Gustav Leonhardt Remembered
Legendary harpsichordist received honorary doctorate from SMU
Gustav Leonhardt, master harpsichordist and founder of the Leonhardt Consort, died Monday, January 16, 2012 at his home in Amsterdam. Dr. Leonhardt received an honorary doctorate from SMU in 1983.
Leonhardt began playing keyboard at the age of six and became the harpsichordist for his family’s Baroque music ensemble as a teenager. In 1949 and 1950, he studied with Eduard Müller at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland; also in 1950, he made his debut as a harpsichordist in Vienna, performing Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Dr. Leonhardt soon thereafter began teaching at conservatories in Vienna and Amsterdam. Over the next three decades, he produced virtuosic and historically accurate recordings of J. S. Bach’s keyboard music, including the Goldberg Variations. He also produced hundreds of other records, which, together with those of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, were praised by The New York Times as “the defining discography of the historical performance movement in the 1950s and ’60s.” Harnoncourt and Leonhardt also shared the conducting of the first complete period-instrument recordings of all of J.S. Bach’s sacred cantatas.
“Through historically informed teaching and his stellar career as harpsichordist, organist and conductor, he was the single most important influence on generations of early music performers from about 1960 until his death,” says Dr. Larry Palmer, professor of organ and harpsichord studies at SMU. “Leonhardt was truly the most respected and emulated figure in the field.”
In 1964 and 1967, while he was a faculty member at Norfolk State University in Virginia, Dr. Palmer spent three weeks attending master classes for organ and harpsichord with Leonhardt at the Haarlem (Holland) Summer Academy.
“After I joined the SMU faculty in 1970, Leonhardt and I carried on a sporadic correspondence, largely about his several concert visits to Dallas, but also about a less-than-stellar private harpsichord student of mine who decided to go to Amsterdam to play for him—without my blessing!” says Dr. Palmer. “Eventually Leonhardt moved from his very formal salutation (Mr. Palmer) to the use of my first name, and eventually he signed his letters with his own ‘pet’ name, Utti.”
This continuing relationship, as well as his prominent place in the early music movement, led to Leonhardt’s nomination for an honorary degree from SMU. Leonhardt’s doctorate was conferred at the SMU commencement ceremony in May 1983. On that same evening he gave a memorable address to the graduates of the Meadows School of the Arts at their diploma ceremony. Earlier that weekend he gave both a harpsichord recital and a master class.
“Utti was in the midst of a fairly extensive American tour; after the degree conferral, he moved on to major appearances at that year’s Boston Early Music Festival,” says Palmer. “In all the years after the conferring of the doctorate, Leonhardt referred to me as his ‘Doktor-Vater,’ or Doctor Father: a person who, in German academic circles, is the sponsor of a doctoral student and principal advisor for his thesis.
“While he received other doctorates during his career, including one from Harvard in 1991, the doctorate from SMU was the one he always cherished the most.”