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An Interview with Gustav Leonhardt

The death of Gustav Leonhardt at the age of 83 on 16 January 2012 marked the passing of one of the musical giants of the 20th century. I have always felt immensely privileged to have been the last person to conduct an in-depth interview with Leonhardt, an occasion that took place in November 2006:


Gustav Leonhardt’s distinction as both man and musician lies not with the longevity of a career that spans more than 50 years – extraordinary though that is – but with his unique place in the history of the revival of the historic harpsichord and the technique appropriate to the instrument. Remarkably, Leonhardt’s position of eminence has been achieved not by being a great proselytiser or communicator. On the concert platform he can indeed appear distant, even austere, an image that some, quite wrongly in my view, have identified as a characteristic of his playing.


For many years Leonhardt has occupied a beautiful seventeenth-century house fronting one of Amsterdam’s most attractive old canals. Once the property of a immensely wealthy and influential family of Italian bankers, on entry the visitor is immediately aware of an atmosphere of tranquillity, an oasis of calm dignity only a short distance from the noise and bustle of the city. Leonhardt greeted me with an old-world courtesy rarely encountered today. There is about the man an air of both the aesthete and the aristocrat that nevertheless precludes neither warmth nor humanity. We settled down to talk in a large, elegant room housing several keyboards, one a harpsichord built by Martin Skowroneck, a maker for whom Leonhardt has a special regard.


Professor Leonhardt, when you first started playing the harpsichord more than sixty years ago, it would have been an extremely unusual instrument for a youngster to choose. How did you originally come to be drawn to the harpsichord?


Initially I was not drawn to the harpsichord - I was faced with it! When I was about ten-years-old, before World War II, my parents, who were not musicians, but were great music lovers, used to play a lot of chamber music with my brother and sister. Almost every night we would play music. Extraordinarily for amateurs at that time, my parents thought that since they sometimes played Telemann and Bach, they should have a harpsichord. So they ordered one, and since I was usually the keyboard man I was put on the harpsichord and played my written-out continuo part - badly, I’m sure, although I don’t now remember much about it.


Then during the last year of the War everything in Holland stopped; there was no electricity, no water and we had to hide from the Germans. School was also stopped, which was marvellous for me, the best thing about a year when unimaginable horrors were going on elsewhere in Holland. Our house was in the countryside, so although we were not eating well, we were not suffering the hunger endured by those in the cities. It was then I started to look at our harpsichord with fresh eyes. I became absolutely fascinated by it and started regulating and tuning it all day long. It was  then that I developed my desire to be a musician and devote myself to Bach, albeit in a rather naive way. After the War, I told my parents of my wishes, but they wisely made me finish my schooling. My father was a businessman and expected me to go into the business as a director, but my parents were also very liberal and agreed to let me study music. That was in 1947. At that time there was only one institute in Europe where you could study seriously the kind of music I was interested in. That was the Schola Cantorum in Basel, which of course remains today one of the foremost institutes. So I went to Basel for three years, and there laid the foundations for what happened later.


I believe you studied there with Eduard Müller?


Yes. He was primarily an organist, but also played the harpsichord. Curiously enough, one of the most important things I learned from Müller was the clean analysis of organ works: not to make manual changes that will destroy one voice just for the sake of a change of colour. He was unusual at that time, because that was something most organists did. In retrospect it was awful, these changes of sound every five minutes. But it was Müller who said “No, you can’t do that”. It was wonderfully clear thinking.


So at Basel you studied the organ in addition to the harpsichord?


Yes, and of course one was also automatically drawn into other things. There were courses on ornamentation, Gregorian chant and so forth. It is important to remember that the harpsichords at the Schola were at the time not historic at all, whereas at the same time there was a group of teachers doing marvellous things with baroque flutes and violins, old bows, ornamentation studies and all that kind of thing. Quite remarkable. But the ear was not yet ready for old harpsichords. True, there were neglected historic harpsichords and old organs, although most of them were not in good order. Gradually you discovered, with little shocks, what you had missed. Actually, the whole development of historic keyboard playing is exactly that – noticing things that you had previously overlooked. That remains true today.


In what ways?


Well, we overlooked the crucial fact the harpsichords available had absolutely nothing to do with the old ones. We didn’t look properly at the old instruments.


Yes, but I meant how does this overlooking still apply today?


