The Inventory: John Eliot Gardiner

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who will be 70 next month, is one of Britain’s most versatile and celebrated conductors. He was knighted in 1998.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be a farmer. I grew up on a working farm and loved the rituals and rhythms of the farming year – which included music and dance.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Public: Bryanston School. I think everything hinges on having an inspirational teacher and I got a history scholarship to King’s College Cambridge thanks to one. Then I went to King’s College London to study musicology with Thurston Dart, then to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. That was the beginning of it all for me.

Who was your mentor?

I never had just one, but they seemed to pop up just when I needed them most.

How physically fit are you?

Thankfully, touch wood, pretty good, though currently I’m chained to my desk trying to finish a book. I walk and I used to ride a lot.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Earliest ambition: Farming

One’s not much good without the other, not that that seems to matter today. You don’t necessarily have to have talent to fulfil an ambition. In the age of reality TV, just being a celebrity is important.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?


How politically committed are you?

Not terribly. Politics is vitally important but politicians today are so often drab or corrupt.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Inconsistently: yes, as an organic farmer; no, as an itinerant musician.

Do you have more than one home?

Yes. Both are places of work as well as refreshment. I work at Gore Farm in Dorset but also in London.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

Biggest extravagance: A dozen oysters

A Leonardo drawing.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

A dozen oysters and a bottle of Sancerre after a concert.

In what place are you happiest?

Wherever I can make good music with my favourite musicians, or at the farm with my family and the dogs, surrounded by trees.

What ambitions do you still have?

To make a contribution towards changing the current perception of classical music as remote or inaccessible. To make it cool for young people to attend concerts.

What drives you on?

Heaven knows, but clearly something.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

To be father of three wonderful daughters and to have married a hot Italian, an extremely smart wife.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

Not to have been able to completely repiece together the pioneering farm that my dad started in the 1920s. There’s still a chunk that’s missing – the land went out of the family. I haven’t given up hope.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

“What took you so long to get a grip?”

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Start all over again. I’d be older but the things I cherish and value now are the things I did when I was 20 so I’d be finding new ways of trying to do same thing.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

In clear-cut situations, yes, but it’s such a morally complex issue.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

When I listen to the music of Bach, yes. Otherwise I struggle.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Eight and a half.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner leads a nine-hour celebration of the music of JS Bach at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday from 1pm, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3;

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