Remembering Gustav Leonhardt

By James David Jacobs

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Gustav Leonhardt, a revered pioneer in the revitalization of Baroque music, died on Jan. 16 in Amsterdam. His performances and teaching influenced countless musicians, but Classical New England host James David Jacobs also encountered his more personal side.


“Excuse me – do you know of a place near here where one could get chocolate?”

That was not the question I expected to hear at that moment, especially considering its source. It came from Gustav Leonhardt, who was to soon be performing his American debut as a conductor. I was singing that night with the University of California Collegium Musicum Chamber Chorus, but the eminent early music pioneer’s question came at an awkward moment. I was in the process of quickly leaving in embarrassment from a place deep within St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, where the concert was set to take place.

I had gone to this familiar, remote corner of the church, a location I considered my own secret place, in order to get my voice warmed up, never thinking that anyone else even knew about it. It was only when the world’s greatest harpsichordist and foremost expert in Baroque performance practice emerged in an unbuttoned shirt and hanging suspenders that I realized I had invaded the space designated as Gustav Leonhardt’s private dressing room.

I immediately apologized and began to slink away, though he did not seem disturbed at all. Then, in his polite, soft, and somewhat patrician manner, he asked me if I knew where to get some chocolate. I did, in fact, and a few minutes later an expedition was organized, with several choir members and Gustav Leonhardt, to a nearby candy store named Sweet Dreams. Leonhardt very politely, but without a hint of embarrassment, picked out several pieces of candy, which he ate out his paper bag on the way back to the church, bestowing a kind of dignity and gravitas to the act of candy-eating that I’ve tried and failed to emulate ever since.

That night, Leonhardt conducted in very exact gestures. There was no baton in his hands, but he was not at all vague. It was very evident that he knew this music and exactly how he wanted it to sound. Despite his own grim, forceful physical style, the resulting music was flowing and lyrical and free, eliciting some of the most beautiful music-making I have ever heard.

Everyone, even those in the choir and the string section, felt their individual contribution to the total sound. Leonhardt, despite his taciturn manner, created an atmosphere of glowing warmth. It was certainly one the greatest musical experiences of my life.

The principal oboist for that concert was the late Bruce Haynes, and I remember him telling me the story of going to an orchestra rehearsal in Amsterdam the day after Leonhardt had conducted a concert on Dutch television. The concert was notable for employing a particular style of inégal playing, a type of rhythmic emphasis that is not notated in the score, in one of the pieces on the program.

Bruce said that, at the rehearsal, no one said a word or talked about the concert, but it was obvious everyone had watched it because when they started playing everyone employed that exact kind of inégal that Leonhardt used in the broadcast. No one had played like that at the previous rehearsal, but such was the influence and respect commanded by Gustav Leonhardt that his televised performance changed everything.

Leonhardt played the role of Johann Sebastian Bach in the black-and-white 1968 film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. It was a brilliant bit of casting, because it required no acting at all. Leonhardt, looking perfectly comfortable in 18th-century costume, played harpsichord and organ, very occasionally said something when there was something important to say, and then went back to playing.

That is exactly how I imagine the real Bach was, and it is absolutely how Leonhardt was, someone very seriously dedicated to the work of creating (and consuming) beauty and pleasure.

(image of Gustav Leonhardt via Wikimedia Commons)

More on Gustav Leonhardt, including remembrances by Boston Baroque's Martin Pearlman, can be found at PRI's The World.

Video from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach:

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