Gustav Leonhardt, Baron of the Baroque

Gustav Leonhardt, Baron of the Baroque

Published: September 21, 2011 (Issue # 1675)


Gustav Leonhardt gives virtuoso performances around the world on the harpsichord, organ and hammerklavier.

Gustav Leonhardt, the living legend of baroque music, does not leave anything in his life to chance. Ask this unfailingly elegant, somewhat austere, aristocratic-looking Dutchman in his mid-80s about his car preferences, and he offers a knock-out answer as to why he orders individually-designed cars exclusively from Alfa-Romeo.

“Well, it makes a nice noise,” he smiles. “But on a more serious note, I would say that I hesitated between BMW and Alfa-Romeo, and chose Alfa because it’s racier and more individual,” Leonhardt goes on to explain.

“Why those two? They are both old, respected, pre-revolutionary brands, and they both have an important connection: BMW’s famous blue and white quartered logo echoes the colors of the Bavarian royal family in the 17th century, while Alfa-Romeo has a sign inspired by the coat of arms of the city of Milano and Biscione, the emblem of the Visconti House back in the 15th century.”

Leonhardt spoke to The St. Petersburg Times ahead of his organ recital on Sept. 15, part of the program of the Early Music festival, of which he has become a loyal friend and regular headliner. The Dutchman is revered around the globe as a maestro of authentic baroque music.

The musician has gained a reputation as a virtuoso performer on three instruments: Harpsichord, organ and hammerklavier. He boasts an enviable collection of period instruments, including a superb 1790 hammerklavier that would be ideal for playing Mozart. Yet Leonhardt admits that his only real passion has always been baroque music — the earlier, the better — and the harpsichord.

“The hammerklavier has a different touch; most importantly, the harpsichord is a much more sensitive instrument, and that is why I remain faithful to it,” Leonhardt explains.

Leonhardt, who was born into a musical family, first touched a harpsichord when he was about 10 years old. Having encountered the new instrument, he says he simply did not feel like he could escape it. The old instrument was an unorthodox choice, especially at that time, decades before baroque music began to enjoy a renaissance and get back in vogue.

“My parents were not musicians, but they genuinely loved music, and so everyone, including my brother and sister, regularly played a fair amount of chamber music, with a strong inclination toward Bach and his contemporaries,” Leonhardt recalls. “An impromptu performance would happen about every other night.”

A few years later, with the start of World War II, life in the Netherlands came to a standstill in many ways, studies included. “Not having to go to school was fun, but that was the only bright point in years filled with horror: There was no electricity, no hot water; starvation and fear reigned in Holland,” he remembers.


He fell in love with the harpsichord long before baroque music came back in vogue.

At that time, Leonhardt, who now occupies a magnificent 17th-century mansion on the banks of a canal at the heart of Amsterdam, lived in the countryside. It was then that his harpsichord studies began to absorb him. Musical discoveries followed, and the music of Bach has been his Bible ever since.

“Bach has always been an icon,” Leonhardt says, though he refrains from discussing his emotional involvement with any piece of music he performs — or even his best-loved instrument, the harpsichord. “That is a personal matter that I feel I should keep to myself.”

A very private person, Leonhardt learned the art of perseverance and determination early on. His choice of the profession of harpsichord player came as a shock to his parents, who understandably felt that such an occupation could hardly guarantee their son a stable income, and quite probably cursed themselves for some time for introducing the young Gustav to the instrument.

Leonhardt was allowed — although not blessed — to follow his heart, which led him to study at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, and later in Vienna, where he would spend months on end at the music library making copies of old manuscripts containing precious baroque scores.

“When I go on stage, I do not want to reflect myself at all in the pieces that I play,” Leonhardt says. “I am not a composer and I do not have the urge for self-expression. What I always strive to do is to come as close to the essence of each work as possible, trying to penetrate the score and play it as the composer themselves wanted it to be performed. I have a lot of insecurities about this. Because whatever we think, we just do not know exactly what the composer had in mind. Even the author of the piece could perform it in different ways depending on the occasion.”

The veteran harpsichord player contrasts the work of a musician with the art of a sculptor or a painter. “Our art is not static, it is both fragile and ever-changing; unlike a sculpture or a painting that was created once forever, a piece of music has a new incarnation every time it is performed,” Leonhardt said. “Even when you perform the same score, each concert is like a new painting, a variation on a certain theme.”

The owner of a vast library and a reputation as a “Google of baroque music,” Leonhardt admits that even if one devours hundreds of books when rehearsing, for example, Telemann, the books only help the musician to get a better feeling of an era.

“But looking at the marvelous, early 18th-century Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg cannot help me to read the mind of any composer of that time, either from Russia or otherwise; it does not work like that,” he explains.

In his students, to whom Leonhardt has been loyally devoted for several decades now, he seeks to develop both independent thinking and reverence for the composer.

“There is no contradiction between these two goals,” he said. “Respect for the author does not set any limitations for the musician; this confrontation is artificial. Indeed, the worst student is the one who tries to become a living copy of their mentor. So in my class I would not tolerate a clone of myself!”

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