The death of Gustav Leonhardt at the age of 83 brings to an end the career of one of the giants of the early music movement. As an organist, harpsichordist and conductor he was long at the forefront of the experiments and revelations that the drive to perform music on period instruments made possible. He will be remembered for being fearless in his single-minded pursuit of what he thought his chosen repertoires required. And he was producing peerless recordings of those repertoires right from the beginning which — one forgets — was in the late ’40s.
The term ‘early music’, and its demanding fellow traveller ‘authenticity’, have had a long innings. If one were talking in terms of the title of a revolution in modern concert practice one could say the battle has been won and the barriers taken down. As a more general remark it still has a useful application, though the point at which ‘early’ ceases to be early enough to qualify as being early is moot. Whether choral music was really part of the revolution is equally moot, since one cannot dig up old voices and blow air through them, and descriptions of what singing was like in the past are not accurate enough to inform anything useful now. But with instruments the cleaning out of later practices and expectations was really a revolution in taste, which Leonhardt helped to foment.
Most of those pioneers are still alive and still active. Of the really significant figures only David Munrow is long gone; but Harnoncourt, Brüggen, the Kuijkens, Koopman and Hogwood are pursuing distinguished careers into old age, working to blend the lessons of 30 and 40 years ago with the modern symphony sound that they have all helped to refashion. There are other names one might include here — like John Eliot Gardiner’s — but in an article about Leonhardt it is necessary to maintain the distinction between a pioneer and a follower. Gardiner launched his career in 1964 with a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers, but did not change to period instruments until 1977. By that time Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus had been in existence for at least 20 years; and Leonhardt had been arguing the merits of the harpsichord for quite as long. The pioneers took risks: with completely new sounds, with the repertoires that went with them, and with the public.
One notices the preponderance of Dutch names in the list, with the implication of a Protestant cast of mind. Perhaps it was necessary for the original spark of the performing revolution to come from people who took a tough and principled view of life. Leonhardt on stage rarely smiled and could look dismissive. He had the way of someone who was not for turning, who was above pursuing any musical end simply in order to charm an audience. He once said ‘even if I had one person listening, or none at all, I would have not changed any of my decisions’. Some of this rigid determination had been necessary during his young life, part of which was spent in the Dutch countryside under German occupation. He told of how in the last months of the war he had had to hide under the floorboards of the family house in order not to be sent away as slave labour, and how he beguiled the time by working out fingerings for the pieces that had taken his fancy. His first public appearance defined the man: Bach’s Art of Fugue, played on the harpsichord: difficult, unfamilar music in the late ’40s, usually played, if at all, on the organ. Leonhardt always maintained that Bach had intended it for the harpsichord and in this, as in everything else, he never wavered.
Something of Leonhardt’s unsmiling seriousness of purpose has carried into our current view of authenticity in early music, which has in turn led to a reaction: ‘Let’s make the music we perform interesting to our audiences and ignore the learned articles that threaten to strangle us.’ The trendy term for early music these days is ‘beardy’. But really we are lucky. If the pioneers hadn’t established the music we want to do, we would not be in the privileged position we find ourselves in. Leonhardt’s complete Bach cantata cycle, for example, recorded with Harnoncourt, was a landmark achievement which facilitated much that followed. As did his playing. One of his pupils, Mahan Esfahani, wrote recently: ‘His presence is so overwhelming and of such influence that we cannot deny how it totally changed our view of the harpsichord.’
Of course Bach isn’t as early as all that. Really Early Music predates ‘early music’, and did not come to the attention of the general concert-going public until many years after these people first set out their stalls. More pioneering and another revolution followed: this time based in singing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 7, 2012