Following the European day of Early Music celebrated on 21st March, Bachtrack sets out this spring on a Grand Tour across Europe and beyond, to meet some of the most important period instrument performers and conductors. Today we meet Robert Howarth who read music at the University of York and has led a number of programmes on tour with many internationally renowned ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Robert Howarth © Robert Workman
Robert Howarth
© Robert Workman

The Baroque period saw the emergence of The Grand Tour, a travel made throughout Europe whose aim was to meet new cultures and complete one’s education. Nowadays, it’s period music ensembles – as well as audiences – that travel extensively, giving the chance for people to hear music sometimes forgotten for centuries. How would you explain the popularity of Baroque music?

I think Baroque music is as popular as it is because we have much more insight into how it might have been performed. That’s not to say that older recordings of the music aren’t good, but our so called Historically Informed Performance (HIP) approach to music brings us a lot closer to the spirit and intention of the original performance. By doing that, we ‘feel’ it much more personally. My personal view is that the use of historic tuning systems helps enhance the moods of the keys of the music. Composers made deliberate choices in the keys that they wrote in and older tuning systems help those keys to feel either better or worse, depending on the desired outcome. There are moments when D major feels euphoric (and there’s a lot of it in Baroque Music!) because it is a key which, in all temperaments, sounds good. There are moments when E minor feels deeply tragic, mostly because the D# of its relative major barely existed in any temperament. When we ‘feel’ the music so much more personally, we respond to it much more deeply.

The status of Baroque music in contemporary society is hard to define. Some children start learning music with the harpsichord for instance. Is Baroque still ancient ?  

No, Baroque music is very contemporary. Music of all eras lives and breathes through our performance of it. To say that any music is ancient condemns it to obscurity. That fact that we have access to many more manuscripts that before and know how to interpret them and therefore perform them, means that the music lives on. I’m sure that in 50 years’ time we will look back at the way we are approaching Baroque music and consider it ‘dated’ and lacking in ‘good taste’. That is also a good thing. It would be awful if we felt that we’d got it right and that was it. We live the music of these great composers but it isn’t ours. I hope my children enjoy and understand this music as much as I do and that they can get something from it, and whilst they and I do, that makes it contemporary.

There has been a lot of research over the past decades exploring Baroque’s musical heritage, both in terms of performance practices and in terms of sociology of music. What discoveries have excited you most? What is left to be discovered?

As a big fan of Monteverdi, I am constantly fascinated by the academic studies into his life and works and I follow with interest the new research into how his music might have been performed. As usual in any academic field, there are many opinions and often contradictory ones, but if that means the debate stays alive and urges further research, that’s all to the good. I do hope that one day we will uncover more of Monteverdi’s lost operas, and Vivaldi’s too.

History seems to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Historically informed performances have now explored more recent repertoires, such as 19th century music. How do you feel about this new trend? Where will it end?

I am interested in hearing 19th-century music with a HIP approach, however I still love hearing this repertoire played by modern orchestras, because that’s what they do really well. If we had a full-time professional orchestra that always played on HIP instruments of the 19th century and concentrated only on that repertoire, I would be more interested. It’s not that I feel that we don’t do that repertoire well, but modern orchestras are like a singular instrument because of their heritage and uniformity. Maybe with HIP ensembles doing so much more of this repertoire we will see and hear a difference. I do think that the timbre is wonderful and brings an insight into how composers would have thought about orchestration. Who knows where it will end. We have complete box-sets of Stravinsky conducting his own works and many other early 20th-century recordings, are we going to just re-create them? I hope not.   

Going back to The Grand Tour theme, what is the thing you miss most when you go on tour? What are the difficulties of living ‘out of a suitcase’?

When I was younger I didn’t miss anything on tour, I loved being away and enjoying all the differences. Now, I miss my family and the consistency of a good coffee in the morning. I’m lucky enough to stay in apartments when I go away so it’s easier to deal with washing clothes and cooking, which is what I miss most when I’m put up in a hotel.

Are there opportunities to explore the cities you travel to? What has been the most memorable tour destination?

Even when I have the luxury of staying in an apartment and working in one place for 4-6 weeks, I often don’t have that much time to see anything. I tend to make a bee-line to the musuems and art galleries and, if I’m lucky enough to get recommendations, then some nice bars and eateries. I loved going to New York and Tokyo but I don’t think I’ve spent more than three days in NY, and Tokyo was very hard work, but I remember the Sushi Bar in the Station with fondness. I have spent a lot of time in Munich (until about 2006) and it’s the people as much as the place that made it memorable.