Andrew Rumsey interviews Dr Geoffrey Lancaster (September 2014)
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of Australia’s most distinguished artists. Dr Geoffrey Lancaster AM is a fortepianist, conductor, academic and early music specialist who is at the forefront of historically informed performance practice. I had the privilege of enjoying a breakfast and a chat with him during one of his last days in Canberra, before moving to Perth.
AR: What age did you start playing the piano?
GL: Well I started when I was five, and I initially was trained as a young boy in Dubbo NSW where I lived, with some nuns in a convent. An amazing amount of research needs to be done on the cultural influence (especially in musical terms) of these amazing women who came into woop-woop, set up convents and then taught piano. There is a whole generation of piano players (amateur and professional) who have their roots in the educative processes of these amazing women. I was very lucky that I had a fantastic teacher – a wonderful, wonderful nun, who I subsequently tracked down many years later, and she had moved from Dubbo to Canberra in fact. I said “you won’t remember me” and she didn’t of course, but I said “you laid the foundation and now I am a professional”. And we both wept for joy, it was lovely.
AR: What age did you gravitate towards the early piano?
GL: Little by little I came to love earlier music as a teenager in the days that the fortepiano had not been heard of. This was in the days when the early music phenomenon, (which was supported so intensely by the recording industry), gave rise to the soundscapes associated with early instruments and performance practise principles through the work of Nicolas Harnoncourt and his orchestra Concentus Musicus Vienna, and Gustav Leonhardt the harpsichordist who was (quite rightly) the greatest harpsichordist since JS Bach and CPE Bach. He of course passed away recently and this is a great loss to music culture. But, to cut the short story long, I remember hearing in 1964 perhaps, the Brandenburg concerti and I just remember this extraordinarily potent, overwhelming sense of “Ah! Yes, of course!” that had been the sheer logic and beauty of the early instruments that the music was written for, and that’s when I was hooked. And that meant that 10 years later as a final high school student going into tertiary training, I knew what I had to do, which was to go into earlier instruments.
In the first year of my tertiary training, I encountered a private collection of fortepianos in Sydney, owned by a very eminent antique dealer whose name was William Ratchel, and I remember going to the fortepianos in his collection as a harpsichordist, because I had taken up harpsichord to study and I just remember then, another one of those overpowering moments, “Ah, Yes! This is what my life’s work has to be”. That was very difficult in Australia in 1973 and of course I was laughed at in the mainstream musical community – that people who took up earlier instruments were failures on modern instruments. I have to confess of course a lot of these instruments were not being played particularly well because people hadn’t spent enough time with them and hadn’t really learned how to master them. And I think in general terms, earlier instruments are far more uncompromising than modern instruments technically – there is much less space to hide in…in fact there is nowhere to hide, they are very uncompromising. It takes a different kind of virtuosity to play them in relation to the virtuosity it takes to play on a modern instrument. So, the road was rocky because I was laughed at for many, many years, but I was also very tenacious – gifted people tend to be both tenacious and resilient. And so eventually in 1986, I ended up winning the Bruges International Mozart fortepiano competition, and that’s the festival of Flanders, which made me the 3rd Australian to have won that competition. The first one was a Baroque flautist, the second one was a harpsichordist and I was the third one…subsequently there has been another one. This shows you, ironically, that despite the fact that in tertiary educational terms there really isn’t yet the same kind of rigor, intensity, respect and focus that one finds in the best tertiary institutions in Europe in relation to earlier instruments, that still, there are Australians who are functioning at the highest levels and being acknowledged as being able to do so by their European counterparts.
AR: What would you consider to be one of the highlights of your career?
GL: I’ve been blessed with three transcendental experiences in my professional life as a musician and I consider myself lucky to have been allowed those three particular moments. Two at this moment come to my mind immediately.