Until about comparatively recently, fifteen or so years ago, when you bought harpsichord strings you would just give the measurements for strings that were made of modern steel. So we had overlooked the fact that the materials that had been used to manufacture them were quite different. With organ building we had failed to understand the material with which they had made their pipes and the way in which it had been used. The answers were there, but again they had been overlooked.


What impact do such things have on the way you approach the music or the sound of it?


I think you do your best to know as much as is possible at the time. Our mission is to know as closely as possible what the composer might have wanted, or what was possible in the period during which he was composing. That general approach is, I think, very important. But what results have come out of that! That is partly because music is not fixed, partly because we have overlooked things, or have drawn exaggerated conclusions from new discoveries like inégalité, which was blown up to ridiculous proportions.


You talk of what was possible at a given time, but is it not the case that there are many performers of early music who now routinely go beyond what was possible?


Do you mean things like using single voice choirs in the Bach cantatas?


No, I’m thinking more about such aspects as extremes of tempo or dynamic contrasts that are inappropriate to baroque music.


I don’t know, because we know very little about how fast or how loudly or softly people played. Occasionally we might find a small clue, but it will be in one location, one source, or one church. So you cannot take that as being appropriate for the whole of Italy or the whole of Germany. Today we have timid players and we have furious players. And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.


But surely the difficulty is that going beyond what we do know simply becomes hypothesis?


I’m happy to hear you use that word, because in truth most of our playing is based on hypothesis. That is because we cannot do better. Perhaps we may be able to do a little better, but at the moment much of what we do is pure hypothesis. We really do know very, very little.


That’s a sobering thought. Perhaps we might go back to your career. After completing your studies in Basel you went to Vienna. You’ve been talking about sources and I believe the great discovery of that time of your life was musicology?


It was indeed. Although I had my diploma and gave a couple of recitals, my parents were still worried about my career. They thought that I should take a conducting course and perhaps become a famous conductor, earning lots of money. So I was sent to Vienna and enrolled on a conducting course. It was not very successful. I did it perhaps three times, very irregularly. Instead I spent a whole year from seven in the morning until seven in the evening in the National Library going through sources and music. It was really incredible. I wrote out thousands of manuscripts that I still have. Most of these sources have since been published in modern editions, but not all, so I still use them to this day. In Vienna I soon met Nikolaus Harnoncourt and it was not long before we were playing together. Then I filled in at a concert in a Bach harpsichord concerto that was heard by the director of the Academy, the Hochschule, who was so impressed that he offered me a post as a teacher. I therefore became a professor of the Hochschule in Vienna. So then my parents were happy! Altogether I stayed in Vienna for three years at the beginning of the 1950s, during which time I started making records. Because of the strength of the dollar, the American companies had found out that they could come to Vienna and record for almost nothing. So they swarmed there in droves, and I met the people of the Bach Guild [Vanguard], for whom I made a lot of records.


I believe among the first were the recordings you made with Alfred Deller. What are your memories of working with him?


Oh, he was… No, I won’t say he was one of the greatest singers, but he was certainly one of the greatest singing artists. That is what makes him unforgettable. He obviously believed that you needed a voice, but for him that was not the point. He never flirted with his beautiful sound; he couldn’t have cared less about it. It was his diction and ability to convey words that was unsurpassed. His presence was extraordinary and although the records can be marvellous, they do not really give an idea of what he was like in concert. Working with Deller was certainly one of my most memorable experiences.


And at much the same time you founded your own ensemble, the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble, which later became the Leonhardt Consort.


Yes, the Consort was founded in about 1955, I think, by which time I was also teaching in Amsterdam. There were just five strings and harpsichord. We did mostly seventeenth-century repertoire: Scheidt, Biber, and the English composers.


That was an extraordinarily adventurous repertoire for the 1950s.


It was. Most of it was completely unknown - much of the music we played was what I had brought back from Vienna. It included things like Biber’s Fidicinium sacro-profanum, which at that time was not published, like most of the music we played. We didn’t give many concerts, because the public for such repertoire was still quite small. But it was all a revelation to us, and if I listen now to the records we made then it surprises me that although I can find things to criticise, I find nothing to be ashamed of.


The players you had gathered around you by this time included a remarkable array of talent – your wife Marie, the Kuijkens, the cellist Anner Bylsma, Frans Brüggen and so on. Obviously with such a closely-knit group of players, your performances must have seemed more like a gathering of friends, something that clearly emerges in the famous Seon recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. This perhaps accounts for the statement you made in interview some years ago, when you made the startling point that ensembles that have to discuss and rehearse a lot “are no good”. Have you changed your view on that?


