AMSTERDAM – Gustav Leonhardt, who has died aged 83, was a Dutch harpsichordist and conductor and a pioneer of the early music movement; he brought to post-war Europe a new understanding of how the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his early 18th-century contemporaries could be performed.
Instead of big orchestras, baton-waving conductors and the shimmering rubato so beloved of the Victorian and Edwardian audiences, Leonhardt considered the way that the composer might have experienced his music: a simple sound, a clean line and minimal ornamentation. He unearthed expressive qualities that had disappeared under the weight of romantic-style performances.
Years of intensive study and pioneering performances moulded him into the expert of choice for many, yet he had no truck with the word “authentic” to describe his work. “It doesn’t exist in music as it does in painting or a piece of sculpture,” he insisted.
Although Leonhardt regarded Bach as “the greatest genius that ever lived in the history of music”, he readily admitted, in an interview with The Scotsman in 2001, that in the early days of his research “the early music scene was all a bit black and white”. He made it his mission to inject more colour into the early music spectrum. Couperin and Leroux became staple composers of a Leonhardt recital. Telemann was never far away, and the music of Ritter, Böhm and Reincken gradually received an airing.
To those who said that the sound of the harpsichord was too thin to carry in a modern hall, he insisted that it was the audience, not the venue, that should change. “When the ear of the listener can adapt to that level and refinement, it is one of the finest instruments around,” he insisted.
The silver-haired figure, with his high forehead and long craggy face, would reverently approach the harpsichord, raising the casket’s lid in an almost funereal manner before bringing life to the music of the long-dead composers whose cause he championed with such reserved passion.
His performing activities included accompanying Alfred Deller in some of the earliest recordings of Bach cantatas (“It was his diction and ability to convey words that was unsurpassed,” Leonhardt once said of the countertenor) and founding the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble, later the Leonhardt Consort, which specialised in 17th-century music by composers such as Scheidt, Biber and the English composers of that period.
Although he conducted from time to time, Leonhardt always maintained that it was “too easy” to be worthy of serious pursuit. “It’s the best-paid way out, and you can’t play or sing a wrong note,” he insisted. Meanwhile, generations of early music specialists — many of them now leading practitioners — sought his counsel at the Sweelinck Conservatoire in Amsterdam.
Any Leonhardt recital, but especially one of later years, had an air of occasion and precision about it. Unsmiling, but courteous, he bore the sombre demeanour of an austere, discreet clergyman or a minor European aristocrat. Just occasionally there could be a hint of mischief, such as a piece of ragtime thrown in after an account of Scarlatti, but that was the exception rather than the norm. Handel was the one composer of the era for whom he held little affection, noting that the composer of Messiah “wrote for a mass audience”.
As Le Monde deftly noted, he was to the harpsichord what Sviatoslav Richter had been to the piano: mysterious, self-effacing, introspective, uncompromising and prone to flashes of unexpected brilliance within an already brilliant performance. Like Richter, he spoke little and gave away even less about his innermost thoughts and feelings. Asked in 2002 what a pair of new recordings meant for him, he replied simply: “Both a little and a lot.” Pressed further, he concluded: “It’s not for me to say whether they are beautiful to listen to.”
Gustav Maria Leonhardt was born into a Protestant family in ’s-Graveland, North Holland, on May 30 1928. His parents played chamber music together and his father, a businessman, was on the board of the local Bach Society. By the time Gustav was 10 a harpsichord had been acquired to enable the reluctant boy to join the family soirées.
The war years brought hardship for the family — no electricity or water, and little food — and for the last year he was hiding from the Germans (who would have used him as forced labour), unable to attend school.
In 1947 Leonhardt entered the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied with Eduard Müller, an organist who introduced him to the piped instrument. After three years, however, his parents, concerned that early music held few prospects, sent him to Vienna to enrol on a conducting course with Hans Swarowsky; but he spent most of his time squirrelled away in the National Library exploring thousands of original sources and manuscripts, laboriously copying them by hand. Many have since been published. He also produced a monograph, Bach’s Art of Fugue.
