A CONCERT by Gustav Leonhardt was not like any other. He approached his harpsichord with the air of a mortician, slightly flexing his long, delicate hands. As he played he sat bolt upright, gaunt and aquiline, unsmiling in his crisp, perfect suit, with his elbows held close to his sides. No unnecessary gesture, no hint of emotion: senza baldanza, as a composer might have marked it. He did not have the look of a man on a mission. But he was.
Mr Leonhardt’s life-work was to persuade the world how beautiful the harpsichord was, and how the harpsichord repertoire should be played. When he first fell in love with it, in the shape of the fairly bad instrument his parents bought for their house at Graveland in the Netherlands, he recognised it as the king of keyboards. Organs were noble characters, and he played church organ for years. Virginals were pleasing; he wrote a book on Flemish examples. But fortepianos were awful, the sound muffling all over the place when the hammer hit the keys, which put him off playing his beloved Mozart; and modern grands were unspeakable. None had that direct pluck of plectrum on string for which he loved the harpsichord—though that mechanism was also fearsomely exacting, even “diabolical”, and that was why he did not smile as he played.
It would also have been vulgar. Mr Leonhardt was ever on the watch for that, whether in the form of electric lighting, or showy articulation, or hotel breakfast buffets, or Beethoven’s Ninth. (“That ‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!”) His own manners were exquisitely courteous; he seemed to have stepped from the past, and even a shockingly fast drive in his Alfa Romeo might end with Mr Leonhardt, lost, finding his way home not by sat-nav but the stars.
When he began to study harpsichord seriously, at Basel in 1950, the instrument had been neglected, or overlaid with Romantic sweetness, for decades. He intended to restore it to the simple, original sound, “salt rather than sugar”, that Johann Sebastian Bach had written for. If people found that sound too thin for modern halls, and the pitch disturbingly low, too bad; their ears would just have to get used to it. And after a while, they did.
It meant hard work for him. He began by tirelessly hand-copying hundreds of original scores in the Vienna Library, when he was meant to be studying conducting (but he scorned conducting, thinking it “the easiest way out” in music, with never a wrong note to worry about). He continued by making a definitive recording in 1953 of Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, and publishing an impassioned argument that the piece had been written for solo harpsichord rather than ensemble. That stirred up interest in pre-Romantic music, though still not enough to fill a room when his little consort played Biber’s unpublished “Fidicinium sacro-profanum”, or other treasures he had unearthed. He thought of those as his catacomb days. Fairly quickly, however, listeners warmed to Byrd and Frescobaldi, Rameau and Ritter; his own recordings, especially with Nikolaus Harnoncourt of all Bach’s Cantatas, fanned the flame; and the early-music movement has flourished ever since.