Leonhardt and the harpsichord / Nicholas Anderson

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We give here Nicholas Anderson’s text for his contribution on this theme at our memorial concert for Gustav Leonhardt on 19 April 2012 at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London.

The varied achievements of Gustav Leonhardt have been well rehearsed in the many obituaries of his life that have appeared in the past three months. This is a more personal tribute. Unlike most conductors and many solo performers Gustav Leonhardt was a private man to almost all but some of his closest pupils. From him they learnt what Leonhardt most valued in the art of keyboard playing and in the building and voicing of the instruments themselves: virginals, harpsichords, or organs. Of equal importance to Leonhardt was the promotion of cleaner texts, free from the markings of Romanticism. His editions of Sweelinck’s music and his own ground-breaking study of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, published sixty years ago in The Hague, are enduring testaments in the first instance to Leonhardt’s own fastidious scholarship and in the second to his deeply held conviction that The Art of Fugue is Bach’s last harpsichord work. As a child of the 1940s and 1950s, I knew little of these matters even though I had already discovered that I loved the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially that of Bach. If you wanted to hear a harpsichord in those days it would almost certainly be in recordings made by Wanda Landowska, Ruggero Gerlin, and George Malcolm. There were of course others, but those three reigned supreme in Britain in the world of the 78 rpm disc and the early LP, or vinyl as we call it today. It was Landowska for Bach, Gerlin for Couperin, and Rameau and Malcolm for Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. Otherwise, with a few notable exceptions, it was Bach on the piano, an instrument along with the forte-piano which Leonhardt admitted to finding ugly. How different from George Malcolm who considered himself foremost a pianist and who once told me that at first the harpsichord did not interest him but that he’d been asked to play it and that everyone had liked it so much that he’d become a harpsichordist overnight, as it were.

It is a curious fact that, as small children, we often know when something isn’t right even if we can’t tell why. The mighty harpsichords of Pleyel in France, a great piano-making firm, though exciting and startling our senses in equal measure never sounded convincing to me, though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why. Then, in the mid-1950s I heard something quite extraordinary: an LP recital of Elizabethan and Jacobean music by Alfred Deller interspersed with instrumental pieces. Two of these, by Robert Johnson and Giles Farnaby were for solo harpsichord, played by someone called Gustav Leonhardt. Now I began to realize that I was on the threshold of a ‘nouvelle vague’. Gone were the exaggerated, extrovert gestures, and the uniform sound belonging to instruments of an earlier generation, to be replaced by playing that was fastidious in detail, subtle in rhythm and expression, restrained in tempo and gesture and impeccable in matters of taste. And my ears were opened in other ways too, by the participation on the same LP of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Eduard Melkus, forming part of a consort of viols. This was for me, as I know it was for some others of my generation, the point of no return.

There is no catch-all phrase to provide a convenient summary of Gustav Leonhardt’s influence on and contribution to seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth-century music. There are paradoxes a plenty about the man and the musician: the love of fast cars and the great dislike for the music of Handel are among the more surprising of them. There were unforgettable times, good times, and ever so marginally less good times, too, on the concert platform when it became clear that Leonhardt was not a demi-god but one of us, after all. What we all eagerly looked forward to in his harpsichord recitals was a rare spontaneity in which an occasional split note quite simply did not matter. We grew to expect something personal behind which lay an impassioned desire to share with his audience all the happy details of the music, which contributed to the bigger picture but which were invariably clothed in the language of restraint, that virtue so treasured by Corelli and many other late-seventeenth-century composers and writers. How we longed for those rare moments of heightened passion when Leonhardt’s right foot would be raised a few inches to descend at an expressive peak in the music. For seasoned concert-goers who were Leonhardt enthusiasts such moments were eagerly awaited and were always exhilarating.

Restraint was a central tenet of Leonhardt’s character. Fashion was something that made little or no appeal to him: his dislike of the commonplace, of wallpaper music, and of anything mass-produced placed him delightfully at odds with some of today’s values. Modern architecture and modern furniture made no appeal and he was not afraid to say so. Just a few days ago a friend of mine told me how Leonhardt had scorned the ‘democracy’ of windows on some flats near Clapham Common. I remember with affection an extended walk with him from Broadcasting House to St John’s, Smith Square, when the architecture of John Nash and Nicholas Hawksmoor was discussed, mainly by him with his modest but distinctive blend of erudition, enthusiasm, and desire to share ideas. Leonhardt could appear to some as dogmatic in his views. He was not, but a quiet assertiveness, a forceful ego and an absolute belief in his own values sometimes took unsuspecting colleagues by surprise.

A comprehensive summary of Leonhardt’s achievements belongs elsewhere. Personally, I shall remember him with gratitude and affection for illuminating paths which might otherwise have remained for ever in partial or total obscurity, for the many words of kindness to me offered by him and his wife Marie, and, above all for revealing to me hitherto undreamed of riches in the sounds of harpsichords as expressive rather than merely monochrome instruments. And we can remember him, too, playing the role of J.S. Bach in the film of Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1967). Leonhardt’s physiognomy seemed so plausibly Bach-like that we can imagine it is the composer, himself, in early middle age. The film is a visual and a musical delight.

Copyright © Nicholas Anderson 2012