Monday, March 7, 2016

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the pioneering early music scholar-performer who in mid-career broadened his activities to conduct modern orchestras and opera companies in mainstream classical and romantic repertory, has died at 86.

Born to a family of Austrian aristocrats – his mother was a Habsburg descendant – Harnoncourt was a cellist who played in the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s and ’60s. He founded the period-instruments orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953, with his wife, Alice, serving as concertmaster, and continued leading the ensemble until his retirement last December.

Harnoncourt also had long-standing relationships with the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Berlin Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

His discography – some 500 recordings in all – ranged from the cantatas and large-scale choral works of Bach and operas of Monteverdi and Mozart to the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák and Bruckner, the waltzes of the Strauss family, even to the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” (a favorite of his youth).

In one of his scholarly works, “Music as Speech,” Harnoncourt emphasized the influence of spoken language on music. He asserted that the distinctive Viennese dialect of German deeply informed the tonal and rhythmic language of composers active in the city. This belief led to interpretive decisions that some critics considered eccentric.

“At the moment when language reaches a profundity surpassing that of any concrete message, it is immediately linked to song, because with the help of song anything over and above pure information can be conveyed more clearly,” Harnoncourt told me in a 2003 interview for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The main thing for me is not the technical use of historical information – this just leads to a technical result – but the use of historical information [to understand] the content, the point of the music. The more I understand about the sounds and surroundings of historical instruments, the less I need the instruments themselves. The instruments are just a tool.”

An obituary by The New York Times’ James R. Oestreich:

An obituary by Barry Millington for The Guardian:

A 1985 essay by Joel Cohen, longtime director of the Boston Camerata, on the role that Harnoncourt played in the modern renaissance of early music, reprinted on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog: