Harpsichord Notes

January 1, 2018

A posthumous gift from Gustav Leonardt

It is now six years since Gustav Leonhardt departed this mortal coil on January 16, 2012, but his idiomatic arrangements of J. S. Bach’s solo violin and cello suites, partitas, and sonatas have recently been published by Bärenreiter-Verlag. This new volume presents an unexpected New Year’s gift to those of us who had feared that the master harpsichordist’s transcriptions of some of the composer’s most beloved music might have been burned along with the bulk of his personal correspondence.

Issued in the familiar-looking blue Bach Edition as Suites, Partitas, Sonatas Transcribed for Harpsichord (BA 11820, ˇ39.95) the idiomatic arrangements have been prepared for publication by Leonhardt’s friend and student Sieba Henstra, who has contributed a comprehensive editorial commentary. Skip Sempé’s eloquent preface quotes Bach contemporaries Jacob Adlung and Johann Friedrich Agricola, both of whom wrote about Bach’s own keyboard performances of these works that were originally written for bowed string instruments. Sempé concludes by quoting Leonhardt’s own words from the Dutchman’s notes to a 1976 recording: “I think that Bach would have forgiven me for the fact that I have set myself to making arrangements of his works; whether or not he would have forgiven the way I have done it, remains, of course, a moot point.”

The following 135 pages of music comprise the violin sonatas in D minor, transposed from the original G minor, BWV 1001; in G major, from C major, BWV 1005; three Partitas, in E minor, from the original B minor, BWV 1002; G minor, from D, BWV 1004; and A major, from E, BWV 1006. The cello suites in E-flat, BWV 1010, C minor, BWV 1011, and D major, BWV 1012, are transcribed without a change of key; and two individual movements, an Allemande in A minor, from Bach’s Partita for Flute, BWV 1013, and “Sarabande in C Minor” from his Suite for Lute, BWV 997, are likewise both transcribed in their original keys.

It has been an unmitigated pleasure to play through these magnificent pieces and a special joy to have another musical connection to a great mentor and friend­—the opportunity to play Leonhardt’s harpsichord-friendly version of the extensive D-Minor Ciaccona for Solo Violin (which sounds magnificent in its higher G minor key) and to compare it with the thicker, more pianistic arrangement by John Challis (his 1941 manuscript found at the Library of Congress, still unpublished). I recommend this new volume to all harpsichordists who love Bach’s music, and I wish for each player the unique joy of experiencing yet another addition to our ever-expanding keyboard repertoire.


G. L. dubs me his “Doctor-Father”

An excerpt from a letter received from Professor Leonhardt, dated Amsterdam, June 3, 2003:


Dear Larry,

. . . Fond memories bring me back to Dallas’ SMU [Southern Methodist University]. Do you know that you started my series [of honorary degrees]? Followers were Amsterdam, Harvard, Metz and Padova . . .

With all best wishes,

Yours ever,

Utti L.

A lengthy backstory is involved, the culmination of many years of varied experiences with Leonhardt.  

I first visited Haarlem, the Netherlands, during the summer of 1958 when fellow Oberlin organ major Max Yount and I drove through much of northern Europe following our junior year at the Salzburg Mozarteum. We spent several days in the charming Dutch town, attending events sponsored by its annual Summer Academy. Four years later, after completing doctoral study at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, I was hired for my first academic position at St. Paul’s College, Lawrenceville, Virginia, a small school where I taught for two years as a replacement music professor while the incumbent was pursuing his doctoral studies. Following that first year of teaching I returned to Europe during the summer break to attend the first of my two Haarlem summer academies. The year was 1964, and my purpose was to join the three-week class of intensive harpsichord studies with Professor Gustav Leonhardt.

Three years later I returned to Haarlem, full of ideas and solutions that had been developing since that first encounter with Leonhardt’s teaching. By this time I was fully convinced that his examples of number symbolism and its hidden truths in many Bach works were indeed correct as well as fascinating. We had a very full repertoire assignment for that summer of 1967, and many of the participants in Leonhardt’s classes were too reticent to volunteer as players. I was not afraid to play for him, so I was invited to do so quite frequently. And, since I was staying with a friend in Amsterdam this time around, it happened that I usually arrived at the train station about the same time as my professor. We would have coffee together as we made the short trip to Haarlem, and I came to know Leonhardt as a delightful travel companion, as well as an inspiring teacher.

After my 1970 move to teach in Dallas there were quite a few opportunities to hear Leonhardt during his various concert trips to the United States. As a member of SMU’s faculty senate for 12 years, eventually I was named chair of the Honorary Degrees Committee. Perusing a list of past recipients I noted that artists, musicians, and women seemed to be few and far between in the honors lists, so I proposed three names to the senate: Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, and Gustav Leonhardt. My faculty colleagues were enthusiastic about all three of them. 

The university president, however, not so much. There was a rule that each honors recipient had to appear in person to receive the degree. Georgia O’Keeffe let it be known that she did not need the honor, but would be happy to accept it if it were bestowed in a balloon over Albuquerque. I suggested that a video could be made of such an event, one that would surely arouse far-reaching interest throughout the entire United States. The president nearly had apoplexy, and that idea was scuttled at once. Leonard Bernstein was already scheduled to be in Dallas to conduct a benefit concert in SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium on the next day following commencement. In this instance I suggested that his degree ceremony be postponed until that evening, when it would make sense to bestow Lennie’s honor during the concert’s intermission. Again, it was too radical an idea, and Bernstein’s honorary degree also was denied.

Leonhardt already had concert commitments on the date of the ceremonies for 1982, but he communicated to SMU’s administrators that he would be delighted to arrange his schedule to accept his first doctorate the following year. Thus it was that on May 21, 1983, I had the proud honor of reading Gustav Leonhardt’s doctoral citation, ending with the time-honored statement, “In recognition of his consummate artistry and service to the world of music, Southern Methodist University is proud to confer upon Gustav Leonhardt the degree Doctor of Music, honoris causa.” 

Shortly thereafter he suggested that, from henceforth, it need not be “Dr. Leonhardt” or “Dr. Palmer,” but, in friendship, the time had come for us to use first names, even the diminutive “Utti” that his close friends were invited to call him.

As part of Utti’s commencement weekend in Dallas he gave a solo recital (which included his transcription of the D-Minor Violin Partita), conducted a harpsichord masterclass for our students, and served as the much-appreciated speaker for the evening ceremony during which each School of the Arts student walked across the stage to receive the diploma signifying a degree that had been granted that morning at the all-university ceremony. Utti had found a 17th-century English poem about a hard-drinking British university student, a word picture that soon had his audience convulsed in paroxysms of laughter. We had many post-ceremony requests for that text, but we never procured a copy of it. I still wonder if, perhaps, Utti, who had a very droll sense of humor, might not have composed the poem himself?

At any rate, I found it amusing, as did he, that a student should become the “Doctor-Father” for his teacher, the whole concept of which has to do with the thesis advisor for the philosophy doctorate in German academia. It has occurred to me that, in writing this long-overdue memoir, my delight at the publication of Leonhardt’s lovely Bach transcriptions may be the final award for such a brilliant “thesis” and should require the time-honored repetition of the words, “Welcome to the company of scholars.” But of course, he had been in that company already for a very, very long time.


2017 Harpsichord News columns: a guide

January: According to Janus: columns published in 2016; the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival 2016: two vignettes; possible future topics.

February: The A-Team: Antoinette Vischer and her commissions of contemporary harpsichord music.

March: Lessons from (François) Couperin: hints for harpsichord pedagogy using his L’art de toucher le Claveçin.

April: Where next? More pedagogical repertory suggestions.

May: An Italian Christmas; Paul Wolfe; Glen Wilson’s Froberger CD.

June: Harpsichord maker Richard Kingston: a tribute for his 70th birthday.

July: Celebrating Scott Ross; a performance practice letter from Beverly Scheibert, Early Keyboard Journal #30; remembering Isolde Ahlgrimm.

August: Christmas in August: reviews of J. William Greene’s Christmas Ayres and Dances, Book 2, a new CD of Stephen Dodgson’s Inventions for Harpsichord, and Meredith Kirkpatrick’s book, Reflections of an American Harpsichordist, essays by her uncle, Ralph Kirkpatrick.

September: Recital programming: sample program notes by LP from a harpsichord recital at the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, 2012.

October: From the Harpsichord Editor’s mailbox: four new keyboard scores by Carson Cooman; John Turner’s discovery of a lost cantata (with harpsichord) by British composer Alan Rawsthorne; and Mark Schweizer’s 14th Liturgical Mystery.

November: From A to Z: Aliénor retrospective in May 2018 and SMU’s Meadows Museum Zurbarân Exhibition celebrated musically at the 1762 Caetano Oldovini organ.

December: Remembering Zuzana Ru˚žicˇková by Robert Tifft.


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