I was saddened today to read of the death at the age of 83 of Gustav Leonhardt, the great Dutch harpsichordist and early instruments conductor. Leonhardt, along with his colleague, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt were pioneers of the early music and performance practice movement, taking it from a little known and often derisively dismissed niche in classical music performance and scholarship in the 1960’s to an international movement that forever changed the performance of Baroque and Classical repertoire, even reaching out to Romantic and early modern music.
I first heard Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1975 in the early recording by Mr. Leonhardt (he would make another recording in later years). This was years before I formally studied music theory. Trying to understand the complexity of Bach’s harmonies, I told myself to hear the three primary triads (what in popular music is called a blues progression) in my head at every moment to discern how far afield Bach was going from the harmonic center. By the time I got to the 25th Variation, one of Bach’s supreme harmonic creations, I felt transported to another realm. It was as if my head was being slowly wrenched from my body. When I studied music theory a few years later at Towson University, one of my teachers was an organist who had studied with Leonhardt, and it was he who told me that Leonhardt thought his early recording of the Goldberg Variations was vastly inferior to his later one.
In my early days at WBJC, we received a recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos performed by the Leonhardt Consort. In an on-air, phone-in competition between the Paillard Chamber Orchestra and the Leonhardt Consort performances of the Bach, the Leonhardt Consort won hands down. Among the musicians who performed with Mr. Leonhardt were violinist Sigiswald Kuijken, cellist Anner Bylsma, flutist Frans Bruggen, and harpsichordist Ton Koopman, all future early instruments stars.
Leonhardt teamed up with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the early 1970’s to record the complete Bach cantatas for the first time in history. The two split conducting duties, and the project took twenty-one years to complete. I must admit, their cycle does not age well for me, but I still admire their perserverance, and acknowledge the cycle’s historic importance and influence.
When Leonhardt arrived on the scene, it was the norm to perform Bach concertos or Mozart symphonies with a full symphony orchestra, slowing down at the end of a phrase for effect. Choruses were often bombastic with excessive vibrato. In other words, Baroque and Classical music was being performed in the style of the late Romantic era. And many people felt it would be inaccessible to a contemporary audience otherwise. Leonhardt and Harnoncourt were the most prominent musicians, conductors, and teachers not only to research the performance styles of earlier times, but to insist that the music would be more effective if performed as originally intended.
Many complained that the old instruments sounded out of tune, but that was due to modern musicians lack of experience in playing them. Today two generations of musicians have grown up properly schooled in early instruments technique, just as contemporary singers of bel canto opera have revived a once lost art form. Even performance of Baroque and Classical music on modern instruments now reflects the awareness of authentic performance practice: smaller orchestras, less vibrato, stricter adherence to meter. Indeed, the word “authentic” itself has become passe, and it was Leonhardt himself who said there was no such thing as an “authentic” performance. After decades of recreating the style of the past, the early music movement has become comfortable enough to acknowledge that there is also room for individual interpretation. No two performances can ever, or should ever, sound the same.