In Early Music, how famous is “famous enough”?

Mary Potts and Gustav Leonhardt © Estate of Mary Potts 2012

Following on from my last post on Mary Potts, the forgotten harpsichord teacher of many, including Christopher Hogwood and Colin Tilney (who, like Professor Peter Williams, went on to study with Gustav Leonhardt), I’ve been looking into who else, from Mary’s circle, is remembered – or not.

What’s clear is that being commemorated apparently has little to do with recordings made, concerts given or academic posts held. Many musicians who were very famous in their lifetimes have now disappeared almost without trace. Perhaps it’s more important to have tenacious musical executors who are determined to keep someone’s memory alive, or at least get some recognition for them.

For instance …

Thurston Dart got a memorial volume, 10 years after his death, published by the company for which he did much editing. But, as I mentioned here, only a handful of pages is devoted to describing his life, and the rest consists of erudite articles by his students on subjects that would have interested him.

Howard Ferguson, the composer and prolific music editor, who was also a long-term friend of Mary’s, didn’t. But apart from his “tight-lipped memoir”, he was heavily involved – just before he died – in the publication of Letters of Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson, which represents a hefty slice of his life. There is also a very fulsome 70th birthday tribute, written by Howard Schott in Early Music.

Captain Raymond Russell, author and instrument collector (of the Russell Collection in Edinburgh) didn’t get a memorial publication; and there’s almost no biographical information about him at all, though I did find someone who knew him from childhood.


Please comment below. Who else, in your view, is an unjustly forgotten early music pioneer?

David Munrow, more than 30 years after his death, still doesn’t have a biography – though there is quite an extensive website with a forum – and a symposium is now in the pipeline.

Professor E.J. Dent, the musicologist, writer and translator (whom Mary Potts must have known, as he had a keen interest in early keyboards, and owned a clavichord of sorts (see page 6 of this pdf) is remembered in Duet for Two Voices: An Informal Biography of Edward Dent Compiled from his Letters to Clive Carey, published in 1980. But before that came out (he died in 1957), there was only a 30-page booklet printed in 400 copies.

Boris Ord, the conductor and organist, and another regular in Mary’s kitchen, is remembered in a similarly slim tome, privately printed and by the same author, composer Philip Radcliffe. Ord was a brilliant choir-trainer who was “revered” by Thurston Dart and greatly influenced Sir David Willcocks, who succeeded him as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge.

Interestingly, though, Charles Cudworth, the music historian and Pendlebury librarian who was a protégé of Dent’s (and best known for his scholarly articles and his kind reviews in the Cambridge newspaper, and for writing notes for record sleeves) is celebrated in a substantial volume called Music in Eighteenth-Century England, edited by Christopher Hogwood and Richard Luckett. The fascinating foreword to this book outlines Cudworth’s very unconventional career.

Last, and definitely not least: Gustav Leonhardt, who has sadly recently passed away. Given his pre-eminence, it’s surprising that, although there are many interviews, there’s only a single book written about him, in French. Oddly, even The Keyboard in Baroque Europe, compiled as a Festschrift for Gustav Leonhardt on his 75th birthday and published by Cambridge University Press, might not have seen the light of day without financial support from a Dutch music dealer.

Printed matter apart, we can also remember Leonhardt through his 200-plus recordings, mostly listed in this online catalogue (type in “Gustav Leonhardt”). And, despite the poor quality, I must admit that I’m glad that we do have some videos of him – taken with mobile phones. But what I’ve never really understood is why his performances, many lectures and master classes were almost never professionally recorded; particularly given that his LPs, from as long ago as the early 1960s, have been endlessly reissued. Surely, there must have been a market …

To end with, here’s a rarity, with Leonhardt, in his prime, conducting a Bach cantata in the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam in the 1970s, with a band of top-notch players, including Ton Koopman on the chamber organ.


See also these posts:

The forgotten harpsichord teacher of Christopher Hogwood & Colin Tilney

Gustav Leonhardt (1928–2012), the end of an era

“A Long and Beautiful Life”: A tribute to Gustav Leonhardt by Ton Koopman

How famous is scholar, conductor and harpsichordist Thurston Dart, 40 years on? Part 1

How famous is scholar, conductor and harpsichordist Thurston Dart, 40 years on? Part 2


Please comment below. Who else, in your view, is an unjustly forgotten early music pioneer?

6 comments to In Early Music, how famous is “famous enough”?

  • Li Ruiting

    Alfred Deller

  • Douglas Amrine

    The reason why Leonhardt’s live performances were not recorded is that he did not wish them to be and very rarely gave permission. He had very strong views on the difference between live performance and recordings; he did not think that these were interchangeable. He also did not want any books to be written about him, which made it difficult for any would-be biographer; his friends and close associates respected his privacy and were unlikely to give much information to a biographer.

    He was not particularly fond of being filmed either. But there were a few exceptions:

    Leonhardt conducting and explaining (in Dutch) the story of a Bach secular cantata

    Extensive interview given by Leonhardt for Dutch TV (in Dutch)

    Short extracts of an interview (in German) [I wonder what happened to the rest? Ed.]

    There is also a DVD set about the history of the organ which includes Leonhardt playing a wonderful Buxtehude praeludium on the organ of the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam.

    • bnadmin

      Given the scarcity of material, I’m delighted that Frans Brüggen has given me permission to translate and publish extracts from an interview that he gave about Leonhardt. And the post that I’ve previously mentioned on Leonhardt’s childhood, which I’m writing in cooperation with Leonhardt’s sister, Trudelies, is also still in the pipeline.

  • Andie Campbell

    “David Munrow, more than 30 years after his death, still doesn’t have a biography – though there is quite an extensive website with a forum – and a symposium is now in the pipeline. ”

    A David Munrow Symposium? This is news to me! Can you please post more details regarding the symposium or point your readers to the event coordinator? Will appreciate any info! 🙂

    • bnadmin

      Symposium, in the sense of a collection of essays on a particular subject by a number of contributors, not an event, I’m afraid. I’ll announce the publication when it’s finally ready, likely with a post about Munrow.

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