Leonhardt in Autumn

July 15, 2009

Leonhardt-Gustav-46 Many today spend their careers trying to figure out, with the help of what documents survive, how music of the past was performed. When this is done for musical reasons and produces artistic results, it is an unmixed blessing. I’ve just come upon an interesting interview with Gustav Leonhardt in which he sounds a striking warning:

And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.

The interview goes on to make provocative points about the rehearsal of chamber music (your ensemble is no good if it requires a lot of talk and rehearsal) and conducting (it’s the easiest thing in music performance, if the highest-paid).

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