"Among history's legions of musical geniuses, there are relatively few genuine revolutionaries" (*). This sentence refers to Claudio Monteverdi, but could be applied to Gustav Leonhardt as well. He was certainly far from considering himself a revolutionary - that would not be in line with his rather conservative demeanour and aristocratic appearance. But his approach to the music of the past was revolutionary nonetheless.
He was not the first advocate of performances with the instruments and the playing techniques of the time the music was written. But he was one of the very first to live up to the ideals he propagated. Performances by musicians of previous generations often suffered from imperfect technique or an inadequate command of their instruments. Gustav Leonhardt's playing technique was never in doubt - he was not only willy-nilly a revolutionary, but also a genius. Whether on disc or live he always showed his technical prowess, but not in a demonstrative way. It allowed him to fully concentrate on the interpretation. His frequent live performances and ground-breaking recordings were instrumental in spreading the message. Another key factor was the fact that early in his career he was offered a position as professor for harpsichord at the Amsterdam conservatory. Numerous students embraced his approach to performing music of the baroque era, and they handed these over to their pupils.
Leonhardt wasn't the first to aim for a more historically informed performance practice, and he wasn't the only one. In his early years he worked closely together with other artists who were to play an important role in the development of the early music movement, like Frans Brüggen, Jaap Schröder, Anner Bijlsma and Max van Egmond. But they won't hesitate to acknowledge that Leonhardt was the driving force. Talking about Leonhardt's musical allies the Austrian cellist and gambist Nikolaus Harnoncourt needs to be specially mentioned. In their early days they worked closely together, and like Leonhardt Harnoncourt has had a lasting influence on the way early music is performed. But during his career he moved into a different direction, concentrating on conducting, and in particular moving from the baroque era to the classical period and the romantics. He was even willing to embrace modern instruments and modern orchestras in the process.
Gustav Leonhardt did act as conductor as well, but never made a career out of it. He remained first and foremost a keyboard player. And although he appreciated the music of Beethoven and Schubert, he was all too happy to confine himself to the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. His experiments with playing Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Mozart on the fortepiano didn't last long, simply because he didn't like the instrument very much. The use of modern instruments certainly was never an option. And that reveals one of the features of his music making: his consistency, sincerity and integrity. Because of that Leonhardt has been able to stay at the very top of the early music scene for about 50 years.
It is sometimes suggested that historical performance practice tells more about modern aesthetic ideals than about those of the pre-romantic era. There could be some truth in it. Since the days Leonhardt started his career much has changed in the way baroque music is performed. Some of those changes are the result of a deeper knowledge of the sources and a growing command of historical instruments. But it cannot be denied that there is something like fashion in the performance of baroque music. And it seems undeniable that some performers are ready to bow for what they think modern audiences ask for. Leonhardt never did - he always kept true to himself and his values.
A quotation from a moving tribute by the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani tells its own story. Referring to letters he exchanged with Leonhardt he writes: "In my last one, I wrote him a quote from Tolstoy's 'Resurrection,' in which the protagonist comes to realise that the world's approval of his actions was impossible to follow if one had any worthwhile sense of personal morality and values. I brought this up to Leonhardt as a description of the conflicts faced by a young musician who wanted an audience and yet wanted to maintain artistic integrity. He wrote back: 'I never mind these things and neither should you. Go into the world and be a musician, and you will learn what you need to. If I had even one person listening, or none at all, I would have not changed any of my decisions.'"
Thanks to his many recordings Leonhardt's musical legacy will last forever. May his example of artistic integrity and sincerity be an inspiration to musicians of generations to come.
(*) Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Choir of the Enlightenment/Robert Howarth (Signum Classics SIGCD 237). The quotation is from the liner-notes by Andrew Mellor.