I interviewed him back in 2009 for the magazine of the Musikverein in Vienna, an interview that was translated into German and didn't come out in English at the time, so I hope my lovely editor there will forgive me if I run it now, in a slightly shortened form, by way of tribute.
Interview with Sir Neville Marriner (2009)
In 1958 a young orchestral violinist in London gathered together a small ensemble of musical friends to play for fun, with no conductor. Nobody knew that this would be the start of one of the best-loved orchestras in British musical life: the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The violinist’s name was Neville Marriner; and when a venture into larger repertoire eventually demanded that someone must conduct, as the leader it had to be him. The rest, as they say, is history.
The orchestra celebrated its golden jubilee in 2008 with an intense programme of touring. Frequently it still performs without a conductor – Marriner, now 84, says he is “a sort of godfather” to it. Yet he and the ensemble have remained virtually synonymous to their enthusiastic audience, not least thanks to the vast number of recordings they made during the industry’s heyday, which coincided with the orchestra’s early years.
|Sir Neville Marriner. Photo: (c) Decca|
...Performing in Vienna carries a sense of occasion. “It’s the focal point of classical music in Europe,” he says. “I think it is the ambition of every musician in the world to perform in the Musikverein. Other places would be the Philharmonie in Berlin, La Scala in Milan, or Carnegie Hall, but somehow the Musikverein takes precedence – you want to prove yourself in the heart of the classical music tradition. There have been so many great performances in there that you’re challenged every time you step onto the stage.”
It’s quite a distance to the Musikverein from Marriner’s relatively humble origins in Lincoln, where he grew up in the shadow of one of the UK’s most beautiful cathedrals. His father was a keen amateur musician: “He could play the piano and the violin and he conducted the local choir. Although he was a builder, his life was really about music. I don’t think I ever went to sleep as a kid without some sort of music going on in the house.” Aged 13, the young Neville went to London to play to the principal of the Royal College of Music. “The examination he gave me was absolutely terrifying! And he had a beard and the Victorian manner to go with it. But I knew it was a turning point in my life.”
At the RCM, Marriner studied with two extremely distinguished violinists: Albert Sammons and WH “Billy” Reed. “On the first day at college, you discover that although you might have been the brightest spark in your particular area of the country, suddenly everyone plays better than you do and it’s quite alarming!” Marriner recalls wryly. “Billy steered me through that, and Albert was very helpful later on.” Reed was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and had been Elgar’s closest consultant when writing his Violin Concerto. “Billy had the first pages of the Elgar Violin Concerto – he kept the manuscript because there were so many of his suggestions in it that he felt he’d virtually written it himself. Certainly most of the technical passages that Elgar himself couldn’t have achieved were entirely due to Willy’s advice.”
It was partly an encounter with another legendary violinist that made Marriner decide to hang up his violin for good. He spent some years in America studying conducting with Pierre Monteux, and in 1969 he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “In Los Angeles, Jascha Heifetz was one of our neighbours – and after playing in a string quartet with him, I thought maybe it was time to stop!” He doesn’t miss the instrument: “It was a sort of albatross around my neck, because if you don’t work each day you feel guilty. I had lived with that discipline for 30 to 40 years – it was quite a relief to give it up.”
His orchestral experience proved invaluable when he began to conduct. It’s intriguing that many conductors begin instead as pianists; but both routes, he suggests, have advantages and simply produce different styles on the podium. “If you’ve played in orchestras, it’s useful because you understand them psychologically: you know how hateful it is to be pushed into doing something that you don’t really like, and musically speaking you tend to know what the musicians would prefer you to do. As a pianist, though, you can learn the score at the piano in half the time it takes when you’re a string player with an instrument that involves just one line. The pianist-conductors speak more in musical generalities; if you’re a string player you tend instead to identify particular instruments and their problems.
“Because I’d been playing the violin most of my life, I’ve always thought that the physical gestures I made were much more natural than if I’d been sitting at a piano and hunching my shoulders. I often remember Solti, who was all shoulders and sometimes made rather uncomfortable gestures, compared to, for example, Monteux, who was a violin and viola player and always looked so comfortable as a conductor.”
The Academy began life, as Marriner puts it, as “refugees from conductors”. At first, it was simply a group of players who, though excited to work in symphony orchestras, felt that they wanted “to take more responsibility for expressing their own musicality”. For the first two years they played informally at Marriner’s house and had no intention of performing. “We only began because the keyboard player, Jack Churchill, suggested it.” His Sunday job was playing the organ at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the famous 18th-century church on the corner of Trafalgar Square in London. “He said that we could always give a concert there. We were rather grudging about it, but eventually he persuaded us. Then someone asked us to make a record – and it all happened. We were stuck with it!”
Much influenced by the musicologist Thurston Dart, Marriner found himself and the Academy at the forefront of what would become a revolution in performing style. “Having played in symphony orchestras for a long time, I used to feel there was something that we weren’t quite catching,” he explains. “The bulk, the weight of the sound, couldn’t quite bring off certain qualities that were latent in the music. The texture was the first thing the Academy aimed for – a transparency, vitality and virtuosity that you couldn’t achieve with a hefty symphonic sound. That was our earliest ambition. The great thing about the Academy was that, being a small group, we were able to discuss these things; sooner or later we achieved a style that seemed to suit everyone.”
Since then, he adds, the ‘early music movement’ has become somewhat beset by what he terms “navel-gazing”. “The extreme types of early music performances I find a little bit tedious and not necessarily helpful,” he admits. “It’s sad that symphony orchestras don’t really play Haydn and Mozart any more. They play Beethoven, but critics turn their noses up, and that’s a loss. But there are some very good contemporary groups of players who specialise in early music and sort of early instruments – even if the instruments are reproductions and were made yesterday!”
With 2009 marking the bicentenary of Haydn’s death, Marriner is glad that everyone will have a chance to reassess the composer’s work, not least because Haydn is constantly overshadowed these days by his pupil and friend, Mozart. “Interestingly, Haydn showed much more mastery of the orchestra in his early years than did Mozart,” Marriner says. “I always think of Haydn as the precursor of Beethoven: the late Haydn symphonies and the early Beethoven ones overlap very much stylistically and in their technical achievements. In many ways he was more important to the tradition of classical orchestral writing than Mozart.”
Looking ahead, Marriner insists he has no intention of retiring. “I think I’ll die before I retire,” he remarks. “I’m planning my diary into 2012. Mostly it’s a sort of hangover from being young, unsuccessful and terrified to look in the diary and see nothing. That sensation never seems to go away as you get older.”
As for the orchestra, though the musical climate in general has never been tougher he is confident that the Academy will weather the blast. “I’ve always hoped they will keep their fundamental objectives – a form of stylistic integrity – and because they are known to have achieved this they will always be desirable,” he says. “The public seems to stay with them, and I think as long as they insist on keeping their standards, they’ll survive very well.”