Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)

Without Harnoncourt, we wouldn’t have had this: Dorothea Röschmann (Vitellia) and Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto) in Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito”, Salzburg 2003, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Without Harnoncourt, we would listen to Early Music differently than we do, mainly because it would be played differently.
We would have much less Early Music to listen to in the first place, because Harnoncourt was central to the early days of Historically Informed Performance Practice, and a tireless champion of Baroque music.

We have been talking a lot about Baroque rhetorics in the last few days: he was one of the people who promoted thinking about it in a pre-romantic manner. Perhaps others with less privilege remain unjustly unnamed, but that does not take away from the fact that he was important in making Early Music be heard again, and be considered from a historical perspective.

2 thoughts on “Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)”

  1. I can recall when Baroque was still widely performed on the evident assumption that it should all sound like Bach, with the more-or-less explicit promise that authenticity would be good for the audience.
    Harnoncourt made it fun: dramatic, exciting, surprising, colorful, complicated fun. That was a revelation. I saw his and Ponnelle’s Poppea in the early 1980s, and I remember it vividly, because that’s what it was–vivid.
    He set a standard that everyone since has had to meet, one way or another. For that, and for the performances, he deserves praise and gratitude.


    1. complicated fun, that’s it.
      Easy glorification is something that I distrust, and I don’t think it would be true to the detail work and the continued questioning that was trademark of Harnoncourt’s approach.
      His work could make me listen to a piece of music I thought I knew well, only to realize that I did not know it at all. He always amde me listen up: even when I puzzled over a tempo choice, there was always a well-thought choice behind it.
      But even bigger than all this is likely is impact of influencing and inspiring others, of making us approach Broque music not with late romanticist condescension any longer, an that misguided notion that it’s unsexy sound for purists, but it isn’t fun, or – touse your word – vivid. We can look at things the other way around now: approach Classic and Romantic repertory through a lens of historically informed performance, and that may be the most important shift at all. Think of Hanroncourt’s own “Aida” (Aida, of all operas!!), think of Minkowski doing Mozart and Offenbach, think of Bartoli’s take on “Norma”.
      A great conductor and musician: that is one thing. Changing the way we think about music: that is another, and it is, to me, even more remarkable.


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