A Scholar’s Art
With his light and tremulous tone, Ian Bostridge has grown to be one of the most eagerly sought classical singers in the world today. Since his London debut in 1994 singing Winterreise, he has established himself as the foremost—and most debated—English tenor of his generation and has won Gramophone Awards for recordings of Schumann lieder (1998) and Schubert’s cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (1996). Hans Werner Henze composed his Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen (1999) for Bostridge’s voice, and in 2004 Bostridge performed the role of Caliban in the triumphant première of Thomas Adës’ The Tempest.
His regular musical collaborators include Julius Drake and Leif Ove Andsnes and this year he returned to the studio to re-record Die Schöne Müllerin with the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida. A glamorous partnership, it did not avoid some sniping in the press: ‘His shallow voice is incapable of eroticism,’ lamented Andrew Collins in The Guardian, echoing an earlier criticism of his Winterreise suggesting that Bostridge sounded ‘like an Oxbridge Choral Scholar who’s gone out without his scarf ’.
Yet voices, through their innate relationship with the body, are always likely to garner divided appraisals, and not even the greatest artists are beyond reproach. In a recent interview with the same newspaper, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was confidently asserted to be ‘the greatest lieder-singer of the twentieth-century’, yet his position was not always so secure: spat Roland Barthes in The Grain of the Voice (1972), ‘everything in the (semantic and lyrical) structure is respected and yet nothing seduces, nothing sways us to jouissance. His art […] never exceeds culture.’ To much of the current listening public, the culture associated with Bostridge is academic: an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi and a graduate of St John’s, he holds a doctorate in History and continues to write occasional pieces for the TLS and the broadsheets (interested parties should also turn to Witchcraft and its Transformations, OUP).
As with Fischer-Dieskau, the model for many young lieder singers today, Bostridge’s intellectualised and highly literate approach has come under criticism from those who feel that the erotic — or instinctive — aspects of singing should be primary. Audiences clearly feel otherwise: his performances at Wigmore Hall are always sold out months in advance. With favoured composers, such as Schubert and Britten, his vivid attention to text and immaculate phrasing offer rewards that few of his contemporaries can match, and certainly refute any idea of ‘the singer’ as a simply intuitive – and therefore unthinking—creature of nature. On the eve of his return to Oxford on 24 May 2005 to sing at the Sheldonian Theatre, I interviewed him to find out more. (The concert was later canceled due to illness).
DR: In the booklet note to your new recording of Die Schöne Müllerin you comment that it was the first song cycle you fell in love with, with its figure of an introspective youth. But in fact this new version strikes me as actually far less innocent. How have things changed?
IB: Well, it’s partly conscious and it’s partly just what happens to you when you get older. I’d already done one recording of the piece already, so in a way it would be pretty daft to do another one in the same way. The idea of the man in charge of artists and repertoire at EMI was that I ought to record each of the Schubert cycles with a diff erent, as it were, ‘famous’ pianist, starting with Winterreise with Leif Ove Andsnes, whom I’d been working with on other things. (Antonio Pappano will be partnering for Schwanengesang). Mitsuko rang me and asked if we could do some work together and I sort of leapt at the chance to work with her; and we did Winterreise and some Schumann and some Britten, so it seemed a good idea to do the Schöne Müllerin with her. I don’t think that the darker, or more complicated interpretation comes from her, because her playing tends to be very classical, she’s quite a classically-minded person; she has a lot of clarity in her playing, things like that. I don’t think the bitterness was particularly coming from working with her — it was more coming partly from how voices age, and partly as an interpretative choice that had developed partly consciously and partly — mainly — by performing the piece and various things occurring to me in performance.
I tried to listen to it when the first edit of this one came back, but it was weird.
You don’t like it?
It’s more that it makes you very aware of how things have changed, and that’s not necessarily a good idea. You become very self-conscious about listening to your own voice, and in my case I’m very happy with things I did five years ago and very unhappy with things I’m doing at the time. At the time I hated the sound I was making and now I quite like it and don’t like the sound I’m making now.
What’s the status of recordings for you?
They’re definitely a thing in their own right — you need to recognise that they’re different from live performance: I don’t like live recordings. The main thing about them is that they’re going to be repeated and there’s things you might do in a performance which wouldn’t bear repetition, so in a recording you’d be more careful about line, and not shouting so much—expressively—and being more careful about intonation. You can carry things through your physical presence in a performance. But it’s only ever a snapshot of your interpretation at a particular point, and it’s important that it’s different every time. I suppose the most important thing for me is that it’s theatrical and that you discover things about the piece through performance rather than by thinking about it in terms of what other people have done.
It’s certainly a much more heavily dramatised performance. Is this purely from performance or is it more considered?
