Gustav Leonhardt (born 's-Graveland, Netherlands, 30 May 1928, died Amsterdam, 16 January 2012) was a famous Dutch harpsichordist, organist and conductor who became well known for playing music from historical periods on period instruments. At the beginning of his career the harpsichord was not yet a popular instrument and music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods was usually played in the same way as music from later centuries. Gustav Leonhardt made his audiences aware of what music by Johann Sebastian Bach would have sounded like in Bach's day.
Gustav Leonhardt was born into a Dutch, Protestant family who lived in the countryside. His Protestantism was an important part of his life. His father was a wealthy business man. His parents were both very keen amateur musicians. When Gustav was ten they bought a harpsichord. When World War II broke out life was hard in the country and Leonhardt often had to hide under the floorboards so that he was not sent away to slave labour. When he was not hiding he spent a lot of time practising the harpsichord.
Gustav Leonhardt studied organ and harpsichord at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. At that time this was the only place in Europe where it was possible to study how to play early music. He went to Vienna to study conducting because his parents thought that being a conductor was a good way to earn a lot of money. However, Gustav was never very keen on conducting and he spent all his time there in the library studying music scores and copying music out. Most of this music had never been published and had not been performed since the time it was composed.
In 1952 he became professor of harpischord at the Vienna Hochschule fur Musik. He met Nikolaus Harnoncourt who had similar interests to his. He soon became professor of harpsichord at the Amsterdam Conservatorium and remained there until 1988. He was also organist at the Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam. This church has a very famous historical organ. He became well known for his harpsichord concerts and recordings. He led the Leonhardt Baroque Ensemble with the English counter-tenor Alfred Deller with whom he made one of the first recordings of some Bach cantatas. The ensemble included his wife Marie, as well as Nikolaus Harnoncourt who played the cello. Together with Harnoncourt he conducted and recorded all Bach's cantatas.
Leonhardt lived in a big 16th century house facing one of the canals in the centre of Amsterdam. He looked very serious on the concert platform, but he had a sense of humour and occasionally played a bit of ragtime at the end of a recital.
Leonhardt died in Amsterdam on 16 January 2012.
- Gustav Leonhardt - Obituary, The Independent 14 February 2012 p.51