No, I still believe it to be true as a general observation. When one is young it is necessary to build up the experience of ensemble playing, but when you have done that and have played with the same musicians over a period of time, you should know their approach to music. If the approach is a little different each time then it is no good. But with musicians like Brüggen, Bylsma, or the Kuijkens, we always had the same view right away when we came to the first rehearsal. A fine musician will know the reason if it was not together on the first play through. So the second time you play the piece, without a word being spoken, things are right. In a good ensemble the player does not play his part, he plays the piece. I sometimes find when I conduct small orchestras the players do not do this. They are not aware of their place within the whole ensemble, but just play their part.


Mention of conducting recalls another surprising observation you made in that same interview. You made the point that for you conducting was just a side-line,  going on to claim as a reason that it is “too easy”. Your subsequent career would seem to belie such a dismissive view.


No, no. I still think it’s the easiest way out in music. It’s the best-paid way out and you can’t play or sing a wrong note! I agree you can mess up by doing the wrong things, but still it is so easy. I do it rarely; maybe once a year at most.


But surely you were more active than that at one time?


No, I don’t really think so. Well, perhaps the Bach cantata series… but even then it was only about one recording a year and it took a long time to complete [the famous pioneering Teldec cycle that Leonhardt shared with Harnoncourt was recorded between 1971 and 1990].


Yes, that was something I obviously wanted to touch on. At the time it was inaugurated it was an extremely brave decision to undertake a complete cycle, not only on the part of the musicians, but also for the record company. In retrospect, how do you now feel about what remains the largest recording project with which you’ve ever been involved?


Well, again, I’m not ashamed of it when I revisit some of the recordings. Of course, our earliest contributions were not made in the best acoustics and often the wind players especially were not completely at ease with their instruments. But I think after about Cantata 35 or so we normally got things pretty right without having to think about too many wrong notes and so forth. Also, of course, the soloists were variable, especially the boy sopranos, although some were marvellous. Perhaps one might look now for a higher technical quality, but conceptually there are not many things I would now do differently. And the musicological problems that we had, such as the use of continuo harpsichord in certain places, remain unresolved.


It was my understanding that the use of harpsichord continuo in the church cantatas has been largely discredited.  


There has been a great deal of research done on the topic, but the final outcome is inconclusive, although we know that in special cases the harpsichord was used. We don’t usually know the reason; sometimes it was because the organ was out of action. Certainly, it appears that it was exceptional for the harpsichord to be used. But we do know that there were even occasions on which the organ and harpsichord were used together, so they can be quoted by the pro-harpsichord people. There is also the faint possibility that if the harpsichord was used all the time with the organ, then Bach himself played it.


But isn’t there also the possibility that Bach led from the violin?


Well… As you know there is the famous description by [Johann Matthias] Gesner of Bach either rehearsing or even in a church performance – we don’t know which – but from that I think it is absolutely clear that Bach was conducting. I think that with such a large unit like a choir and orchestra that would have been necessary. Certainly Bach led from the violin as concertmaster in Weimar and Cöthen and perhaps also at the collegium musicum in Leipzig. He believed that you could keep an ensemble together better from the violin than from the harpsichord.


You’ve now mentioned the topic twice, so I must take up the challenge and ask for your views on the most controversial current aspect of Bach performance, the question of one-to-a-part Bach choirs.


Luckily, the question can be answered in one word. There are hundreds of things we do not know about Bach’s performances or wishes, but this we do happen to know. The idea that in Leipzig, which is the main place at issue, Bach wanted a choir of single voices to a part is rubbish. It is complete rubbish! We have in Bach’s own handwriting his requirements of a minimum of three singers for each voice.


But surely that was an ideal, rather than a fact?


It was an ideal and maybe he didn’t always get that ideal, but remember Bach was also responsible for the performance of the motet. Many motets were in eight parts, so with a double chorus they could still be done. But for the cantatas, he said he wanted three singers to each part. The adherents of this idea claim that you cannot have three singers reading from a single part. Of course they can! Look at Della Robbia, for instance, with angels looking over each other’s shoulder at the music and there are many more examples from the Renaissance. It is ridiculous that even intelligent people have fallen into this trap, which I simply cannot understand. Of course, the economic consequences have something to do with it. Think of the difference in the cost of air tickets and hotel bills, for instance!


Yes, that’s an argument Ton Koopman has put forward. We could obviously discuss aspects of Bach for many hours, but before we leave the topic we must mention one of the more unusual events of your career. In 1967 you actually took the part of Bach in a film, Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach. What is the story behind that?


I was chosen by the director, Jean-Marie Straub, who wanted a musician for the part, and therefore did not have that many people to choose from. He listened to records and thought I was best suited to what he required, so he approached me. I thought, in view of what usually happened in films, that it would be horrible. But then Straub sent me the script, which was amazing – the level of scholarship was so high. As a result, I agreed, thinking it would be fascinating to see how the film was made. On the set I just did what I do normally: playing the harpsichord and organ, and conducting. Straub’s great achievement was to realise that the music should be the most important element. We recorded the music and the film at the same time, which I think is unique in the history of film and added enormous complications. But it was done and the result is a brilliant, rich and very serious film. Somebody told me it is now available on DVD.


You have now been deeply involved with Bach performance for more than fifty years. Are you conscious that your approach to his music has changed over that period?


No, not consciously. I’ve never made any kind of switch to do something differently.


I was meaning more in a retrospective, evolutionary way.


Well, I hope there has been a development, but it is more a personal one than having new ideas about the way the music should be played. Bach is such a gigantic figure who one can always learn from and must treat with respect. But my idea of Bach has not changed; I have no idea of Bach as a totality, only of his music, hopefully. Bach as a person does not interest me.




Look at many artists. They were scoundrels, but they painted, sculpted or composed profound things. Everyone has a good side and great artists created part of the time and the rest of the time may have been a dirty pig! I’m not saying that Bach was a scoundrel, but if he were it would not matter. We have the music and that leaves me speechless.


That’s a remarkable statement after all these years. But we really must leave Bach, otherwise we risk giving the impression that he has completely dominated your life, which is far from the truth. A composer that people might less readily associate with you is Monteverdi. I was listening again the other day to the liturgical reconstruction of a St. John the Baptist Vespers you recorded [Philips]. Is that kind of reconstruction important to you?


No. It was not my reconstruction, but that of Frits Noske, a musicologist for whom I have great respect. I’m not against liturgical reconstruction as such, but on a record you are not at a service, so I think the artificial recreation of a service is basically an error. Noske had investigated what a festival Vespers in Venice might have been like and came to me with the results that included all the chants and the little instrumental interludes and so on. Musically it is incoherent and anyway I don’t like the idea because I’m a Protestant!


Still, one good thing is that it does give a context for some of those instrumental works that were included in the liturgy. Personally, I find records that just give you a whole string of sonatas by, say, Castello, extremely tedious. But one of the things I find particularly striking about that performance is the exceptionally strong sense of rhetoric and communication conveyed by all the singers. Was this something you worked on particularly with them?


Not particularly, because I chose the singers knowing what they were worth. But you’re right, it’s a very important aspect of performing Monteverdi.


And the Monteverdi operas?


Yes, I’ve done two, but both with awful staging, so never again.


What are your views on the instrumentation problems surrounding the two later Venetian operas? Many music directors still employ relatively substantial forces.


Adding an orchestra, you mean? Again, that is absolutely wrong. We know that in Venice in the 1640s there were no orchestras. String players were paid next to nothing, while chittarone players and harpsichordists were paid enormous amounts. So my good colleagues who add strings to the Monteverdi operas are completely wrong. Just a little later, in Cavalli, you start to get occasionally the first glimmerings of the use of strings, but that was a novelty.


French music has also played an important part in your repertoire


Yes, finally.


Why finally?


Well, as you know, I started with Bach, still the greatest composer for me. Everything compared to Bach falls a bit flat, which is perhaps a little unfair, because there is some marvellous music apart from Bach’s. But Bach’s music, along with that of other German and Dutch composers like Sweelinck, is very serious and worked out on the highest level. The opposite to that is French music, much of which is lovely, but nearly always superficial. For a long time I found this to be a deterrent, until I realized it had such marvellous qualities of sonority and refinement, although it remains essentially superficial. A truly serious work of art goes beyond qualities we can explain, whether it is Titian, or Bach, or Purcell. But the charm, the control, and the elegance of French music! All the harpsichord pieces sound so beautiful by themselves - you don’t have to labour.


