Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012)

Revered keyboard player and period instrument pioneer dies aged 83

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The death has been reported of Gustav Leonhardt, the Dutch harpsichordist, organist, scholar and major figure in the period instrument movement.

Born in ‘s-Graveland in Holland in 1928, Leonhardt studied at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland before embarking on a career as a concert soloist in the early 1950s. At his debut concert in Vienna in 1950 he played Bach’s The Art of Fugue on a harpsichord, and it was primarily on the harpsichord and organ and in the work of composers from the Renaissance and Baroque periods that he excelled as a performer.

Not just any old harpsichord or organ, however. From the outset, Leonhardt’s interest lay firmly in playing antique instruments that had been restored or at least modern ones built on period principles.

Just as important, and fairly radical for the time, was his insistence in sticking rigidly to the composer’s original intentions, advocating studying the original score wherever possible. ‘A musician is obliged to reproduce a work of art as the composer might have conceived it,’ he said in an interview with The English Harpsichord Magazine in 1974, ‘so that the listener can be confronted with it as with an old painting. This may not be possible, but it should be our goal.’

Leonhardt’s work as a conductor and ensemble player was no less significant. As well as founding the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble in 1955, he and his contemporary Nikolaus Harnoncourt went on to make groundbreaking recordings of the entire cycle of Bach’s church cantatas.

A prolific recording artist both as a keyboard soloist and conductor, Leonhardt’s influence as a musicologist and teacher was considerable – his many pupils included leading period instrument players and scholars such as Christopher Hogwood, Richard Egarr, Ton Koopman, Davitt Moroney and Christophe Rousset.

'I had the great privilege and pleasure to have studied with Gustav and to know him a little personally,' remembers Egarr. 'Both he and his wife Marie were true pioneers in the field of historical performance. They clung to their ideals of thorough research coupled with (more importantly) a deeply musical and practical application of this knowledge.

'He was an aristocratic man, in some ways demonstrating odd contradictions. His living environment was utterly 18th century – a CD player and fax machine were, I think, grudging additions to the household. At the same time he had a passion for fast cars.  I remember going on a trip with him and Marie to see a couple of old organs in Holland, being carried there extremely fast along the Dutch motorway in his latest Alfa. After seeing the second organ somewhere in a small suburb it was late and dark and we were somewhat lost. No sat-nav of course. Gustav just looked up at the sky to get his bearings from the North Star...'

The recipient of awards worldwide, Leonhardt continued giving concerts right until last month – only after his harpsichord recital at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord on 12 December did he announce his retirement, at the age of 83.

Jeremy Pound

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