The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s time to catch up on obituaries for early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt; African-American opera pioneer Camilla Williams; and left-handed Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund.

February 11, 2012

An alert: This Sunday at 3 p.m. at the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue in James Madison Park, in downtown Madison, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will perform 17th and 18th century music on authentic period instruments, The program features works by Schutz, Gabrielli, Couperin, J.S. Bach, Lalande and Marin Marais. Tickets are $15 at the door. For more information including future concert dates, visit

By Jacob Stockinger

We’re not long into the new year and already there have been some important deaths in the classical music world that are worthy taking note of.

One of those deaths – that of the controversial pianist Alexis Weissenberg (below) – I covered somewhat in depth and with personal comments.

Here is a link:

But I have to admit I have some catching to do, largely to devoting blogs to other topics, including the sudden burst of concerts and events at the beginning of the concert season’s second half after its winter holiday intermission.

Perhaps the most important death was that of the Dutch harpsichordist and early music pioneer Gustav Leonhardt (below).

Leonhardt was an important and curious figure who once wore wig to play the part of J.S. Bach in a movie (at bottom).

I had a friend who referred to him, jokingly but with affection, as “machine-gun fingers Gus.”

And it is true that Leonhardt was a terrifically virtuosic keyboard artist with unbelievable facility when it came to playing solo or in an ensemble. And he obviously learned fast, mastering a lot of music. An search reveals some 320 CDs with him that are available. Clearly, he was as prolific as he has good.

Still, there was an element of truth to the jest. Leonhardt, who certainly helped train many of the major figures today in the revival of early music and historically informed performance practices, seemed in his own music-making stiffer, stricter, more severe and less expressive that later generations, who have emphasized the musical and emotional content of the music over the questions of authentic instruments and period technique.

But no one can doubt that Gustav Leonhardt was a giant.

That comes across in the obituaries, and there were many. Here are two of the best:

Speaking of pioneers, here is an obituary that is especially timely considering that February is Black History Month in the U.S.

Camilla Williams is not as famous as Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett or Jessaye Norman. But she set the stage for them by being the first African-American singer to secure a contract, in 1946, from an American opera company.

Another loss is that of the widely admired Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, who was known for conducting left-handed (and playing the violin left-handed) as well as championing the music of his fellow countryman Jean Sibelius:

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