John Eliot Gardiner’s violence will fell his career, but it could also ruin dozens of freelancers who gave him their all while enduring his wrath
In the week Sir John Eliot Gardiner punched a colleague in the face I noticed, courtesy of social media, that one of my clients was shutting down. Until a couple of weeks ago, I was Opera News’s correspondent in Denmark and Sweden. In November, the magazine will become the second I wrote for regularly to disappear this calendar year.
Some time ago, a staffer colleague asked for advice on becoming a freelance music journalist. I mustered remarkably little of value in response. But I did suggest that the best way to survive as a freelancer is to spread your bets over as many regular clients as possible, a proportion of them preferably relating to something other than music. That way, you can absorb the hit when a bunch of them close down right when you least expect it, as they inevitably will.
That ducking and diving is the price you pay for freelancing in this climate – for the flexibility to say ‘no’, to pursue your own interests, to take holiday when you like, to work from anywhere and to set your fees (yeah, right). After eight years of it, I admit my nerves are being tested right now – not least given the added burdens of parenthood and taking on a new Copenhagen-sized mortgage.
Minutes after hearing that Gardiner had assaulted a colleague, I started to consider the implications of his inevitable and justified cancellation – and its effect on those freelancers who work regularly for him. I also thought of Johann Sebastian Bach, and how far his music feels, in Gardiner’s hands, from human-on-human violence; then I remembered that Bach almost certainly socked one to a few colleagues over a long and consistently antagonistic career.
“It is ironic, given how much talent and hard work his musicians have offered him, that Gardiner’s reward has been to let his famous temper loose on them in a way that puts all their livelihoods in peril”
If you sing early music or play a baroque instrument, you are more-or-less condemned to a freelance existence – that seems a little unfair in itself. Then consider the market you enter. You’re basically tethered to the whims of individuals like Gardiner – ‘robber barons’, as Sir Roger Norrington calls them, who will welcome you into the fold of their personalised ensembles on the understanding that the arrangement is insecure, part-time and dependent almost entirely on their fancies (literally, in the worst cases).
Some of these robber barons are joy to work for. Gardiner, by all accounts, is frequently not. But like freelance music journalists, Gardiner’s musicians don’t have the luxury of a huge amount of choice. There’s a limited client base, which means enduring whatever conditions are put your way and not making a fuss when demands don’t match rewards (though at least musicians get union-level fees that have risen with something like inflation; more than can be said for music journalism and its colossal disparity of pay-rates).
I will absorb the closure of those magazines, and in the long term it will prove a benefit. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway – straight out of the freelancer’s playbook, the first rule of which is never to look into the abyss and always believe there are more fish in the sea. But I feel genuinely worried for those musicians who played or sang in Gardiner’s ensembles, whose work for him probably makes up a far greater proportion of their income than those two magazines did mine – and whose relationship with them is far more deep-seated, formative and emotional.
It must have crossed the minds of those members of the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir that if Gardiner goes – and for violent behaviour in the workplace, he surely must go – then so will the ensembles he founded. It sure is ironic, given how much talent and hard work his musicians have offered him, that Gardiner’s reward has been to let his famous temper loose on them in a way that puts all their livelihoods in peril.
Gardiner can surely retire comfortable. The question is, can his superlative ensembles thrive without him, and will he allow them to? It would be decent of him to ensure they can and will. That would do right by those freelancers who have undoubtedly endured enough.