What about the known French influences on Bach?


Bach copied some French music, including de Grigny’s Livre d’orgue [1699] - heaven knows how he got hold of it. There he was dealing with highest level of French organ music. He also copied a charming piece by François Couperin and he played some of Marchand’s harpsichord works, which are some of the finest French pieces of the period. So Bach knew enough about it to appreciate some of the best French keyboard music.


You’ve recently made a couple of discs for Alpha that include a fair amount of music by the English virginalists, one of them being wholly devoted to William Byrd. Is this a field you’ve recently come to, or have you always been interested in this repertoire?


Always, always! It’s a marvellous literature. In the last decades of the sixteenth century the harpsichord started to be taken as a serious instrument in England, which had not happened anywhere else, even in Italy. So the English were the first, writing brilliant, clever, difficult music. They  were often large-scale pieces of the highest quality.


The playing on those two discs prompts what is perhaps a rather mundane question, but frankly I’m amazed that you have maintained such dexterity. Has that been a problem for you as you’ve got older?


No, I’m very lucky. My fingers work in the same way as they did fifty years ago.


Looking back over your long career, where do you feel we stand today? There have, for example, been huge developments in the making of historic instruments.


Harpsichord building is I feel in a very good general state today. But the harpsichord is so simple, but at the same time subtle that it is very difficult to put your finger on something and say that is where an improvement should be made. So one always hopes for a wonderful new instrument base, but in organ building the progress in the last fifteen years has been enormous. There are about ten major organ builders in various European countries and in America who are serious about investigating what became the secrets of building historic organs. In Göteborg there is an institute that has a lot of money for investigating historic organs and there are marvellous experts who have the time and finances to do what it would not be possible for builders to do. They have discovered so many subtleties that had been neglected or overlooked. The builders can draw on their research and everyone can read about it.


One important side of your life we have neglected to mention up to now is teaching. The list of your keyboard pupils and people to whom you’ve given advice reads like a “who’s who” of keyboard players [it includes such names as Koopman, van Asperen, Rousset, Sempe, Hogwood, Pierre Hantaï, Alan Curtis]. Is it something you’ve enjoyed doing?


Yes, probably because I never did too much of it. I never had more than five pupils at any one time and also I could choose whom I taught. So, unlike Bach, I never had to teach little hooligans. In retrospect, and it is something I’m very happy with, I can now say how very different my pupils were, both as characters and what they’ve made of the things I’ve taught them. I never wanted to make clones of myself. Never. They always had to make the choice of what they played and I never played the music they played until they had done so first. If I felt that I had something to say or criticize, I always first asked myself and then the pupil for the reason they were doing something I did not agree with or did not understand. So we always compared our particular views.


One final question, if I may. You have obviously seen huge changes in the early music world since those first pioneering days. Do you have any observations to make regarding the present state of early music.


As far I can judge – and I don’t keep up with everything that is happening – I’m above all delighted to see that what we might once have called “backward” countries  have come up so strongly. In Italy and Spain particularly you now have outstanding players, great knowledge and an enormously devoted public. There are now many excellent young performers making up little ensembles and when I’m on a jury for chamber music playing I find that all the names are known to me and they often produce really serious ensemble playing. That is immensely gratifying. On the other hand, I’ve detected a certain attitude that says it is now easy to make money in the baroque world. You buy a cheap modern violin and put gut strings on it and buy a sort-of old bow and that’s it. The modern bridge stays on the instrument. And off you go to perform, holding the violin squeezed up under the chin. Another area of compromise is that almost all baroque trumpeters make holes to make life easier; that should not happen.


I think that is now changing.


Yes, I think it is, but for the moment it remains the norm. So there are many improvements, but also a tendency to take the easy way out. But these things go together because there is now such a choice of players and also there are millions of good editions for them to play from. And that is absolutely marvellous.


All this is a far cry from the distant days when Gustav Leonhardt spent a year copying out rare manuscripts in Vienna, yet how salutary it is to be reminded that the present state of historically informed performance owes an irreparable debt to the pioneering spirit of men such as Leonhardt, Harnoncourt and the Kuijken brothers. Much of what we today take for granted would not have been possible without them.


This interview first appeared in Goldberg Early Music Magazine. Application for permission to use any part of it should now be made to the author, Brian Robins. Contact details can be found on the Home Page






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