“Music is the most spiritual of all the arts”

Jordi Savall

Retrat de Jordi Savall © Martí Petit

Having turned eighty on 1 August, Jordi Savall tells us about his past and his life and professional career as a world viola da gamba virtuoso and orchestra conductor, but also about where he is today and the new challenges he is eager to take on. He acknowledges that his discovery of the world of music saved him and gave him a channel for his rebellion against injustice. For more than fifty years, he has undertaken painstaking work in the recovery of musical heritage and in the realm of research, and has given concerts around the world. He argues that the same research and interpretation method can be applied to modern and better-known scores, as this allows him to add a different dimension to the music. He is doing so with the works of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brückner. Now he wants his entire legacy and the musical ensembles he has founded to live on and to be a source of wealth for the country. A heritage that must be safeguarded and that calls for resources and commitment, and which he does not hesitate to maintain using his own money.

Jordi Savall (Igualada, 1941) is one of the most internationally renowned Catalan musicians. A viola da gamba player, orchestra conductor and musicologist, over his career he has recorded and released more than 230 records of repertoires of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical music, paying special attention to the musical heritage of Europe and the Mediterranean. He is the founder, together with Montserrat Figueras, and director of the musical ensembles Hespèrion XXI (1974), La Capella Reial de Catalunya (1987) and Le Concert des Nations (1989), with repertoires ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. He has also fostered various social and pedagogical initiatives to support young people around the world and to promote intercultural dialogue.

His international acclaim has been acknowledged by numerous awards and accolades, including the Creu de Sant Jordi distinction in 1990; the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, considered the Nobel Prize in music, in 2012, and the distinction of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters bestowed by the French government. Furthermore, he has been designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace, he received the Gold Medal of the Generalitat Government of Catalonia for his outstanding music career and his leading contribution to culture and civilisation in 2014, and in 2015, the Gold Medal of the City of Barcelona for cultural merit. In the realm of recording, in 1998 he set up the Alia Vox label to release his performances, for which he has won a Grammy Award.

Jordi and I have known each other for years. I started collaborating on some of his projects in 2014. We took the morning to talk. At the tender age of eighty, he tells me that you have to be able to look back and take stock of your life. This is how a personal, impromptu conversation begins in his library. The place chosen is the perfect setting, a huge room teeming with books, photographs, documents and instruments backed by a long career and life dedicated to music and the promotion of peace and intercultural dialogue. Jordi is a humanist, perhaps “the last humanist”, as the magazine Clàssica sustained last June. Driven by tremendous curiosity and sensitivity, for him, music has become the stronghold from which to tackle barbarism and misery, a meeting place and one of the most fundamental languages for understanding and listening to humanity.

His tireless work in the field of music has brought him to give concerts all over the world and to continue releasing records, while still directing his musical ensembles. Sensitivity and humanism advocating peace have also led him to condemn various injustices on several occasions, to perform concerts in refugee camps, prisons and hospitals, and to develop the educational project Orpheus XXI, through which he has hosted professional migrant and refugee musicians from various countries.

A whole life generously devoted to a dream and an aspiration that you have been able to bring to fruition on several occasions. And now, how would you define the stage you are at?

I am at a stage of fulfilment and serenity. Looking back, seeing what I’ve achieved so far, and deciding what my priorities are for the years I have left.

Looking back, what do you see?

The first thing I see is a daydreaming, rebellious boy, the son of a Republican father and a very loving mother, up against a world beset with discrimination. His father’s family were orange growers from Oliva and Gandia [in Valencia], and his mother’s family were mattress makers, living in a very narrow world and for many years in poverty. I also see the mattress maker’s son at school, feeling discriminated against, but also thrilled to be able to sing in the choir with master Joan Just. During that time, I didn’t feel like I fit in in Igualada, forced to do business studies, which didn’t interest me in the slightest, and at the age of 14 my father sent me to work in a factory.

In a factory?

Yes, in a textile factory, until the age of nineteen. Since I wasn’t that interested in studying business, my father put me to work, and I am very grateful to him. These are things that now, at this stage of my life, are worth acknowledging.

What did your years at the factory bring you?

There I recognised the feeling of injustice that I have always rebelled against. The humiliation, attacks and injustice I experienced transformed me and made me feel the need to go it alone, to find refuge, but also a place for self-realisation.

And what is that place?

Music was the thing that saved me from drowning. That feeling of incomprehension and solitude drew me closer to it, and when I found the cello I felt that was what I had to do. I can’t live if I don’t love what I’m doing, and that’s what I learned in the factory too. It was a very important life lesson that made me discover the true value of things.

How did you discover the cello?

Thanks to master Joan Just, director of the music school’s choir. One evening on my way to class, I heard him rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem, accompanied by a string quartet, and I said to myself, “If music has this mighty power to move the audience, I’d like to be a musician”. Of all the instruments in the quartet, the one that most fascinated me was the cello. A few months later I escaped to Barcelona to buy an instrument, and then I started studying, and the miracle happened in a matter of minutes; I felt at home. After the first uncontrolled sound, I immediately found a way to move the bow across the string to produce a beautiful sound, and at the same time the fingers on my left hand moved easily over the four strings. Then I understood Mark Twain’s saying, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

And what did your parents think?

