The Galaxy – a Tribute to Gustav Leonhardt

Tonight we are going to take a few minutes and pay tribute to a great keyboardist, and a musicologist whose research has done much to impact our awareness of how beautiful early classical music truly is, or can be.

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012)

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012) - image obtained from

Gustav Leonhardt was born in Holland on May 30, 1928.  He studied harpsichord with Eduard Miller at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and made his debut as a harpsichordist in Vienna in 1950.  He worked as Professor of Harpsichord at the Academy of Music in Vienna from 1952 to 1955, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory from 1954 onward.  He began issuing major harpsichord recordings in 1953, with recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue (this being the first ever recording of that work).  Later on he worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt to record the first ever complete set of Bach’s cantatas, an effort which took many years to accomplish.  Among his many awards, he was awarded the Medal of Honour for the Arts and Sciences from the Netherlands in 2009.

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We started the show with a 1973 pipe organ recording of a set of Partitas that Bach based on O Gott, du Frommer Gott (“O God, Thou Righteous God”), BWV 767.  The work is believed to be one of Bach’s early compositions, possibly dating back to 1700, and is an excellent example of Bach’s skill at creating a diverse set of variations upon a simple theme, a concept that Bach would return to repeatedly over the course of his life.  One cannot say that Leonhardt was more masterly at pipe organ or harpsichord – he demonstrated equally great skill on each.  So it is good that we can represent both his harpsichord and pipe organ work, as both were equally important.

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by h...

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by his godson Johann Philipp Bach, currently in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin (Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt recorded a lot of Bach, and most of what I have available to me for tonight’s show consists of Bach.  But we do have some samplings of other composers, including one of the few occasions in which he ventured past the Baroque era in a recording.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann), a key figure in the post Baroque era, wrote three keyboard concertos in D minor between 1745 and 1748.  Tonight we heard the third of these, Wq 23, in a 1987 recording with Leonhardt conducting an unnamed ensemble from the harpsichord.  The differences between C.P.E. Bach and his father are quite strikingly demonstrated here (J.S. Bach also wrote a keyboard concerto in D minor), yet at the same time the keyboard still rules the day.

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great&...

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great" (nephew of Louis Couperin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt put a great deal of effort into researching composers who may have slid into obscurity, and over time demonstrated that, with an effective performance, such obscurity was often undeserved.  One such composer that Leonhardt championed was François Couperin.  Couperin (b. 1668, d. 1753) was greatly admired in his day, and J.S. Bach even had copied one of Couperin’s rondeaus into the notebook that he was assembling for his young wife Anna Magdalena.  In addition to his harpsichord literature, he also wrote a book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716) that gives us fundamental information about keyboard performance practice of the day.  This book also contains eight preludes, which we heard in a 1987 recording by Leonhardt.  I am particularly struck by the tone that Leonhardt gets out of his instrument here, a particularly beautiful sound that really frames the music quite well.

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Not only was Leonhardt a keyboardist, but from time to time he also conducted, often from his keyboard.  Conducting was not his preferred activity, but there are a number of available recordings that Leonhardt conducted (which includes the C.P.E. Bach we’ve already heard).  In the case of the complete Bach cantata set, conducting was probably a creature of necessity, given the amount of time that was required to record the huge number of cantatas that Bach wrote (at one point Bach was writing a cantata each week, which he did for a total of four year-long cycles that were based on the Lutheran religious calendar).  It is notable that Leonhardt did this in cooperation with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who Leonhardt is known to have thought to play too much to popular sentiment – this probably reflects the challenge involved with performing the huge volume of music involved.  Tonight we heard one of those recordings, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (“Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), BWV 151, in a 1985 recording that sees Leonhardt leading his own Leonhardt Consort.  BWV 151 is actually a Christmas cantata, written for the third day of Christmas, and uses a libretto by Georg Christian Lehms.  So, yes, we may hear this one again come Christmas time.

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor An...

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach, composed in 1722 for his second wife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In preparing tonight’s show, I stumbled upon a recording of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  I find this quite startling, as I’ve long wanted to see such a recording, dating back to my teenage years.  This “notebook” was a piano exercise book that J.S. Bach prepared for his young second wife Anna Magdalena, whom he had married in the winter of 1721-22.  She was the daughter of a trumpet player in the Zerbst court, and had been active as a singer prior to her marriage to Bach.  There are two known such notebooks, one dated 1722, and a second that was dated 1725, with the title pages in Anna Magdalena’s hand.  The music was in a mixture of Bach’s and Anna’s handwriting, and include a number of his own works, as well as works by the aforementioned François Couperin and a few by son C.P.E Bach.  There are other works that may be from other writers (which may include Johann Adolph Hasse), but in many instances it is quite challenging to establish actual authorship, as Bach did not intend this for public consumption.  From this compilation, we heard a Polonaise in G minor (BWV anh 119), a March in E flat major (BWV Anh 127), a Menuet in G minor (BWV anh 114/115, which is believed to have been written by Christian Petzold), and “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (BWV 518), an aria.  Most of this is done solo by Leonhart, while Elly Ameling performed the aria to Leonhardt’s accompaniment.

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg)...

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg), by Johann Andreas Silbermann, 1741 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We closed the show with a 1973 recording of one of J.S. Bach’s more monumental works for pipe organ, his E minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 548.  Believed to have been written after Bach’s 1723 move to Leipzig, the piece is a fine example of organwerke at its finest, both in terms of its composition and in terms of Leonhardt’s performance.  The composition of the work is interesting – while most preludes tend to be relatively free-wheeling while the fugue is locked into technical precision, BWV 548 is the opposite, with a rather strict prelude that then opens up into a fugue of three sections – an initial fugual section, a toccata-like middle, then a third section that includes a complete recapitulation of the first section.