Gustav Leonhardt symposium report, Utrecht, August 2012.

Guest blogger: Dr. Jed Wentz (Flutist and operatic conductor, founder of Musica ad Rhenum, teacher at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.)


One of the joys of working on the STIMU [Foundation for Historical Performance Practice] symposium entitled Much of what we do is pure hypothesis: Gustav Leonhardt and his early music has been to discover just how subtle and consistent the thought processes of Leonhardt were over the course of his performing career. Indeed, he showed a marked difference to those in the early music business who believe they know what authentic performances should sound like.

Leonhardt was quite different, and although adoring fans were happy to see in him the reincarnation of J. S. Bach, he himself stressed, over and over again, the hypothetical nature of early music performance practice. That he offered solutions to problems presented by the music of the past to performing musicians of today is beyond question; that he found a musical language that spoke to generations of music-lovers in a profound way is almost a platitude; but that he himself realized the fragility of the entire early music construction is much less well understood.

The STIMU symposium brought to light just how great a difference there was between Leonhardt’s thought and that of the ‘authenticity’ movement on which American musicologist Richard Taruskin heaped so much scorn in the 1990s. Our intent was to explore the earliest portion of Leonhardt’s career (up until the presentation of the Erasmus Prize that he and Nikolaus Harnoncourt received in 1980 for the Bach cantata cycle), as well as to showcase the latest research into the Northern European repertoire he so loved: that of Sweelinck to Bach.

The symposium opened with a showing of the Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach by Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, introduced by the American musicologist Kailan Rubinoff. The theatre was full and the film made a deep impression on the audience, though it is by no means an easy one to digest.

Early Influences

The first session of the symposium examined the conflicts between the early music approach of Concertgebouw conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Naarden Circle (who founded the Dutch Bach Society in the 1920s in order to present Bach’s Matthew Passion as a liturgical, rather than as an aesthetic, masterpiece). Presentations by Frits Zwart and myself worked in tandem to compare this early material: Zwart played examples from Mengelberg’s very passionate and Romantic Matthew Passion performances and explained his philosophy of early music, which was not informed by notions of authenticity.

My own contribution examined Leonhardt’s musical education at the hands of Anthon van der Horst, who at that time conducted the Dutch Bach Society. Van der Horst, in contrast to Mengelberg, had a liturgical and ‘authentic’ approach to Bach’s music. In the course of the lecture I also presented new information about Leonhardt’s period at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, including a discussion of his master’s thesis. I argued that the Basel period was most notable for Leonhardt’s in-depth study of J. S. Bach’s notation, as well as for the discovery of much earlier repertoire (early Renaissance polyphony and monophony) in performances led by one of the founders of the Schola, Ina Lohr.

The second session of the day invoked the post-Basel period, in which Leonhardt’s career began to take off. Nicholas Clapton presented fascinating evidence of the influence that the English countertenor Alfred Deller had on Leonhardt, comparing recordings both artists made in order to draw conclusions about Leonhardt’s famous ‘rubato’ technique.

His lecture was followed by that of Kailan Rubinoff, who presented Leonhardt’s early career in the context of 1960s Dutch politics, the rise of new-fangled ‘hi-fi’ sound systems and the radical, historic events that shook the world in 1968.

The afternoon ended with a round-table discussion, led by Leo Samama, in which Ton Koopman, Menno van Delft and Richard Egarr summoned up memories of Leonhardt as teacher and source of inspiration.


The North German School

The second day of the symposium, which was curated by Dutch musicologist Pieter Dirksen (who has published important works on both Sweelinck and J. S. Bach), was devoted to the study of the works of composers from the so-called North German School. Dirksen and Stephen Rose examined the works of Georg Böhm; Lars Berglund and Geoffrey Webber explored Italian influences of Baltic composers and on Buxtehude; and Ulf Grapenthin (who gave a moving personal testimony of Leonhardt as colleague and source of inspiration) and Peter Wollny looked at Johann Adam Reincken’s work and influence.

These presentations all looked at stylistic characteristics of the music Leonhardt had so loved, and they hypothesized about how musical styles were transmitted from country to country and between composers, during the course of the 17th century. Michael Maul however, in the first presentation of the day, revealed new information from the archives of the Thomasschule in Leipzig that undoubtedly will have ramifications for the one-to-a-part theory of Bach’s choral works. Leonhardt himself was violently against the one-to-a-part theory, and would certainly have been pleased to know that an important new contribution to the debate was made during a symposium dedicated to his legacy.

Leonhardt’s career

The final day of the symposium saw a return to the theme of Leonhardt’s career.

It began, however, with a lecture by Thérèse de Goede which showed how the study of hexachords and the contemporary rules of voice-leading can result in fresh and exciting performances, a perfect example of how theory and practice can go hand and hand to create exciting music-making.

In the afternoon, Martin Elste, of the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung PK, Berlin, talked about the differences in conception of the harpsichord in the work of Wanda Landowska and Leonhardt, giving each performer their due without judging one or the other.

Gaëtan Naulleau spoke of the Bach Cantata cycle and its influence, and exposed some of the clever marketing techniques which would eventually steer the course of the entire early music industry firmly towards ‘authenticity’.

In what was surely, for many in the audience, the highlight of the afternoon, John Butt gave a thrilling talk, in a typically virtuosic fashion, on the larger context of the early music movement, and proposed its best way forward.

I also presented a selection of film footage drawn from the Dutch Television archives. [Leonhardt was shown, in his very early days, playing continuo while someone else conducted; playing in a children’s programme of fairy tales and in a Saturday night variety show – wearing tails – after the BBC Toppers (famous for the Black and White Minstrel Show) had performed a pseudo eighteenth-century dance routine. Finally, we saw him being interviewed at home, looking slightly ill at ease, in the early seventies.]

This was already an embarrassingly rich programme of events, but there was more: Johan Hofmann and Kathryn Cok both presented hour-long Summer school events, the former about a reconstruction of Sweelinck’s harpsichord and the latter on little-known Dutch basso continuo sources. Both of these topics would have interested Leonhardt deeply.

Summing up

As I mentioned above, the symposium was meant both as a retrospective of Leonhardt’s career and influence, and as provoking thought about the future of the early music movement. But here, once again, Leonhardt was ahead of us. He himself had thought about the way forward. When he told a friend and former student in 2010 that he wanted all of his recordings to turn to dust, he did so because he believed that it was for the good of the movement itself: he had no desire to become an icon, and in so doing, become an obstruction between a new generation of performers and the works themselves.

Leonhardt knew that the masterpieces of the past must continue to be approached directly, not through the medium of editors or interpreters, no matter how great or revered such editors or interpreters might be. He understood that the way forward lies not the preservation, but in the destruction, of the immediate past.

No matter how great the legacy of Leonhardt, imitation is not the path before us.


Here’s a video of Leonhardt playing the harpsichord that he used in his last concert in Italy.

 © Jed Wentz 2012

 © Semibrevity 2012

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