The first thing they told me was that I was crazy. At the time, being a musician was synonymous with “starvation” since hundreds of musicians had lost their jobs with the advent of mechanical means of reproduction, such as turntables.

How did you reconcile your work and study of the cello?

After a few months of self-taught playing, I met master Sants Sagrera, who gave me my first cello lessons at the Liceu Conservatory. I then continued at the Barcelona Municipal Conservatory under master Josep Trotta, and also under master Joan Massià, an extraordinary musician. It is thanks to him that a few years later I met Pau Casals at his Prades Music Festival. Seeing the master rehearse and perform a concert was a sort of unforgettable master class. If I think about the path I’ve taken since then, I realise it has been out of great willpower and discipline, but also because I have always met people who have lent me a hand and helped me find the right path.

And how did you come to play the viola da gamba?

I had taken lessons with Rafael Puyana on the Music Course in Santiago de Compostela, and one day he asked me why I played those pieces by Bach, Ortiz and Marais on the cello instead of on the viola da gamba, the instrument for which they had been composed. I found the idea interesting. The next day I got a call from Enric Gispert, director of Ars Musicae, and he asked me if I would be interested in playing the viola da gamba with them. Funnily enough, it was already on my to-do-list: “Look for a viola da gamba”. My life is a constant string of such coincidences. This is when my adventure began as a musician specialising in viola da gamba and the interpretation of early music.

Retrat de Jordi Savall © Martí Petit Portrait of Jordi Savall. © Martí Petit

In Basel you studied with August Wenzinger, who you later succeeded as professor at the conservatory. From then on, you embarked on an intense career as a viola da gamba player performing in countries all over the world and making a name for yourself on the international scene.

Yes, but I lacked independence and creative freedom. One of the things I realised very early on was that you cannot be free if you have no control over what you do.

And so...?

To be a creator you must be able to have the freedom to do what you feel as an artist. This need led Montserrat Figueras and I to found the ensembles Hespèrion XX in 1974 and La Capella Reial in 1987. A few years later we set up the record label Alia Vox. We wanted to make and release our music regardless of commerciality, solely depending on its artistic value.

This freedom and dedication have allowed you to devote a lifetime to recovering musical heritage, developing projects, performing concerts all over the world, setting up musical ensembles such as Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations, Orpheus XXI and creating educational initiatives such as the Training Academies, as well as releasing more than one hundred albums. And now what?

I want to conclude my artistic career and my personal life in a way that is not only meaningful for me and creative in the musical realm, but also fulfilling from a human perspective for my personal life. I am very mindful of the mistakes I have made in life and I want to try to avoid making them again, because I don’t have much time left to make many corrections. When you reach the age of eighty, you need to have a good aim to try to do things in the best possible way.

And what are these things, your priorities?

I have several. On a personal level, I seek harmony and to share life with the people I love and my family, especially with my partner, wife and advisor, Maria Bartels, with whom I share many things: from discussing the writing of a musical, historical or philosophical text; assessing the quality of a singer, choir or performers; choosing the best photos from a shoot, a CD cover or a concert programme, or just trying together to understand where the world is going and where life is taking us. In life, sharing, and doing so fairly, is vital.

The other important thing for me is to be able to consolidate all the heritage we have created over the years. This heritage, although not tangible, is a real heritage, a heritage that runs a huge risk of being lost if we do not ensure its preservation.

What is this heritage?

The heritage we have created includes various musical ensembles, research carried out over decades and concert programmes. Music is essentially a living thing, it only exists when it is played or sung. That is why it is the most spiritual of all the arts. When you listen to music, all you have left is memory and emotion. It cannot be fixed. This is the great strength of music and the condition why it is always necessary for there to be people who live and breathe it and perform it in the moment.

A new creation.

Music will always need new performers. Each musical creation, while maintaining the utmost faithfulness or original elements, is a creation every time. Music is a very well-built skeleton, but that isn’t enough, you need the bare essentials, soul and emotion.

And isn’t that the role of the performer?

Yes. Soul and emotion are two things that are wholly tied to the senses. A score, no matter how exact, will always be incomplete, everything that makes music move us is what human beings bring by performing it. These are things that cannot be noticed in a score. Music is born and dies every time with each performer. For me, the ideal performer is one who lives and breathes the music and lets it speak through them.

Through you, a vast amount of musical heritage has been conceived and recovered, the outcome of a painstaking personal initiative. And then?

This heritage can only be kept alive if the different musical ensembles can continue to work, study and perform concerts. When I retire or pass away, it will be very difficult to pass the baton if there are no resources.

What do you propose?

I want the ensembles that we have been setting up over the years to have a structure and to be firmly established in Catalonia. Without this consolidation, there will be no handover. For many years and on many occasions I have ensured the continuity of my foundation and musical ensembles with personal funds. We need to be aware that an intangible legacy is much harder to consolidate than a tangible legacy. The consolidation and quality of an orchestra is not achieved overnight, it is a legacy that has been built over the last thirty or forty years. We now have ensembles that have their own language, a symbiosis found in the genetics of the musicians who are part of it. My orchestras are ensembles made up of very demanding musicians with many years’ experience and work. Our ensembles adapt to each repertoire we choose, and we select the musicians according to the programme we wish to perform.

