Cogito: John Branch

On Seeing and Hearing Gustav Leonhardt:

The Lesson of a Master

Two weeks after the fact, I discovered that harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt had died on January 16. I saw him perform once, in Dallas, Texas, with a girlfriend who was a harpsichordist and a devotee of his. I believe the program included J. S. Bach and François Couperin.

Exactly what he played escapes me now; how he played stays with me. He sat before his instrument bolt upright, and beyond the dance of his fingers over the keys he remained stock still while playing. He gave me the sense of total absorption in his task, the elimination of everything superfluous, the merging of player and instrument so that the music appeared to flow through him and the harpsichord, as if coming from somewhere else. Seeing him gave me the idea of writing something on the Zen of performance in music and theater. (I never did attempt that, judging it to be beyond my abilities and possibly an overused concept even then, in the late 70s.)

One doesn’t play Bach, or much of anything else, without complexities of understanding and experience, of intellect as well as emotion, but one needn’t show a smidgen of that, as I realized for what felt like the first time during that performance. Early on, Leonhardt removed from his work all the display, and a good deal more too, in an effort to clear away the clutter of post-Baroque practices, especially those of Romanticism, and return to a style more pure and pristine. We didn’t see him feeling the music, in other words, as one often does when seeing a keyboard performer. He simply shared it with us. One may grasp such things from a recording, but not as fully. Witnessing him play in an auditorium, where he had nothing to show us, he nonetheless visibly demonstrated something.

It occurs to me that Leonhardt would make a good dance-club DJ, as long as he was the kind—which is not the only kind nowadays—who worked apart from the dance floor rather than in front of it. The effects he created were everything, and how he looked while doing it was never the point

Of his roles in restoring the harpsichord to a more prominent concert role and in pioneering the early-music movement, I can say little. Readers can find ample testimony to that elsewhere online.

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