Gustav Leonhardt: Harpsichordist who brought about a revolution in early music

 

Gustav Leonhardt was an unassuming, private man, and his instrument, the harpsichord, may seem an improbably modest vehicle to bring about a sea-change in the way the music of an entire era is performed and listened to. But at the outset of Leonhardt's career, in the early 1950s, neither musicians nor instrument-makers gave much thought to the conditions in which composers like Bach and Handel might have worked: Baroque music was performed with little stylistic insight, often on instruments solid enough to withstand enemy fire. Leonhardt's superb musicianship – at the organ as well as the harpsichord, and as conductor, scholar and teacher – combined with methodical, self-effacing rigour to strip away two centuries of accreted performance practice and so allow modern audiences to hear the Baroque as it might have sounded in Bach's own day.

In a world already transformed by Leonhardt's insights, it is difficult to imagine just how thorough was his influence in the decades leading up to what is today called HIP: historically informed performance. But a younger colleague, the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, put it plainly: "His presence is so overwhelming and of such influence that we cannot deny how it totally changed our view of the harpsichord."

Leonhardt's early life foreshadows his career and personality. The Dutch Protestantism into which he was born remained important to him. His parents were music-loving amateurs (his father was a banker) and involved their children in domestic music-making. They bought a harpsichord for the family performances of Bach and Telemann and at 10 or so young Gustav made his first acquaintance with the instrument.

German occupation inevitably brought hardship, and although life in the Dutch countryside was easier than for city-dwellers, there was still no electricity and water and, for the last nine months of the war, Leonhardt spent stretches hidden between the floorboards so as to avoid being sent away for slave labour. The family harpsichord became a companion in his isolation, and as its fascination grew, he decided that it would be the focus of his life.

Although his parents insisted that he complete a normal education, they also supported his musical aims and so in 1947, aged 18, he moved to Basel to attend the Schola Cantorum, then virtually the only music school specialising in early music. For his debut he played The Art of Fugue, stoutly insisting that Bach had intended it for the harpsichord. But he still had anxious parents to satisfy: "They thought that I should take a conducting course and perhaps become a famous conductor, earning lots of money. So I was sent to Vienna and enrolled on a conducting course. It was not very successful ... Instead I spent a whole year from seven in the morning until seven in the evening in the National Library going through sources and music."

Those countless hours were to stand Leonhardt in good stead. He copied out thousands of manuscripts, many of music unperformed for centuries. They gave him access to a huge and unfamiliar repertoire, and so he was able over the ensuing years to open up the music of the past to an audience that had no idea of just how rich it was.

In Vienna he met Nikolaus Harnoncourt, now best known as a conductor, but then a cellist with similar concerns to Leonhardt, and before long they were performing together. In 1952 the director of the Hochschule für Musik appointed him to a professorship in harpsichord, in which capacity he remained in Vienna for three years, the last of them overlapping with a like position at the Amsterdam Conservatoire.

There he taught until 1988, acting also as organist of the Waalse Kerk, which has an outstanding instrument from 1733. His presence made Amsterdam one of the capitals of early music: students came to him from all around the world, to be received in the splendour of his 1605 town-house.

Leonhardt's time in Vienna coincided with a sudden upsurge of recording activity, as US labels took advantage of the strength of the dollar to make inexpensive recordings in Europe. One of them was the Bach Guild, using the label Vanguard, and Leonhardt made a number of LPs for them. The countertenor Alfred Deller was one of the musicians with whom he worked – learning much about phrasing and nuance. In 1955 he formed the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble (later Leonhardt Consort), gathering around him and his wife, the Swiss violinist Marie Amsler, a group of musicians whose names are early-music touchstones: the recorder-player Frans Brüggen, cellist Anner Bylsma and the three Kuijken brothers, the violinist Sigiswald, cellist and gambist Wieland and flautist Barthold.

Leonhardt insisted on recording on instruments contemporary with the music he was playing (though he was also happy with faithful copies). Although he and Harnoncourt came to disagree on the principle of Baroque performance practice, with Harnoncourt prepared to compromise and Leonhardt remaining a purist, they collaborated on one of the monuments of the day, a complete cycle of Bach's 200-plus cantatas, recorded between 1972 and 1990 for Teldec. Leonhardt had no time with claims of "authenticity"; his outlook was squarely realist: "Our mission is to know as closely as possible what the composer might have wanted, or what was possible in the period during which he was composing".

His concert manner, stern and unsmiling, reinforced the image of the purist. But he would occasionally reveal a sly sense of humour, slipping in a bit of ragtime to end a recital, and he enjoyed fast cars and wine. In 1967 he appeared as Bach in Jean-Marie Straub's film The Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach – he was impressed by the film's musicological accuracy. But he was no absolutist, stating: "I can't stand pedants. A musician should make sure his basic principles are right, then express himself according to his temperament".

Gustav Maria Leonhardt, harpsichordist, organist, conductor and teacher: born 's-Graveland, Hilversum, Netherlands 30 May 1928; married Marie Amsler (three daughters); died Amsterdam 16 January 2012.

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Property

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices