you did come in for a lot of criticism – but I think you quite enjoyed the criticism?

Well, one always prefers praise to criticism but I took it as par for the course. I don’t really enjoy criticism – I would prefer that people enjoyed what I was doing and if they are being told that it is terrible that doesn’t really help. But then think what happened to Mahler – to Bach? Bach was very heavily criticised towards the end of his life.

 Francesco Piemontesi and Sir Roger Norrington rehearsing with Deutsches Symphonie Orchester at Philharmonie in Berlin
Francesco Piemontesi and Sir Roger Norrington rehearsing with Deutsches Symphonie Orchester at Philharmonie in Berlin

And what about interpreting the time signatures? And indeed vibrato?

Ah vibrato. Of course some vibrato can be used but not this continuous wobble that we have inherited from the 20th century. And that is also provable.

How is it that no one has noticed that the piano, the central instrument of the 19th century, the century of Romanticism, does not vibrate? Nor do the two most prominent solo orchestral instruments of the 19th century, the clarinet and the horn. So you have a wind section with some playing with vibrato and some without. It doesn’t make any kind of sense.

What does make sense is pure tone. You can hear the harmony because you are not destroying your overtones – and your neighbour’s overtones – which creates a sort of fake mush. Gift wrapping that you don’t need. And it is just as important in Mahler as it is in Purcell.

As for time signatures. I want people to enjoy the music that the composer had in mind, at the speed they had in mind. I heard someone on the radio saying – "Well it’s marked andante so that means it is slow". But andante never meant slow – it was half way between slow and fast. There was a lovely 18th century theorist who said that "andante kisses the border of allegro". In Beethoven, sure enough, the metronome marks are there which tell you all you need to know. But after 60 years of research and experiment I don't need a metronome to understand Haydn and Mozart either.

When I was playing a Beethoven slow movement under Colin Davis, I found it a bit boring – and he said: "With Beethoven, you have to suffer". Well, some Beethoven is pretty heavy but not Beethoven 2. And for the funeral march in Beethoven 3 the metronome mark is not super slow. It’s ‘in two’. I horrified people when they first heard me doing that, but there's the information right there in the score.

‘Tradition’ is very dangerous. Music is always changing so why do people think that ‘tradition’ can be passed on. It needs to be rediscovered each time. You need to ask questions – and to have a reason for each decision, not just to work on instinct, important though instinct is.

Do you think there is now a bit of complacency creeping in?

You can’t go on changing things for ever. For example, the Beethoven symphonies we did in 1985-88 – they sold 20,000 in 3 years. When I came to do them again in Stuttgart 20 years later I was asked what were my new ideas. But I didn’t need new ideas. I might be able to play them better but the tempi are there, the sound is there, the phrasing is there. What is there to change? And any orchestra can play it – on early instruments or modern ones. They just need to know how to do it. But most conductors are not taught how to do it. That’s why I try to teach online – to tell people the simple things they need to know.

If you are going to conduct a Mozart symphony there are things you need to know, but it doesn’t take long to teach someone the rules.

You also rearranged the positioning of the players in the orchestra – seconds on your right, chorus sometimes at the front, behind the conductor.

Yes, it's just the standard 19th century layout, which the composers had in their mind while writing their works. Until about 1910 that was quite normal and makes a huge difference to the balance although it is quite difficult to do.

I have this mantra about how to approach any piece, new or old. With a new piece you can ring up the composer and ask what was in their mind. With an old one you have to work it out. But my aim is to get as close to their minds as possible: what are they trying to do and how are they trying to do it. My mantra involved six S's:

  • Source

  • Size

  • Seating

  • Sound

  • Speed

  • Style

Size is key. You can do a Beethoven symphony at the original size – 6-8 firsts – or double that size. But if you double the strings you have to double the winds. That’s the key. They all knew it – and it is obvious, isn’t it?

I don’t normally double the winds in Bach – although when I did the Bach Mass in B Minor on Bach’s actual death day in 2000 at the Proms I did use about 10 violins – very big violin section but for a very big hall. We had the solo singers, the solo winds and the 1st violins all around the organ and only involved the full orchestra in the big choruses. And it worked. Indeed it was gorgeous.

In Haydn’s first performance of his Creation he used triple woodwind, but they did not play all the time. When there is a solo number, the parts have things like ‘tacet’ written on them so you can quickly deduce what Haydn intended.

I have done the last four or five Mozart symphonies with a double orchestra – 12 first violins instead of 6 – and they sound terrific. Whenever it said piano only half the orchestra played, when it said forte, everybody played. It is incredibly effective. Mozart loved a big orchestra: he wrote to his father "C'était magnifique!"

In terms of layout, separating the second violins seems to have been very common – creating a dialogue between the first and second violins – and another between the trumpets and the horns. It is very important that they should not be together.

So do you still see yourself as a talented amateur rather than a professional music maker?

Perhaps I do remain a talented amateur – but now of course with a lot of experience. I am also very lucky. You cannot take any credit for enthusiasm or talent – it’s like a girl or boy taking credit for being pretty or handsome. I am fortunate to have both enthusiasm and talent – an incredible intensity of feeling for music. It was entirely natural but it took a while to focus. Once I had made the decision to make it my living, my enthusiasm was able to blaze forth.

It has been wonderful to work with the astounding repertoire that we have – and just amazing to be able to give so much pleasure to so many people – and, while I was at it, to make a few people angry!!

Sir Roger Norrington (credit Manfred Esser)
Sir Roger Norrington (credit Manfred Esser)

Continuo Connect would like to thank Alastair Ross and Michelle Berriedale-Johnson for their kind assistance in the creation of this interview.

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