It’s not rehearsed — I rehearse to make sure it’s routinised and to improve it vocally, but I don’t rehearse a performance, the performance is improvised. One of the great things about lieder singing as a form of musical theatre is that it’s so easy to do different things, because it’s so pared down, whereas in opera you’re much more encumbered by the mise-en-scene. By doing something small differently, you can change the whole feel of a piece.
Do you feel much more comfortable with lieder?
In the sense that I always feel comfortable, whereas sometimes I don’t feel comfortable in opera. There are directors I love working with and with whom I’d like to work with all the time, and apart from them I think a lot of opera is quite — well, I don’t like it. I like the things I do with Deborah Warner, and David Alden. But particularly Deborah, I’d always rather do things with her than anyone else.
You’ve recently been doing some concerts of Noel Coward, which is, I suppose, the closest you’ve come to cross-over; but, on the other hand, the booklet note to your new recording begins with a long quotation from Freud. Do you feel an obligation to forge connections between music and other things?
In a way it’s really just self-indulgent on my part, because I like seeing how things fit in culturally. And in a way, singing is always about the moment — by reading around things you’re not really preparing for the performance. I’m not a great one for performance practice, and researching exactly how people sang in 1828, that’s not my concern. But, I have noticed, and I get more and more agitated about it, that some people seem to think I’m presenting quite a dark and complicated Schubert, and I think they have a view of Schubert that — well, it still seems to be stuck in the 1930s, and I just think it’s bizarre. I’ve thought a lot about Schubert, and read a lot about Schubert, and written about Schubert and performed the pieces a lot, and I’m struck — well, the thing is as a performer never to slip into the routine or the clichéd or the standard, and what I’m shocked at is how people want to hear what they expect to hear, and what they expect to hear in Schubert is a Winterreise that’s sung by a bass or a baritone that’s very world-weary, and they want to hear a Schöne Müllerin sung by a tenor that’s rather stupid, and naïve. And they’re not really prepared to cope with what is, I think, the reality of the pieces, which is that Winterreise can, on the whole, be sung entirely in original keys only by tenors, and looking at the markings in the piece in terms of their precision and their expressionist nature, it’s absolutely clear to me that it is not the lugubrious, world-weary piece we’ve seen it as for a long time. When I was at school, we had a great debate about people who like Hans Hotter’s Winterreise and people who like Fischer-Dieskau’s, and I never really liked Hans Hotter’s — to me it’s a far more sparky piece, full of wit, and self-laceration and irony and satire — it’s a satirical piece. It’s a very 1828 piece, in a way, and in the same way Schöne Müllerin can be seen in quite a dark way. It’s a piece that people seem particularly to be stuck about. The same things were said about Matthias Goerne’s Schöne Müllerin as were said about mine, that it was in some way too dark, and complicated, and weird and twisted, and it is!
Do you feel that your earlier academic research is on a continuum with your singing, or do they inhabit quite separate spheres?
No, I’m just interested in culture generally, and I happen to be a singer. I’m not really interested in musicology. The only musicologist that I’ve read really profitably is Charles Rosen, who writes just amazingly about music in a musical way; it can be very arid. I think the same is true of early performance practice, and I think the usefulness of the early music movement has really been to stop people from falling into the same old habits, and it’s given people new colours and tempi, and allowed us to make a break between different styles of music rather than making it all the same. Subjectively, I get the same feeling when I’m in a rehearsal and I discover something — which does happen — and it gives me the same buzz as when I’d been reading pamphlets on witchcraft in the 1690s and had constructed a theory and suddenly I found a piece of evidence, quite independently, that supported my theory without my having to twist it, and you think ‘God, yes, I’m on to something’. That feeling of ‘God, yes, I’m onto something’ is very important to me and has been since I was a child; I’ve always wanted to discover things and I find that’s what I need when I’m doing something. But there’s a terrible pressure in classical music — the very name is off-putting to people because it begins with ‘class’ and people tend to associate it with authority and tend to think it should be this monolithic thing and that there’s a certain way of doing things.
But surely it’s not surprising that music should be esoteric?
Of course music can be esoteric but it’s more that there’s a feeling that things should be done in a certain way and people know how to do things and they can tell you how to do them, when actually you can do them however you want. In fact, all you’ve got is a piece of paper with some notes on it and some words, and all you’ve got to do is find something that convinces you and sell it to other people. Right at the beginning, before I was a full-time singer, a very nice baritone called Thomas Hemsley, who was on the board of the Young Person’s Concert Artist Trust, said to me, ‘You cannot move around so much on stage’, and I just didn’t understand. If I want, I can stand on my head!
Did you always expect to be a singer?
