About Gustav Leonhardt
Though participants in the "authentic performance practice" movement might insist otherwise, the search for the old is really a search for the new. This statement certainly captures the spirit that Dutch keyboardist Gustav Leonhardt brought to his early music performances in the 1950s. His style was characterized not by a rigorous observance of rules, but by the intuitive, almost spiritual connection it tried to establish with the music -- a kind of authenticity that sought validation not so much from a rigorously academic accuracy (though Leonhardt is by no means historically careless) as from its having an "authentic" effect on the listener.
Born in Amsterdam in 1928, Leonhardt learned cello and piano before entering the Schola Cantorum in Basel to study organ and harpsichord with Eduard Müller. After graduating in 1950, he undertook a year of musicological studies before accepting a position at the Vienna Academy. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his home town, where he assumed a position at the Amsterdam Conservatory that he would keep for decades thereafter.
His first public performance took place in 1950, when he performed J.S. Bach's The Art of the Fugue for a Viennese audience. This marked the beginning of a legendary and influential career that would take him to performance venues all over the world, setting stylistic and interpretive standards for keyboard music dating from the early 1500s to the late 1700s. His treatment of the works of Couperin, Froberger, and Frescobaldi were pivotal in affecting a shift in Baroque performance practice from the motoric to the malleable.
Beginning in the 1950s, he also established the Leonhardt Consort, a group applying his same performance ideals to chamber works; during his career he also demonstrated great skill in conducting early choral and operatic works. Along the way, he tutored an entire generation of the most vibrant and stylistically varied early music figures, including Christopher Hogwood, Pierre Hantaï, and Ton Koopman.
When Leonhardt spoke of "correct" style, certain parameters were clear, while others left much to be read between the lines. The use of the proper instrument, for example, was crucial to Leonhardt: one should not play a piece from a particular country and a particular time on an instrument from a different region and century (and of course it goes without saying what problems he might have had with playing 18th century music on a 20th century Steinway). His discussion of style, however, was quite flexible -- or at least elusive: "I cannot say it's a secret, but it's almost impossible to describe in words....Essentially, it must be based on a dynamic wish." Though he did consult primary sources to justify his sound, which fell somewhere between the rubato sound of Landowska and the robotic sound of her immediate successors, he insisted that the truest "rules" about the music he played were to be discovered through the playing itself.