Nikolaus Harnoncourt 1929-2016
If you're a fan of early music, as I am, then you know the name of Berlin-born conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The cellist and early music pioneer died March 5th at age 86. His death dims another light on the 20th century which saw the rebirth of early music because of the scholarship and dedication of such early enthusiasts. He, and his violinist wife Alice, founded the period instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953. He was on the podium, or conducting from the cello, right up until his retirement from performing this past December.
The thing is, a lot of how we hear and appreciate early music today is because of Harnoncourt and a small but determined group of similar thinkers. He believed the interpretations of early music in the 1950s were wrong: a Bach concert at that time often sounded as rich and lush as a Beethoven concert. He must have loved the phrase "everything old is new again," because by making the music of Bach and Telemann sound like they most likely sounded 300 years previous, he turned the early music world on its head. Hard to believe that what he innovated 70 years ago, and what we take for granted today, was actually controversial at the time.
Through the years, as his reputation as an exacting conductor became known, Harnoncourt branched out to conducting opera, and then to the orchestral repertory. Some of his recordings are considering among the best. WCRB has played so many of his recordings over the years---from his Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic and Concertgebouw Orchestra, to Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw, to his Bach, Purcell, Handel, Telemann with his Concentus Musicus Wien. I remember very clearly the day a college intern, a music student assigned to me, was working in the WCRB library a dozen years ago. Upon hearing Harnoncourt's recording of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz he was moved to blurt out, "Oh, so that's how you're supposed to play that!"
Some people criticized Harnoncourt's heavy-handed sound, others appreciated his agressive assuredness. I tend to fall in the second camp--the composers had something to say so it is the job of each succeeding generation to help them say it loud and proud. One thing there can be no doubt about: he knew his music, he knew the instruments, and he knew what was good. And he wanted you, the listener, to get to know that, too.