Christopher Hogwood: Conductor and musicologist whose 1980 Handel recording was ‘like no Messiah ever heard before in this century’

He was a game-changing musicologist whose seminal work put him in the vanguard of the early-music revolution

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Christopher Hogwood was one of the most influential classical musicians of the past half-century: if you listen to a recording of virtually any composer from Bach to Beethoven, what you hear will bear, however distantly, the imprint of Hogwood’s own music-making and his scholarship.

With his ensemble, The Academy of Ancient Music, he scraped away centuries of stylistic accretion like the accumulated grime on a painting, and the music emerged fresher and brighter than before.

He used the Academy to give expression to the discoveries of scholarship in what became known as HIP – Historically Informed Performance – which attempts to present the music as it might have been heard when it was composed. Modern stringed instruments, for example, have wire-wound strings which produce a fuller sound and project further than earlier models. Hogwood insisted on Baroque instruments with gut strings: cleaner, brighter, nimbler, subtler, more intimate. Woodwind and brass instruments went through a similar transformation, losing power and gaining clarity.

A 1980 review by the American critic John Rockwell of Hogwood’s recording of Handel’s Messiah gives an indication of the impact of his bracing music-making: “The revelatory results are like no Messiah ever heard before in this century. The biting edge of the gut strings, the airy buoyancy of the total instrumental ensemble, the utter transparency of the choral singing ... This is a Messiah that will no doubt elate Baroque purists and unsettle traditionalists. What cannot be disputed is the scholarly thoroughness of the conception and the sheer joyous brilliance of the execution.” Harry Christophers, one of the next generation of “early-instrument” conductors, commented that Hogwood “redefined our mission – to make the old sound new”.

Hogwood made over 200 recordings with the Academy, setting revelatory standards and then reinforcing them, earning himself a nickname as the von Karajan of early music. He remained its Music Director until 2006, becoming Emeritus Director when he passed the baton to Richard Egarr.

The young Hogwood progressed from Nottingham High School and The Skinners School, Tunbridge Wells to Pembroke College, Cambridge (1960-64). He read classics and music, falling under the influence of the harpsichordist Thurston Dart, one of the pioneers of the early-music revolution.

In 1965 he began a long association with The Academy of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, as continuo player, keyboard soloist and musicologist. And in 1967 he founded, with David Munrow, the Early Music Consort, the freshness of its first recordings leaving no doubt that a radical stylistic reappraisal was underway. He later described the approach as “completely speculative, a sort of inspired circus” – and the desire to replace that speculation with solid research became one of the guiding principles of his life. The foundation of The Academy of Ancient Music six years later gave him the platform to apply HIP to a much wider range of music.

His harpsichord recordings brought a reputation as one of Britain’s best young instrumentalists, and in 1973 he began the series of radio broadcasts, The Young Idea, on Radio 3 (1972-82), that made his voice a familiar one.

His tireless capacity for work saw him involved in a wide range of activities. Many of the Academy of Ancient Music’s recordings were made using his editions, and he continued to generate new ones. He sat on the editorial board of the periodical Early Music and on committees, councils and panels of countless other festivals, editions, projects and charities. He was an administrator, serving, inter alia, as Artistic Director of the King’s Lynn Festival, the Mostly Mozart festival at the Barbican and the Mozart Summer Festival in the US. He was patron or president of some 25 different organisations and taught at Keele; Cambridge (where he made his home); Harvard; King’s College, London; the Royal Academy of Music; Gresham College; and Cornell.

His books included works on the trio sonata, Handel, Haydn, Music at Court and keyboard music of the European Baroque; and essays flew off his desk – on Dowland, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell and others.

But it is principally as a music-maker that he will be remembered, conducting, often from the keyboard, a growing number of orchestras and a range of music that grew wider with the years. In 1986 he became artistic director of The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, one of America’s oldest performing bodies; he remained at its helm until 2001.

From 1987 to 1992 he was Director of Music for The St Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota, remaining principal guest conductor for six more years. Other principal guest conductorships followed, including in Basel, Granada, Milan and Poznan. Guest engagements made him familiar and popular, not least because he liked to talk to his audiences; his concerts were often sold out, especially in America.

He was active in opera, too, making his debut with Don Giovanni in St Louis in 1983. He conducted Purcell and Handel at the Royal Opera House, Stravinsky in Madrid and Mozart in Zurich, working also in Berlin, Houston, La Scala and Stockholm. Stravinsky was far from his only venture into 20th-century music, although he preferred composers who extended Baroque and Classical principles into current practice, such as Britten, Hindemith, Honegger, and, especially, Martinu, of whose music he became an enthusiastic champion.

Hogwood worked to refine the homespun, rather spiky sound of the early Academy into something more polished and smooth but later backtracked towards his original position, trying to get as close to the composer’s original intentions as possible. Personable and easy-going, for all his crusading zeal he was no dogmatist: “There’s nothing wrong with playing things historically incorrectly. Music is not a moral business, so you can play in a style that suits you and pleases your public.” Hogwood had it both ways: pleasing his public and cleaving closely to the musical truths established by his exacting scholarship.

Christopher Jarvis Haley Hogwood, harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist; born Nottingham 10 September 1941; CBE 1989; died Cambridge 24 September 2014.