Graham Johnson

Author: Nina Large

You have recently been awarded the Wigmore Hall Medal for your ‘tireless work for the singing repertoire’.  What does that mean to you?
The medal coming to me acknowledges the fact that an accompanist has a special role to play.  That is not only in the simple playing of the notes, it is in the thinking of the programmes, the idea of a series, the whole shape of what the programming can be like.  Since I started the Songmaker’s Almanac back in 1975 it has been much imitated and what is absolutely certain is that every single accompanist has a series – instead of being seen as just a jobbing person they are seen as a central point.

When we play for the singer it is a complete oneness, a togetherness.

Your relationship with the hall goes back a long way
The Wigmore Hall for me is a temple.  No other hall has this intimacy.  Musical experiences have not only taken place, but somehow permeated into the walls so that you feel the ancient music making is still somehow resonating and taking part, approving and adding to the layers of what you are doing.
Although we only did one concert at the Wigmore in the first season of the Songmakers’ Almanac, we gradually changed in favour of the hall.  The award represents many years of performing there with many people.
Above all why the award is special for me is that the art of the accompanist is right at the centre of what the Wigmore Hall stands for.

You’ve also been given an Honorary Doctorate of Music by Durham University and the New England Conservatory in Boston.  Given the number of books you have written it is a surprise that you yourself never went to university.  
I was born and brought up in Rhodesia and I never went to university for the simple fact that I got a scholarship aged 17 to the Royal Academy of Music. That was a fantastic exit strategy from the ongoing volatile political situation – I was very pro black independence and pro the country going forward but I saw there was no role for me in that country, specifically musically. I snatched the opportunity to go to a conservatoire but in those days they didn’t offer university degrees in places like the RAM or Guildhall School.

How does it feel to be recognised by these establishments?
I am an autodidact, everything that I’ve taught myself is from myself, including languages and literature.  I have, I hope, always been a serious thinker about music and song in particular. To be recognised by a great educational establishment like Durham, and to be told that somehow this person who never went near a university has done enough in the musical sphere to be awarded this degree, yes that gave me pleasure.

The first volume of your new book ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’ has just been published. You have an interesting dedication in the book.
I have dedicated it [posthumously] to an accompanist, a singer, a musicologist and a record producer.

Gerald Moore is the accompanist, who was a close friend in the last years of his life. He was so supportive, so affectionate, so interested in what I was doing.   Not only because I could get through the notes but also because I hope he sensed what I sensed in him: a reverence for the music.

The Singer is Peter Pears, for whose classes I played and who I accompanied at various concerts at the end of his career.  A remarkable man and one of the greatest artists I’ve ever known.
Eric Sams – a world class musicologist who taught me how to write.  A great expert on song, I’ve never known anyone who knows more about song than Eric Sams.  Eric was a genius.
And for Ted Perry – who gave me the chance to record all the songs for Hyperion.

Having recorded all these discs, did writing the book seem to be the other half of this project that just had to be done?
Right from the beginning I had written extensive sleeve notes for my recordings because I feel that the songs can’t go out into the world – they need to be clothed and presented to the world with the help of explication. The programme notes that were published in increasingly thick Hyperion booklets became quite famous and in about 2006 Yale University Press suggested publishing them in a book. I spent 6 years changing, correcting and improving them.

Do you feel a sense of completion?
No, if I could start recording them all again today I would gladly try and have another chance.  If I could scrap what I’d written and begin again I would do so if I had the time on this planet.  It’s only a transitory process. Any recording or essay is abandoned, never finished.  We never actually complete.

When did you decide to become an accompanist? I believe hearing Britten and Pears perform Schubert’s Winterreise in a concert at Snape Maltings in the early 1970s was pivotal in your decision.
I did some early work accompanying the songs and didn’t make much of them.  That was why the epiphany was so important when I heard Winterreise.  I went into that hall unconvinced that I was going to have a great afternoon.  But it was one of those times when everybody in the hall – even those who knew far less about music than I did – were aware that something great had happened.  It hung in the air.  I’d had some composing lessons from Britten but I suddenly realised everything in one blinding flash – he was actually composing at the piano by doing something quite extraordinary, by becoming Schubert and playing it as if he had composed it.  By a sheer empathetical transference of imagination.  It’s not for nothing that all the great composers played their own accompaniments – Brahms, Britten, Poulenc, Schubert.  When you are sitting there as their plenipotentiary, you are doing something incredibly important.

We are surrounded by a huge number of original books and editions here in your library.  Are words and music indivisible for you?   Does the line blur between your writing and your performing?
In a way, yes.  The song begins on the printed page – you can’t have a song without a text. Playing should be like speaking.  Speaking should be as musical and inventive as playing.

At one point I thought I might like to have a piano trio but the one thing that didn’t fulfil was words.  I love languages.  I am more likely to burst into tears over a poem read than a piece of music.  When you get a phenomenal poem you rise to the occasion – if you are a great song composer, like Britten or Schubert – it lifts you.  A great text buoys up a composer, and in a way it also buoys up an accompanist because you are taking it on board together with the music.

Songmakers’ Almanac had poetry readings too.  It was all about how music connected to poetry – setting up a dramatic tension with words and music that unfolds and tells a story.

What other work do you have coming up?
I am curating the Leeds Lieder Festival in October this year.  We can become so London concentric that we forget there are people all around the country who have just as much desire to experience this song world.

We’ve put together a programme with some very good singers with recitals and a masterclass.  What has emerged is a sort of Mediterranean and Adriatic festival based around the idea that Opera North are doing a new production of Death in Venice. We will have Spanish folksongs and Greek folksongs and songs from the Italian songbook.

What do you hope a festival like this can achieve?
What one can try and do is to convince people, some new people and maybe some younger people coming for the first time, that this is a vital and exciting art form and that is capable of providing great reward.

It is there for everyone and it is not elitist.  The song repertoire is not the arcane luxury that some people imagine it to be. It’s actually quite simple, and relevant and heartfelt.  It is in the soul that this is awakened.

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