Conductor John Eliot Gardiner is a leading figure in the historical performance movement, having founded the Monteverdi Choir for performances of Baroque music, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, devoted to music of the 19th century. He is especially noted for performances and recordings of Bach's choral music. His label, Soli Deo Gloria ("To the Glory of God Only"), takes its name from the small S.D.G. signature Bach affixed to many of his works.
Gardiner was born April 20, 1943, in the village of Fontmell Magna in England's Dorset County. It is worth remarking that for the first part of his musical education he was largely self-taught: he sang in a village church choir and played the violin. At 15, he took up conducting, and while he was studying history, Arabic, and medieval Spanish at Cambridge, he also began conducting choirs there. He led choirs from Oxford and Cambridge on a Middle Eastern tour while still an undergraduate, and in 1964, he conducted a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, a work little known at the time. Out of this performance grew the Monteverdi Choir, his primary performing ensemble. Gardiner studied musicology and conducting with Thurston Dart and Nadia Boulanger in the mid-1960s, which was his only period of formal musical study. In 1968, he founded a Monteverdi Orchestra to go with the choir; in the 1970s the group began to use Baroque instruments and was renamed the English Baroque Soloists. With this group and the Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner has made recordings numbering in the hundreds. Mostly during the first part of his career, he also worked with conventional symphony orchestras. His U.S. debut came in 1979 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was music director of the CBC Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Opera de Lyon Orchestra, and the North German Radio Orchestra (now the NDR Elbphilharmonie). In 1990, as understanding of the historical instruments used in the music of Beethoven and subsequent composers was just developing, he founded the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, leading it on tour in 1993 with a then recently rediscovered Messe solennelle of Berlioz. One of Gardiner's most celebrated accomplishments was his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000, with the Monteverdi Choir and EBS. The group toured for 52 weeks, performing all of Bach's cantatas at their appropriate times in the liturgical year, often in churches with relevance in Bach's own career. The performances were recorded and issued in lavish packaging on S.D.G., with essays by Gardiner delving into the meaning of each work. These essays led Gardiner to publish a book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (2013). Gardiner has also recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and other labels. His Schumann symphony recordings with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique are credited with introducing a trend toward smaller forces in those works. Another major tour came in Spain in 2004, as Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir retraced the medieval Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route and sang medieval Spanish repertory. Gardiner has also appeared as a guest conductor with major symphony orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra. His recording career has not slackened in the least in his senior citizen years as he has often released a half-dozen recordings per year or more. In 2019, he and the Monteverdi Choir released Love is come again, featuring music from the Springhead Easter Play, a mime event staged annually at Gardiner's family home and originally directed by his mother.
Gardiner's many awards include designation as Commander of the British Empire in 1990 and as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France in 2011. ~ James Manheim