David Watkin: ‘I’m always looking for parallels and metaphors in life.’

The cellist and conductor talks about the relationship of musicianship and scholarship, accompanying recitative on the cello, and the importance of understanding the language of music.



David Watkin read Music at Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar, whilst studying the cello with William Pleeth and singing with Kenneth Bowen. He was a Shell/LSO Finalist, received the Bulgin Medal and was Principal cello in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Founder member of the Eroica Quartet, he has revived the eighteenth-century practice of realising figured bass (improvising chordal accompaniments) on the cello. He was Principal Cello in the English Baroque Soloists, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

What was the first piece of music that stuck to your mind?

It was a really old 45rpm record of Bach D minor Toccata by E. Power Biggs, and I absolutely loved it. It’s incredible music. Nowadays, it’s hard to listen to it without all this iconic baggage of a masterwork status, but I came to it fresh.

How did you get into period performance?

In the late 70s, I was at Wells Cathedral School, and the head of strings there was a man called Mark Knight. He encouraged us to listen to early music recordings, so I was listening to Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Frans Brüggen when I was fifteen, whilst still at school. All I wanted to be was a baroque cellist. I’m still playing a baroque cello, made for me by my dad’s friend then.

Were your childhood experiences influential on your adult career?

I’m very lucky because both of my parents are violin teachers, and my brother plays the viola, so we had family string quartets, everyday in the summer holidays. I really grew up with that repertoire of four-part harmony of Haydn and Mozart. And that’s a fantastic grounding, I think. Then at Wells, chamber music was really important. Here I am, all these years later, still doing the basically the same stuff. I was inspired to take singing seriously at Wells, going on to Cambridge with a choral scholarship; if I hadn’t done so, I would have probably gone onto a music college and become a different kind of musician.

How was your time at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge?

It was utterly magical. Again, it’s the stuff I’m still doing. I went to St Catherine’s because of the director of studies there, Peter le Huray, not only an incredibly broad minded and rounded musicologist, but a performer himself. He was a pioneer musicologist in many ways. Performance reception, reception history, music and aesthetics, that was his thing, but he was also an expert on Messiaen, and Bach. Music in the Reformation was his PhD subject. I found this incredibly broad approach in my time at Cambridge inspiring and practically useful. Singers like Gerry Finley, or Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr were all contemporaries.

Did singing have a direct influence on your playing?

Indirectly, it influenced my playing by bringing me into that environment at Cambridge, where musicology became a really important part of my music making. In a more direct way, it influenced my playing because of just the way that you sing a phrase. You can always hear an instrumentalist who’s never done that, or never imagined the way you spin a phrase. Instrumentalists are trying to recreate singing after all, and it’s a primordial thing, at the root of our playing. If all our instruments were destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, we’d still be singing and banging out drums.

Singing in a choir is an incredibly fulfilling experience, spiritually, and more, as the recent study on synchronisation of heartbeats in a choir suggests. It also teaches directly practical things like ensemble, and all instrumentalists should sing together.

Singing Judas in an old fashioned, massive scale Matthew Passion at Wells was memorable, as well as doing things at Cambridge, where I’d sing rather than play, like Handel’s La resurrezione with Richard Egarr. What’s amazing now is going to hear it again at St Mary’s Cathedral, where my kids sing. I think coming into contact and becoming familiar with all these different styles through the choral repertoire is important.

One example is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The First time I played that piece, I had a fingering on every note in the cello part, because it was just incomprehensibly difficult. Then a year later, my special subject was Messiaen, and I spent a year immersed in his musical language, learning about modes of limited transposition. Another year later, I had another performance, and I could suddenly play. I practiced scales of limited transposition instead of diatonic scales, and I found I could just read it, even remember it. You’re free from reading it once you get the language, once you’re fluent in it. At Cambridge, I learnt something about music, how it works. My life since then has been a process of putting that together. Playing Eroica in the LSO with Rostropovich, of course it was memorable, but it was something separate, and you weren’t encouraged to think in the same way, just reading your part. We, as musicians, should all be thinking about these things, like actors in conversation, knowing the others’ lines. The whole point of that Strad article was to show that the rules aren’t just an option, but there to be applied practically. Music is a language, the vocabulary isn’t just labels but things that help you think, and that’s what jazz musicians do. Say, this background music, they’ll pick out and recognise the colour of a chord, through practice and having the vocabulary. Many classical musicians just don’t think like that.