While in Vienna, he met Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the two were soon performing together. But before long they had gone their separate ways. Harnoncourt remained in Vienna, insisting that new and old could rub along together; Leonhardt returned to Amsterdam in 1953 to establish an aesthetic school of thought that would forever be uncompromising.
“I’m not interested in modern ears,” he once told Nicholas Kenyon, when pressed on whether adapting his musical style to make it more palatable to the contemporary listener might be a good idea. “Harnoncourt is a different character and he goes for compromise consciously,” he said, adding that he would never countenance an audience that needed “a little more sugar instead of salt”. Nevertheless, between 1971 and 1990 Leonhardt and Harnoncourt shared a successful Bach cantata series for the Teldec record label.
Soon the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble was formed, just five string players and a harpsichord, dedicated to performing the manuscripts that he had uncovered in a manner in which, he believed, the composer, his musicians and their audience would have experienced them three centuries earlier. Among those he worked with were his wife Marie, the Kuijken brothers, the cellist Anner Bylsma and the recorder player Frans Brüggen.
His appearances at British concert halls were not so infrequent that his name was forgotten, but nor were they so frequent that they lacked the air of a special occasion. His account of Bach’s Mass in B minor at the South Bank’s Towards Bach series in 1989 was a sublime occasion, an interpretation that, noted one critic, “seemed to lead most directly to the Mass’s heart”. During a recital at the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, Leonhardt surprised his audience by briefly dropping his reserve and explaining of a deservedly little known piece by Bach that “even genius has to be young sometimes”.
Although concert organisers called upon him to conduct, Leonhardt was not an enthusiast — and nor were the critics. After an account of Bach’s St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square in 1999 (no applause was permitted at such a spiritual occasion), one critic described his “arms rotating in circles [making] the piece heave like a boat in a storm”.
Similarly, there were occasional forays to the United States and to France, where in 1985 he conducted Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea from the harpsichord in Nancy, although he expressed his dismay at the use of electric lighting rather than oil lamps for the stage.
In 1967 he starred as Johann Sebastian Bach — powdered and bewigged — in Jean-Marie Straub’s film Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach, recalling how “I thought that it would be horrible” but “on the set I just did what I do normally: playing the harpsichord and organ, and conducting”. It was a rare occasion when the actor was also able to perform the music to the requisite standard without the need for any editing or substitution.
For many years Leonhardt lived in a delightful cream-and-brick 1605 house, once the residence of Italian bankers, on the banks of the attractive Herengracht canal in the centre of Amsterdam. There, in an oasis of tranquillity and overlooking a French-style garden in the midst of the bustling city, he would welcome visitors to his vast 18th-century drawing room with old-world courtesy.
He had become critical of certain compromises within the baroque world. “You buy a cheap modern violin and put gut strings on it and buy a sort of old bow, and that’s it,” he complained — although he acknowledged that there are some excellent young players around.
He was the only jury member of the triennial international harpsichord competition in Bruges to serve on all 16 juries since it began in 1965, but was relieved that he was always able to choose his students. “Unlike Bach, I never had to teach little hooligans,” he once told Goldberg Early Music Magazine.
On one occasion he did venture into the relative avant-garde, making a pair of recordings of music by Mozart on an 18th-century fortepiano, but it was an experience not to be repeated.
“I prefer the direct contact you get with the string [on a harpsichord],” he once said in his calm, melodious voice. “You don’t get that with the fortepiano. I just don’t like the instrument.” What he would have made of a modern concert grand piano remains undocumented.
Leonhardt was never one to make much of a fuss; after a recital in Paris on December 12 2011, he announced, without fanfare, that it had been his last.
Although he indulged in fine wine and fast cars, Leonhardt remained a staunch Protestant. Asked to conduct Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Leipzig in May one year, he spluttered: “After Easter? A passion? After Christ’s Resurrection? In Bach’s own church? I couldn’t possibly entertain the idea.”
He was married to the Swiss violinist Marie Amsler.
Gustav Leonhardt, born May 30 1928, died January 16 2012