One was when I was playing fortepiano continuo in a recording for Sony Classics of Haydn’s Creation. It was done in a recently restored late-18th Century Bavarian church. So everywhere I looked was exquisitely beautiful and everything I heard was exquisitely beautiful. It was an orchestra that was a ‘who’s who’ in the early music world, the Tölz boys’ choir for singing and wonderful soloists. The recording light was on and we were recording the Chorus ‘The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God’. Everything I looked at, everything I heard, was beautiful beyond belief. And the tears were streaming down my face for sheer ecstasy. It was utterly ecstatic.
The other was when I played a Mozart Piano Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. This also was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life up until that point. It was on a modern piano, and playing piano concertos on a modern piano I’d done a lot with Australian orchestras. And I have to say that I remember thinking to myself as I was playing in Leipzig ‘I feel slightly uncomfortable. What’s going on?’ and then I realised that every single sound that I was making – the ninety people in that orchestra were listening to and they were responding as accompanists. It was like sitting in a soft pillow. It was one of the most truly extraordinary experiences that I’ve ever had. The orchestra in itself made the most amazingly homogenous sound of the most indescribably beautiful warmth. And it was indeed an amazing experience.
AR: Have you ever doubted yourself along the way? Have you ever doubted that music was the right path for you?
GL: Ah. Well, this is the role of doubt. Doubt is a good thing, it goads one on. And I suspect, of course, having rubbed shoulders with many artists in my life, that doubt comes with the territory of giftedness. Certainly I was not ever told that I could be a player when I was in my teen years, which meant that I doubted my ability in my first few tertiary education years, because nobody had ever told me that I was good enough to be an interpreting virtuoso. But of course you never quite know what’s around the corner in life! So, certain things evolved and developed and the doubt that I have now is a kind of sweet and distant doubt that has to do more with ‘am I certain of the integrity behind the questions that I am asking’ when it comes to interpreting earlier music on earlier instruments are the right questions.
AR: Do you have a pre-performance ritual?
GL: Yes. There’s twenty minutes of prayer. My view on life is very consistent with that espoused by many eighteenth century greats in the musical world. Fundamentally I desire above all, that all things are to be used by God, to be a channel for the ministry to others of the divine. And there’re certain ways that one can go about that. Because I am very left brained, I like formulas, and I take a formula that first was expressed in Italy in the early fifteen hundreds and then translated into English in the early sixteen hundreds – and it has to do with role of ego as balanced with spirit-led spontaneity. And if these two things are balanced in a certain way, the hope that something that can’t be quantified, something that can’t be controlled (the divine) will work through you for the enrichment of those who are listening. And this really is the only reason I’m on stage. In fact it’s a formula for life because life from that point of view is as much a performance as is a performance on stage.
AR: What is your ‘pet hate’ of other performers?
GL: I think ego and a lack of meaning, both of which I equate in the end with emptiness. And I don’t think art is an empty thing. For me, meaning is paramount because music making has to do with the revealing of what it is to be human, in conjunction with, I hope to find, the revealing of what it is to be in relationship with God. Therefore, I think it’s very easy, just as a gifted teacher can identify someone with a gift for music within about nth seconds, so too as a listener, it is very easy to identify a performer or a performance whose roots lie in the self and in the empty gesturalism of ego.
AR: What advice would you give to your younger self or to other young musicians?
GL: I think it has to do with answering questions. I think it has to do with asking questions. Constantly ask questions until, in the search for answers with respect to truth and meaning, you can ask no more. When you get to that point you usually find you are at the doorstep of the Divine.
AR: What do you think the future of music will be?
GL: It’s always very difficult to predict what the future of any kind of music is going to be. History shows that. And of course, one really never knows what’s around the corner. I am concerned in Australia that the influence of mass culture, strengthened by its relationship to the economic paradigm, is producing a society where high art is being rendered irrelevant. Despite this however, the miracle of Australia is, that within the context generally of a very brutal culture, we are a fountain of talent and we give rise constantly to genius in every field of creative endeavour…which just goes to show that, you can’t keep a good species down!