In the 1960s Gustav Leonhardt found himself transformed from a locally successful Dutch harpsichordist into a global phenomenon. Ironically, Leonhardt, an advocate for historical performance and building preservation, achieved critical and commercial success during an era marked by the rhetoric of social protest, renewal, and technological progress.
Leonhardt’s recordings demonstrate an authenticist stance, contrasting with the Romantic subjectivity of earlier Bach interpreters and the flamboyant showmanship of competing harpsichordists. Complementing this positioning were Leonhardt’s austere performance in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (above), his advocacy for historical instruments, and his uncompromising repertoire choices.
To a conservative older generation, Leonhardt represented sobriety and a link to the past. Nonetheless, Leonhardt’s staid persona had broader appeal: an unlikely guru, he attracted flocks of devotees. Younger musicians, inspired by his speech-like harpsichord articulation and use of reduced performing forces, viewed his performances as anti-mainstream protest music—despite Leonhardt’s own self-consciously apolitical stance.
Moreover, the antiquity of the harpsichord and historical instruments complemented concurrent interests in craftsmanship, whole foods, and authenticity; yet early music’s popularity was dependent upon technological mediation, especially high-fidelity recordings. Leonhardt thus emerges as a complex figure whose appeal transcended generational boundaries and bridged technological mediums.
This according to “The grand guru of Baroque music: Leonhardt’s antiquarianism in the progressivist 1960s” by Kailan Ruth Rubinoff (Early music XLII/1 [February 2014] pp. 23–35).
Today would have been Gustav Leonhardt’s 90th birthday! Below, performing in 2001.
BONUS: The official trailer for Chronik:
More posts about J.S. Bach are here.