The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Early music and period-instrument pioneer Frans Bruggen dies at 79. And American media don’t care. | August 17, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

He wasn’t a maestro in the usual sense.

But he surely was a master.

He was a master, even though he never seemed temperamental and never received the kind of acclaim and press that typical orchestral conductors or maestros receive -– from Arturo Toscanini through Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan to Gustavo Dudamel.

He was Frans Bruggen (below). He was Dutch and a fantastic player of the flute and the recorder. He died this past Wednesday at 79 after a long illness.

Frans Bruggen 1

But he became a pioneer conductor of early music and period instrument authenticity, adopting historically informed performance practices even from the Baroque period, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric HandelJean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi into the Classical and early Romantic periods.

As a flutist and recorder player, Bruggen was a prodigy who often performed with Dutch colleagues in the early music movement, including harpsichord master Gustav Leonhardt and cellist Anner Bylsma.

He founded the Orchestra of the 18th Century, but also went on to conduct major mainstream orchestras and to teach at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley,

I loved his performances of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.

Even as I write this, I am playing Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony from Bruggen’s set of Haydn’s minor-key, proto-Romantic “Storm-and-Stress” symphonies.

What I especially liked was the expressiveness he often brought to an early music movement that sometimes seemed mechanical or robotic in its early days. Bruggen brought subtlety and emotional connection.

In Brugen’s hands, early music sounded natural, never forced into iconoclastic phrasing or rushed tempi, as it can with Reinhold Goebel and Concerto Koln or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Bruggen’s performances never sounded deliberately goofy or self-serving. (Below is Frans Bruggen conducting.)


Bruggen must have made his case persuasively. Nowadays, most early music groups also sound more expressive and subjective, not so doctrinaire, dogmatic or orthodox in their approaches.

Bruggen seemed a low-key and modest man and musician, qualities that The Ear identifies with the Dutch, including Bruggen’s own more famous conducting colleague Bernard Haitink.

The Ear hopes that Bruggen’s death brings about many reissues of his prolific discography with more high-profile publicity. His Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven symphonies are, unfortunately, largely now out of print.

Here are some links to obituaries that tell his story:

Here is a link to The Guardian, which also lists Bruggen’s five greatest contributions to early music:

Here is a story from the BBC Music Magazine:üggen-1934-2014

Here is a great piece from The Telegraph, also in the United Kingdom:

Curiously, it probably says something about Bruggen that I could find many obituaries from Europe and the UK, but none from the U.S., not even at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a YouTube video of Frans Bruggen, who served both composers and audiences so well, in action, playing a solo fantasy for recorder by Georg Philipp Telemann. In every way it seems a fitting tribute or homage on the occasion of his death:




  1. He opened my ears to early music. It changed my life. I own every lp he recorded and all the cds I could find. I also have a recording of one of the last concerts he played recorder in. His recording of St. Matthew Passion makes me cry every time I hear it. His subtlety as a conductor and soloist was unrivaled. He was a revolutionary in a wonderful time for early music.

    Comment by Helene Goldberg — August 31, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

  2. Great story Jake–I was totally unaware of this man and wish I had seen him conduct!

    Comment by Mary Gordon — August 18, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

  3. I still own a 3-LP box called Bruggen Speilt 17 Blockfloten. It made a big impression on me.

    Comment by paul baker — August 18, 2014 @ 8:27 am

  4. I too have been looking, in vain so far, for a NY Times obituary, and i find this surprising. It happens that Bruggen and his work have received some wonderful coverage and strongly positive appraisals in the NY Times over the years. For example, this article from 2008:

    Comment by Howard Biegel — August 17, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

  5. Dear Ear,
    Thank you for this wonderful post. I was saddened to hear about Bruggen’s death, on the radio, I think. I was a great fan of his many years ago when I took up the recorder, studying in with Bernice Kliebard. Bruggen astounded me with his technique. I believe I met him when he was once in Madison, or have I just imagined this? Tall, stately, a bit wry, that shock of hair over his forehead.

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — August 17, 2014 @ 6:58 am

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