Christopher Hogwood passed away yesterday, a leading figure in the early music revival. What do you think about the relationship between musicianship and scholarship?

It’s got to be head and heart, a combination. It’s like spirit and form, in a way. They’re meaningless without each other. The thing I’m very interested in is this word ‘form’. If you think what the opposite of spirit in music is, maybe it’s form or structure, or shape.  As in the shape of the music, but also the way you form the music. And we’re back to form; they’re inseparable, like yin and yang. In my experience, every single person who communicates through music is a combination of head, heart, and gut. The thing that is weird about music education, people’s approach to it, and also this question of performance practice is that nobody would say, I’m never going to listen to someone else telling me what to do. If I was going to play John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, the first thing I’d do would be to book a bit of time to go and play it to Steven Isserlis. He knew John Tavener, in fact I sang for John Taverner. That was another one of those amazing things I did at Cambridge, singing Ikon of Light. I want Steven’s inside thoughts on what Tavener really meant by that. Well, we can do that with dead composers. We can look at Ferdinand David’s fingerings and bowings of Mendelssohn, or for that matter, Beethoven. It’s like going for a lesson with someone who knew the composer.

In talking about performance practice, imagine a salsa band, and there’s a nuclear holocaust, second one of this conversation. In a million years time, a fleet of space ships land on this desolate planet. They find the detritus of this lost civilisation, and one of the things that they find is the salsa band’s charts, a few chord symbols, maybe a melody. Imagine what it would look like, attempting to recreate this music and dance of a lost civilisation. From that text, and text is a very varied term, you’d have to first understand the unwritten things that the salsa musicians took for granted. John Butt likens the text to a dry residue at the bottom of the glass, into which you have to pour your spirit to hydrate it and make it into a nourishing drink. I like that image, because it puts a nice perspective on the ratio of these things. Academic scholarship is not an end in itself.

No musician is so inspired that they don’t have to think at all, and just roll out of bed to start playing. You have to learn to play. A lot of musicians just learn the interpretation of their teacher, and go around playing it. It’s not the same as being spontaneous; understanding the form, shape, and meaning goes together, and it frees you from the tyranny of some learned interpretation.

Going back to Hogwood, he said, in a slightly contentious way, that his recording of the Mozart Symphonies are not interpretations. It’s completely impossible. It either risks arrogance, or implies that it’s definitive, that nothing has been added to the works. Maybe he later regretted saying that, but I think nobody tries to only play in a dry, academic way. What can really free you is to understand so thoroughly how the music works in a musicological way, and its many meanings. Then you know how to break the rules and push the boundaries.

Tell me more about this practice of accompanying recitative on the cello.

I was doing quite a vague research for my final dissertation in late 18th early 19th French cello playing, and I noticed that half of these books talked about playing chords in recitatives. Even the Paris Conservatoire method, which you’d think would be the most conservative, referred to this. They all made the assumption that people can read figured bass, and do it in performance. It wasn’t just a clever option, but part of being a cellist. If you take this old fashioned model of the history of the cello as the ‘liberation’ from the bass line, then who was this poor guy that Bach was writing for? If you’re only interested in the history of the solo instrument, you never ask about how people accompanied. The opening bars of Exsultate, jubilate, with those quaver Fs, they become alive when you respond to the harmony. The harmonic ebb and flow, and the phrasing structure all need to be understood. You need to be fluent in the language, and no jazz musician would call the study of it academic. Once you embody this idea, you are completely free to be spontaneous. You need to know if the note you’re playing is part of an inverted chord. It’s not just enough to play it, and it’s why I set up the International Cello Continuo Clinic, where the most interesting comments come from the amateurs. This cello playing in the recitatives isn’t about playing chords, but about understanding how harmony works. The responses in the Anglican choral tradition work like a recitative, there’s a thread that goes through. You need to carry that narrative tension through the harmony.

What are your other inspirations outside of music?

I’m obsessed with Hogarth’s line of grace and beauty, this mid-18th century aesthetic principle. I’m always looking for parallels and metaphors in life. Particularly when you conduct, you need to help people understand music, and an indirect way is usually the best way. Gravity and momentum is very useful. I think if you’re open, you will notice these connections. Even if you’re not looking for them, if your mind is open, and you’re thinking in a creative way about music, you’ll find these things in life.

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