Interview with Sigiswald Kuijken

Interview with Sigiswald Kuijken


Sigiswald Kuijken

Sigiswald Kuijken is one of the pioneers of the early music movement and is considered to be the father of the rediscovery and re-learning of historical violin technique without chin- and shoulder rest.
Thanks to Jean-François Madeuf I had the pleasant opportunity to play the 1st and 3rd cantata of Bachs Christmas Oratorio with La Petite Bande (LPB) at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. My Trumpetteam was with Rainier Chételat on 2nd and Graham Nicholson on 3rd.
I consider this experience as one of the most valuable in my career so far.
My central insight of the rehearsal process was how easy it can be to play the natural trumpet (without holes) if the prerequisites by the ensemble are given.
Since LPB already established a practical way for the use of natural instruments and a has many years of experience in this field, I decided to interview Sigiswald Kuijken personally on this subject. To my great pleasure he agreed:

Julian Zimmermann (JZ):
When and why did LPB incorporate natural instruments into its performances?

Sigiswald Kuijken (SK):

A few years after the creation of LPB (1972), I realized that there was a fundamental problem with the ‘historical’ brass, and I was already impatient to see when the so-called baroque trumpeters (and horn players) would finally decide to take a serious interest in historical playing. I always struggled with the fact that the questions about original mouthpieces and especially playing without ventholes were dismissed as completely impossible and unrealistic.
The scene went on and on with these compromised instruments and ways of playing… They even played cornetto with modern trumpet-style mouthpieces, if I’m not mistaken.
There were even good and serious musicians, who couldn’t imagine that it had to be possible anyway. I always asked if Bach and so on, really would consciously write unplayable parts for brass.
On the other hand I understand their fear: a trumpet sounds mostly loud, and a mistake was and unfortunately is still often noticed by everyone (as well by colleagues in the orchestra) and easily condemned or noted without understanding. The world is quite cruel in that sense – but the only way to silence the critics, is playing in a convincing way or at least (in the beginning) with convincing talent and the clear courage to develop this talent, even if you move in the opposite direction to common practice.

Sigiswald KuijkenWhen I was 25 (1969) years old, I questioned my quasi-modern “Baroque violin” technique, there were no role models to learn from. I based my approach on clear historical evidence (which you only see if you decide to open your eyes…!) In Monteverdi’s or Bach’s times, the practice was completly different, from what was done at that time (around 1969-70). I was regarded by many (in the beginning by almost everyone) like a crazy, strange fanatic, without any future etc….

Sigiswald Kuijken and Gustav Leonhardt

Only my wife Marleen, my brothers, who had a close look the historical sources and Gustav Leonhardt, whom I knew personally since 1965, in addition some dear music-friends supported me immediately. This support was immensly important to me. You have to get a positive feedback – otherwise you can’t endure such lonely but fundamental experiments. And: these experiments have to be done!
In the beginning it wasn’t because I found the sound so much “more beautiful” without compromises – I couldn’t hear the “original sound” anywhere (if that really exists), so how could I compare? No, I did it out of sheer curiosity and above all out of an intimate conviction, that music could only become more interesting and more alive, if you approach the composers’ world of imagination and try to leave the compromises aside as far as possible.
The matter of posture [note: violin playing without chin- and shoulder rest] has many other consequences, which in the beginning are encountered as limitations, but they ultimately become beautyful and create a new language! After the first attempts, I already noted a positive change in the sound – but I had to get through a “new” set basic problems in the playing technique… sources were my only help in this time, besides that I only had my intuition and strong motivation… and so it went…

Jean-François Madeuf

I was hopeful, that the historical brass would follow this path soon. lt happened about 30 Years later – no problem – thats how it was. As soon as the signs were there, i embraced it with full heart, without any regret and I still support it with passion. So I am especially thankful to Graham Nicholson and Jean-François Madeuf (and all the other players that i know or don’t know yet) for their inspiration of this movement, may it be in form of faithfull reproduction of historical brass instrument and/or playing them…

JZ: What is LPB doing differently (intonation practice) when playing with natural trumpets/horns without holes?

SK: Of course I listen and talk to the trumpeters and horn players. I am convinced that the harmonic interplay only has a chance if you listen to each other in an emphatic way and if you try to understand and help. It is a matter of consciousness where exactly the “natural problems” lie. – The whole orchestra must be prepared to create consonance for important chords, with total conviction.
The eleventh and thirteenth overtones on natural instruments might never be corrected in such a way that they really fit perfectly into the usual string, woodwind or keyboard scale.
More is needed: the other colleagues must know where to move and why – everyone needs the same insight and knowledge! And such insight is a pleasure, for everyone!

JZ: What advice would you give to a young orchestra that wants to be heard with real natural instruments?

SK: What I have just explained: having knowledge about the task at hand: where and how; at which points; simply listening intelligently from both sides, and trying it out wisely! It is difficult for me to judge or ‘determine’ exactly how much a trumpet tone, that is by nature “too high” or “too low” for my colleagues, can be bent. Anyway: There are certainly limits (and I love them too…!) – but I noticed that in the last 15 or 20 years, since playing without holes has started to manifest, an important evolution has taken place.

JZ: What is your advice to us natural trumpeters, to help our integration into a motivated orchestra?

SK: Above all: please don’t tell to early to your colleagues that something is impossible. Even if it is very difficult; and try to show the orchestra where the (current) limits are, without claiming that they are there for eternity… This will convince, and create the awareness that everything is in motion – never finished, always changing, like life itself. From this real cooperation can develop. By the way, the attitude of the conductor (if there is one) or/and the concert master is of great importance, he has to know, understand and be without prejudice – and learn.

JZ: You are working on a book project about Mozart, would you like to tell us something about it – and what are your next projects/CD releases etc.? (Link to LPB website…)

SK: Yes, I am in the process of writing a book about Mozart (especially about the Magic Flute). Just like with my book “Bleib bei uns, Bach” a few years ago. The practical reason for this book is to receive substantial support in donations from the international audience to keep La Petite Bande alive.

This Mozart book will only be available via LPB. By the means that the donation of course far exceeds the ‘normal’ price of such a book – it is about private support, which will be rewarded with a special book in the mailbox. Since all former state subsidies were abruptly stopped by the Flemish government a few years ago, we can only survive through extraordinary methods and so we hope for help – we are infinitely grateful to our audience. On our LPB website – which, by the way, will be given a new life in 2019 – you can soon read more about it.

Our latest CD was released on ACCENT in October 2018:

Christmas cantatas by Buxtehude, Telemann and Bach (BWV 133, Ich freue mich in Dir)

we are very happy with it and get a lot of good feedback at the moment…

before Easter we release another CD:

Schütz’ Geschichte der Auferstehung + Four motets

(9 singers with 4 gambas and Bc )

It also appears in ACCENT. Wonderful music!

Further projects are in development, more Bach… it can’t be too much!

Thank you Sigiswald Kuijken!