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 Gustav Leonhardt

Gustav Leonhardt gave his last recital on December 12th, in Paris, and died on January 16th, 2012 at his home, in Amsterdam, aged 83.  

In France’s Le nouvel Observateur (16 January 2012), one can read that

Avec Gustav Leonhardt le “grand style” s’est éteint.

My best translation of this headline is that with the death of Gustav Leonhardt the “grand style” has died.  Éteindre means to extinguish or to turn off as in turning off the lights.  On éteint la lumière, but on s’éteint (one dies).

Gustav Leonhardt died at his home, a seventeenth-century house, in Amsterdam. After he gave his last recital in Paris, on December 12, 2011, he told Olivier Mantei, director of the Bouffes du Nord:

« C’était mon dernier concert, parce que je vais mourir, je suis content de l’avoir fait ici, car j’aime bien cette salle. »* 

*This was my last concert because I’m going to die, I’m glad this was the last place I played, as I like this hall. 

Christian Merlin, in “Le messager de Bach,” Le Figaro.

Lady Standing at the Virginal (c. 1672-1673), Johannes Vermeer (click on picture to enlarge it)

Biographical notes

Born in 1928, Gustav Leonardt, harpsichordist, organist, conductor and gifted teacher, studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis from 1947 to 1950.  He gave his first concert in Vienna in 1950 and played JS Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue).  He remained in Vienna where he studied musicology and taught the harpsichord at the Vienna Academy of Music (1925 – 1955).  As of 1954, he was professor of harpsichord at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

« Le grand style »

Gustav Leonhardt was a gentleman.  In fact he was the very embodiment of “l’honnête homme,” refined, elegant and restrained: an aristocrat.  These adjectives could also be used to describe the manner in which he played the harpsichord.  But one would have to add that Monsieur Leonhardt had a profound understanding of music, which is very rare.  Hearing him play the harpsichord was a spell-binding experience.  This is perhaps the effect “le grand style” has on a listener.

JS Bach and Magdalena: Gustav Leonhardt as actor

Gustav Leonhardt was particularly fond of Bach and edited JS Bach Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080) or The Art of the Fugue and also edited pieces by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck  (April or May, 1562 – Amsterdam, 16 October 1621).  Moreover, Monsieur Leonhardt was an actor.  He played the role of Bach in the “Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach” (1967),  Anna Magdalena was Bach’s second wife and a fine musician.  However, Gustav Leonhardt never completed his project, the recording of all of Bach’s cantatas.

The Leonhardt’s Baroque Ensemble and the Leonhardt Consort

At the moment, it is quite common to think of harpsichordists as soloists, but that is a bit of a misconception.  For instance, Mr Leonhardt’s Baroque Ensemble collaborated with Alfred Deller, the famed British counter-tenor.  The Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble and Mr Deller recorded JS Bach’s Cantatas BWV 54 and BWV 170.  Other than Mr Leonhardt, members of the Ensemble were Mr Leonhardt’s wife Marie and Eduard Melkus (violons), Alice Hoffelner (viola) and her husband, the celebrated cellist Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt or Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  Later, he formed the Leonhardt Consort.

As I was Browsing the internet in search of information on Monsieur Leonhardt, I found the names of composers who had written for the harpsichord, or one of the “virginals.” 

Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Heinrich Biber, John Blow, Georg Böhm, William Byrd, André Campra, Francois Couperin, Louis Couperin, John Dowland, Jacques Duphly, Antoine Forqueray, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jakob Froberger, Orlando Gibbons, André Grétry, George Frideric Handel, Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Georg Muffat, Johann Pachelbel, Henry Purcell, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Christian Ritter, Johann Rosenmuller, Domenico Scarlatti, Agostino Steffani, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Georg Philipp Telemann, Manuel Valls, Antonio Vivaldi, and Matthias Weckmann.

In memoriam

So I will read these names aloud in memory of Gustav Leonhardt who is among the persons who helped give my life a meaning.  Afterwards, I might go and play a few “tombeaux,” in memoriam pieces as they were often called during the Baroque era.  The Couperins composed many tombeaux (plural for tombeau: coffin). The word “consolation” was also used, especially in the seventeenth century.  *And rose, she lived as roses live, / A morning’s sigh  [my rewriting].

*Et rose elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses,
L’espace d’un matin.

Malherbe, Consolation à M. Du Périer (1598)

 (please click on the titles to hear the music)

February 25th, 2012