Not at all. I was a singer as a child but when I had choices about what to do, I always prioritised my academic work, so I stayed at my very academic South London prep school, rather than going to Westminster Abbey Choir School. I went for an informal interview to be a choral scholar at Magdalen and decided not to do that. At every stage, when I could have been institutionalised, I didn’t. I had a year in Cambridge as a graduate before coming back to Oxford and there I began having singing lessons again, and that’s when it started to get a bit more serious. And, I suppose because I’m a very ambitious and competitive person, I started entering competitions and things. As a graduate student I went to some of those courses at Snape Maltings in French song and English artsong, but all along I was really interested in lied, after having been introduced to it by an amazing German teacher at school, Richard Stokes. But I didn’t think I could have a career, being English, and so I just sort of carried on: when I had a job in London in television, and when I came back to Corpus as a research fellow, and then I got an agent, and then it took off.
Is it a fundamental need?
I think it has probably [become] a need to perform, but performing wasn’t really at the centre of my life for a very long time. Discovering that I liked being in opera was very important… but it’s become a need, it’s very addictive, the adrenaline rush and the structure of work, and it suits me very well, and probably much more than any other job I could have had because I don’t really like routines. The rhythm of it is very amenable.
Which singers of an older generation do you feel you have particularly learnt from?
Well, I sort of worship Fischer-Dieskau, and apart from that…! The singers of an older generation that I like are Fischer-Dieskau above all; I like Fritz Wunderlich singing Mozart and I like his voice, but I don’t like him singing lieder; I like Peter Pears singing Britten but I don’t like him singing German song, though I like to hear Britten playing German song. I sang for Fischer-Dieskau a couple of times […]. I forgot to mention Irmgard Seefried. I remember hearing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf say that she never had the natural expressive power of Seefried: ‘I was musical and worked hard’.
How would you describe your own approach?
Well I suppose I have to work hard to improve myself. I came into the job as an amateur, and I’ve had to build up a technique over the past 10 or 12 years. I do still feel that I have to keep working on that, but not lose what makes me different, which is that I didn’t go to musical college, and just related to the music.
Do you feel the need to defend your decisions?
Yes, but it’s difficult; the etiquette of classical music is that the performance speaks for itself and that there’s no exchange between the critical community and the musical community, and musicians are supposed to think that critics are beneath contempt. As I said, I have a very particular view about Schubert and maybe what I’ll do in the end is write a book about Schubert to try to demonstrate what I think, or a book about performing to demonstrate what I’m on about. But there are different tastes and styles that one likes, and the main thing is to inspire strong feeling. I always remember when I first started working with Graham Johnson, he said that if you’re ever going to be someone people really like, there’ll also be people who really hate what you do as well.
Why is Schubert so special to you?
I discovered it at the right time for me, and for me it’s exactly the right balance of music that’s intellectually challenging but also emotionally true. It has an incredible simplicity about it, the way he uses modulations. It’s just there, and there’s also an awful lot of it! I do really like Faurè and Poulenc, and the little Debussy I’ve sung — Pellèas is one of the operatic roles that I’d really like to sing, I think. But it’s very hard.
You mentioned the issue of class. How do you feel about the problems of classical music becoming commodified — the (admittedly long-standing) danger of catering for a very elite audience?
I think this pulls in two very different directions. When music becomes commodified, I think that’s turning music into background music, classic FM and so on; and I think lieder singing sort of resists that, because at its best it’s not easy listening. I think some people resist that, because when you’re outside it, it can seem spiky, or even ridiculous. And certainly very particular. I think the thing about classical music being a class-signifier is more to do with the fact that our society has lost the notion that there are great works of culture that people should… might be excited to discover and there’s a common pool of artistic excitement that in a democracy you should offer to everyone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t broaden the repertoire, but essentially if you live in a western democracy you have a certain historical — well, things have got to where they are now because of the culture, and if you want to participate in that culture then I think you’d want to look at what that culture has produced. I don’t think it is particularly restrictive. I’d feel awkward at a pop concert, but if I were to go, I’d try to find out about it. I think it’s also partly living in a culture that doesn’t have the idea that in order to enjoy something a lot, you might have to put something into it to get anything out. Maybe that’s television culture — it’s a passive culture. It sounds very old-fashioned, and maybe patronising, but maybe the culture of working-class education at the end of the nineteenth century was incredible because people had this sense of a culture of self-education, and I suppose that is what we’ve all lost. I think we’re all drawn towards the commodification that television represents, an endless consumption of things. Shopping is the easiest thing in the world to do. Most people’s major cultural experience, where they exercise discrimination, where they look at things in terms of colour, and shape, is through shopping. Maybe other things always seem a bit strange in comparison to shopping!
Finally, how do you feel about coming back to Oxford?
I think it will just be quite strange — it will seem a very long time ago. I’m glad I got out because it wouldn’t have suited me as a life: I don’t think I have the right personality. But it’s funny to have been there for such a long time. On the one hand, it seems very close, and on the other hand, very far away.
Ditlev Rindom is an undergraduate in English Literature at Magdalen College, and a pianist.