Memories of Leonhardt / Mark Deller

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

This is something by way of a personal recollection about Gustav Leonhardt; others better qualified than I can testify to his outstanding reputation and legacy as a renowned harpsichordist, organist, musicologist, and teacher.

I suppose I was 16 or 17 when I first met Utti, although I’m sure I was never so bold at that time to address him in such a familiar way. Despite the fact that he was only some ten years my senior, he was already established as one of the world’s leading early music specialists, and his somewhat austere and authoritative demeanour commanded immediate deference and respect.

My father, Alfred Deller (who incidentally would have been 100 next month) had just, in 1954, signed a contract with Vanguard Records in America, which, under the inspired direction of Seymour Solomon, with its Bach Guild label had recently established a classical wing to its operation. I suppose that Alfred, who had by that time made a significant impact on the musical world with his revival of the counter-tenor voice, must have already given some concerts with the Leonhardts, probably at the Holland Festival. But for the very first recordings that he made for Vanguard, he enlisted the support of the Leonhardt Ensemble, and together they produced some of the first performances of early music on disc, using what we now quaintly call ‘original instruments’. As well as Marie and Gustav Leonhardt, the players included a young Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his wife Alice, still experimenting with the use of ‘authentic’ instruments. These early discs (remember that the LP was still in its infancy) were truly ground-breaking, for it was to be more than 20 years before it became de rigeur to perform music of this period on such instruments.

Alfred was 42 at the time; unlike most young counter-tenors today, who probably press (or perhaps it should be ‘squash’) their first CD in their early twenties, Alfred was close to 40 by the time he burst on to the scene. He was almost twenty years older than the youthful Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, but, as a self-taught, intuitive musician himself, he quickly recognized in them the scholarship, as well as the technical expertise, that they brought to their performance – something which to a large extent had been missing from his own education. That said, the mutual respect that each had for the other, is evident from the tributes both these ‘giants’ of the early music world paid to Alfred at the time of his death more than thirty years ago: ‘I consider Alfred, without his knowing, as one of my foremost teachers’, said Utti, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt remarked that ‘he was the most important singer of the blossoming early music movement’.

When I was a burgeoning young counter-tenor in the 1960s, and began to sing duet recitals with Alfred, I was lucky enough to give several concerts with Utti, Frans Brüggen and the Kuijkens among others, both in Holland and Belgium (quite often staying with Utti and Marie at their wonderful house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam) as well as here in England. Somewhere in the BBC archives there exists (unless it has been expunged along with the lost Hancock tapes) a recording of me, with Alfred, singing the Blow ‘Ode on the death of Henry Purcell’, accompanied by Frans Brüggen and David Munrow, with I think Anner Bylsma on cello, and Utti at the harpsichord – a particular concert that I shall always remember with great affection and a certain amount of pride!

Alfred and Utti had a strong bond of friendship, born not just of their musical affinity and an acute shared sense of humour – I recall Utti’s particular delight when the three of us ‘escaped’ on a free afternoon one day between concerts in Amsterdam, to watch a showing of the Marx Brothers film A night at the opera – yes, their shared sense of humour, but also their strongly-held personal religious conviction, and their mutual concern for humanity at large. As a result, the Dellers and the Leonhardts developed close family ties, which were enriched by regular visits to our respective homes.

Utti was one of the first international artists to perform, on several occasions, at the Stour Music festival, which Alfred started in Kent in the early 1960s and which this summer celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. On his first visit, he came to give a recital on one of the splendid eighteenth-century instruments in the famous Colt Clavier Collection, then housed at Bethersden in Kent. Later during that same festival, Andrew Garrett (who with Richard Clayson had just recently set up their Early Keyboard Instruments workshop) recalls, that Utti was ‘kind enough to try the elaborate machine we had provided for Collegium Aureum. I can remember pointing out, probably not without a certain amount of self-satisfaction’, says Andrew, ‘our having developed some new “improvement” or other, and I shall never forget the way in which Leonhardt said, not unkindly, but still with forceful disapproval, “What a pity!” ’

Andrew had a similar experience with the harpsichordist Walter Bergmann – that delightful refugee to our shores (‘Alfred, I am Breetish now…’). Andrew, having explained to him which pedal did what, he said: ‘Please, again tell me, what is the least 8 foot it can make.’

I think Utti would have enjoyed that story, as indeed I think he would Walter’s comment to me on another occasion, immediately after Alfred’s funeral in 1979. During the service we had sung a short anthem, ‘O Lord increase my faith’ by Henry Loosemore, a piece which had made such a strong impression on Alfred in his teens. ‘Mark’, said Walter, ‘zis piece “O Lord increase my faith” – it is by Gibbons, ja?’ ‘Yes Walter’, I said, ‘it always was by Gibbons, till you musicologists got hold of it and decided it was by Loosemore!’ ‘Ah yes’, he replied, after a pause, and with a twinkle in his eye: ‘It is not such a good piece now!’

Gustav Leonhardt was the personification of a gentleman. In fact, a ‘gentle’ man. As Davitt Moroney commented in a recent article: ‘His exquisite, reserved courtesy was legendary, but his manners were not just something from another age and another world; to him they were a philosophy of life.’ To be sure, he was an example to us all, and those of us who were lucky enough to have known him, have indeed been blessed.

Copyright © Mark Deller 2012