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Saturday morning quotes 2.34: Gustav Leonhardt

January 12, 2013

Sadly, the list of persons to whom we wish to pay tribute with a post in memoriam is growing.  Several musicians and friends passed away in 2012, some of whom were close and deserve a respectful span of time before we can comfortably write of them in the past tense.  Many innovators and important figures in the field of early music are now of an advanced age, and it seems we should give them a measure of recognition while they live.  We hope to write more about living legends in our blog this year, perhaps including some interviews, but this week we honor Gustav Leonhardt, who passed away one year ago.

Our blog is typically very “lute-centric” and many readers may wonder why we are indulging in a tribute to a famous keyboardist.  The most obvious response is that Leonhardt’s role as an interpretive artist transcends the constraints of this instrument or that.  But his insights into harpsichord technique actually do have relevance to other plucked-string instruments by virtue of his in-depth descriptions of how a player should feel the plectrum engage the string.

Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichordist, organist and conductor, was born in the Netherlands in 1928 and was at the forefront of the early music revival, having recorded as early as the 1950s.  His third recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (LP 1C 065-99710) is a household favorite, despite the somewhat truncated feel due to elimination of all repeats.  Leonhardt performed his last recital in Paris on December 12, 2011 and died January 16, 2012.

Instead of devising yet another condensed eulogy, we give voice to the man himself and move directly to quotes drawn from sources as indicated and linked below.

From Goldberg Early Music Magazine: An Interview with Gustav Leonhardt by Lionel Salter

“[Conducting is] 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.”

“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.”

From The Economist  Jan 28th 2012

[On Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] “That ‘Ode to Joy‘, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!”

From The Telegraph 17 Jan 2012

“I prefer the direct contact you get with the string [on a harpsichord]. “You don’t get that with the fortepiano. I just don’t like the instrument.”

Asked to conduct Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Leipzig in May one year, he spluttered: “After Easter? A passion? After Christ’s Resurrection? In Bach’s own church? I couldn’t possibly entertain the idea.”

From Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers, Bernard D. Sherman

“…Through the harpsichord’s key we can feel the plectrum touching the string, so we can rest the plectrum on the string before we pluck, and then pluck quickly, slowly, overlapping with other notes, or with a range of other subtleties.  The pianist never has this really close contact with the string, because with the piano, it’s all indirect.”

“When one is a student one does things consciously, but when one is more experienced one does not play intellectually any more.  One doesn’t think, one has thought.”

“For me, a recording is quite a different thing from playing a concert.  That’s the reason why I refuse to combine them.  Often people, either the radio or someone else, want to record a concert: I always refuse, because my playing is totally different from concert to concert.  In a concert I adapt my wavelengths to how large the hall is, how far away the audience is, the relationship with that audience at that moment, and, of course, what the acoustics are.”

“I am only a player…[as opposed to] a real musician, which is a composer.”

We have many good friends who are keyboard specialists and we understand well the strengths and weaknesses of keyboard instruments—their potential for great fullness of sound versus a necessary temperament that results in an indistinct pitch center.  The amount of harmony one can produce with ten fingers (plus an extra pair of heels and toes on the organ) can certainly be beguiling, and the sheer intoxicating power and volume emanating from the Wondrous Machine can create a misguided impression that the quiet, nuanced and subtle sound of the lute is somehow second-class.

We are here to remind keyboardists that, compared to playing the lute, playing a keyboard instrument is really more like pushing buttons.  The lute fraternity would just like to see you try to play four-part polyphony with four fingers of one hand and no feet, on an instrument that wants to slip off your lap at any and every opportunity.  And you have to turn your own pages.  Leonhardt clarified the point that harpsichords, despite their legendary tonal attributes, are a bit closer to lute and harp by virtue of the sensitive plucking mechanism, rather than the thumping hammers of the pianoBut  if the fingertips of both hands are not actually engaging the strings, then the player is really indulging in the manipulation of a mechanical device and is a step removed from the actual music.

But we still like keyboards and our friends who play them.  Just don’t ask for more volume from the lute or we’ll wheel out the Marshall stack and plug in.  Then you’ll be sorry.

Wond’rous Machine!
To thee the Warbling Lute,
Tho’ us’d to Conquest, must be forc’d to yield:
With thee unable to dispute.

  1. Susan Sandman permalink

    The links are deliciously naughty.

    Susan Sandman Professor emerita, Wells College

  2. Dan permalink

    Love your selection of Gustav Leonhardt’s remarks- and yours as well! The work and wisdom of astute keyboard players is a necessary part of every lute student’s education; any lutenist who would sneer at “vulger keyboardists” is second rate indeed. I may or may not be flamed for this; but my favorite keyboard CD of Byrd & Gibbons is the one by Glen Gould. Yes, on the piano (not as counterintuitive as one might think; the Virginals, for which these gentlemen composed, plucks the string further in from the end than other harpsichords, making a fatter, juicier sound. Closer to, say, a piano). That Gould recording is required listening for some of my Renaissance lute students.

    And if I were a harpsichord teacher, Michael Schaffer’s recordings would also be required listening. Shocking how they “recycle” pianos. Not sure I approve, but it’s an approach to the keyboard that would be more appropriate for some performers than the one they normally use.

  3. After one of Gustav’s concerts I wandered on stage and had a look at his music. It was covered with expression marks, including crescendos!

  4. Vassilis Tiggirides permalink

    We shall always love and honour Gustav Leonhardt.

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