How would you help these musical ensembles to become consolidated?

There are several ways to bring this about, but I think the first would be through the commitment of artistic residencies with various Catalan music institutions. I believe that Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya should be ensembles resident in Catalonia, that they should contribute a radically different sound to what a modern orchestra may offer, and they can revive historical heritage with passion, purpose and success.

At the same time, economic commitment is needed. When I stop giving concerts, we stop having resources for musical ensembles. A way must be found to generate funds to maintain these ensembles. I am expendable, no one is irreplaceable, and the day I retire I will be happy to have others inherit my legacy. But we must know how to secure the resources to ensure the future of these ensembles and the handover, otherwise, the day I am not there, all this will be over.

This year you will open the 1st Jordi Savall Festival at the Royal Monastery of Santes Creus. What does this festival seek out to do?

The primary goal behind the creation of this festival is to forge a close link between music and the various wonderful historical monuments we have. Music brings soul to these places, and these places afford a unique sound to the music. I have been creating records with great sound for many years, and the secret behind this sound is Cardona, which has excellent acoustics. Acoustics is the oxygen of music.

And Santes Creus?

Santes Creus has very interesting spaces and acoustics, but it is also located geographically in a really special place, in the midst of the Cistercian Route and a stone’s throw to places like Reus, Montblanc and Poblet. Through the Festival I wish to forge a powerful link with these places and give impetus to the region’s culture and economy. Santes Creus must have the capacity to become a place of excellence to host young and emerging groups who are doing very interesting things today.

Pau Casals created the Prada de Conflent Festival in 1975. Is he a point of reference for you?

The Jordi Savall Festival is inspired by the festival created by Pau Casals when he was seventy-five years old. I want Santes Creus to be the future meeting place for people who want to hear me. The day I can’t give concerts around the world I want to go to Santes Creus and share the beauty and emotion of music with friends and people from Catalonia and all parts of the world.

Retrat de Jordi Savall © Martí Petit Portrait of Jordi Savall. © Martí Petit

But, in the meantime, what musical challenges do you wish to take on?

I want to spend the time I have left doing what I’m doing, playing the viola da gamba and conducting, but also rediscovering well-known works, such as Beethoven’s symphonies or the great compositions of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brückner.

What are you looking for in these works?

Today these works are exclusive to modern orchestras. I want to afford them another perspective: working on the originals and on the manuscript and period scores you can come across details and aspects that, by adding interpretation using period instruments, bring a new dimension and completely different perspectives.

This is what you have been doing lately with Beethoven’s symphonies.

Yes, and this is something I can do with some intellectual peace of mind, because the experience of almost fifty years of tackling blank scores, which I had never heard before, and of thinking about what they might ultimately sound like applied to a well-known score, also delivers a wonderful result.

But with these works you start from a previous audition or knowledge...

I forget what I’ve heard so far and start studying the score as if it were a new score. I think about the tempo, articulation, dynamics... and I try to arrive at the composer’s thoughts by means of all the philosophy of the time. This is all fascinating!

After so many years dedicated to the recovery of music and now taking on these new challenges, has your perspective changed?

My conception has changed constantly. The alternative to change is death. The energy of creation involves change and rethinking. At the same time, one also benefits from experience. There are things I haven’t changed, like the tempos of the pieces I played with the viola da gamba in the seventies and that I performed later; they hardly change, they differ by very few seconds. When you find the right tempo for a song, you memorise it and it stays with you forever.

And what has changed?

I have learned to believe in utopia while still being realistic. When I was young, I thought I could create a project in a matter of days and then I realised that it wasn’t enough. I then got round it by working more than ten hours straight every day, but I ran the risk of creating malaise among the musicians.

I’m demanding and I try to figure out how to achieve excellence and how many days we need to accomplish it. That’s why I did the Beethoven project in a really structured way, working on a programme basis and for more than the past two years.

The consolidation of your heritage in Catalonia also involves Barcelona and its musical institutions. What is your connection with Barcelona?

At the age of nineteen I left the factory and volunteered to be conscripted. I arrived in Barcelona penniless and very eager to study, and avoided a predetermined fate. My trajectory is one of an escapee, sensitive to injustice. Sensitive to injustice, if I had not had this tenacity and the help I discussed previously, if I had not found music, I would have rebelled against the system.

In recent years in Barcelona, besides concerts, we have developed various social initiatives, such as the Orpheus XXI orchestra, with young migrants and refugees, and musical activities in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes.

This sensitivity to injustice has led you to advocate music as a tool for social transformation and the promotion of intercultural dialogue. In 2008 UNESCO declared you an “Artist for Peace”.

For me, music saved me, and I have always wanted to put into practice my values and the capacity for transformation that music holds.

With this huge trajectory under your belt and in your eighties, with your eyes set on consolidating your legacy and ensuring it for future generations, how would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a person who has been consistent with what I believed in; that through music, love, friendship and empathy we can change the world and come to live in peace with ourselves.

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