Almost two years ago, I attended the funeral of Gustav Leonhardt and wrote a brief blog post which I quickly withdrew, despite the fact that it attracted more attention than anything else which I’ve ever written. Somehow, publishing it just seemed wrong.
On the second anniversary of Leonhardt’s passing, I’ve decided that it’s now appropriate to share what I wrote.
Gustav Leonhardt’s funeral was held yesterday in the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where he and his wife were regular church-goers. The church is just round the corner from Leonhardt’s house on the Herengracht.
Seven hundred people were invited and there were a further 100 places available. Although I’ve not always gone to Leonhardt’s concerts when I could have, I felt sure that I should attend this “farewell gathering” – which was not a service, as no priest was involved.
The church was, obviously, bristling with early music celebrities, from cellist Anner Bijlsma and violinist Lucy van Dael, who both played with Leonhardt from the earliest days, to Bart and Sigiswald Kuijken, who’d joined in later; the recorder player Marion Verbruggen; ex-student Pierre Hantaï; the bass Max van Egmond and Harvard professor, Christoph Wolff, to name but a very few.
Bernard Winsemius who, with Leonhardt, had been joint organist of Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk for more than 30 years, unsurprisingly played only Bach, on the main organ. Before the service, he played the Siciliano from the Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1053 and the Fugue in b minor, BWV 544b.
In the opening remarks – given in both English and Dutch – we were told that Gustav Leonhardt himself had exactly specified what should happen today, apart from choosing the short Biblical quotations and hymns, with only two or three of the verses of each being sung.
These consisted of Psalm 116 (Geneva Psalter), Hymn 429 (Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten), Hymn 271 (Ach, wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig) and Hymn 432 (Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan).
We also learned that Leonhardt had written some “profound observations at the end of a long and beautiful life”, which would be read at the end.
When these came, I tried to make notes, but there was just too much to take in, and this distillation of Leonhardt’s philosophy and religious beliefs (given in Dutch with quotes in Latin, French and German) was simply too complicated to grasp fully at first hearing.
The ceremony ended with a reading of the text from the final chorale of Bach’s St. John Passion, Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein, which was then played on the organ.
As we all put on our coats, I smiled and nodded to complete strangers whose eyes, like mine, were welling with emotion and respect for this exceptional musician. He will stay in our memories for a very long time to come.
Here’s Gustav Leonhardt playing movements from Louis Couperin’s Suite in D, in a Dutch TV programme in 2001
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