Nikolaus Harnoncourt ranks today as a pioneer of the revival of interest, during recent decades, in early music performed on authentic instruments. But he is also an independent ground-breaker who is constantly discovering new dimensions of the classics.
Born on December 6, 1929 in Berlin, Germany and raised in Graz in Austria. He studied the cello at the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Wien under Paul Grummer and got several awards during his education. Harnoncourt found an interest early in historical practice of music, from periods Renaissance and Baroque. While in college, Harnoncourt became fascinated by the original Baroque instruments languishing in antique shops, and wondered why professional musicians didn’t use these brilliant artifacts to produce the music of their time.
The Wiener Concentus Musicus
Harnoncourt’s first professional job was as cellist for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra where he got hired by the great Herbert von Karajan himself in 1952. Almost immediately, however, Harnoncourt sought to specialize in performing music of the past upon historically correct instruments. Together with his wife, violinist Alice Hoffelner, he founded the Wiener Concentus Musicus as early as 1953.
Its repertoire, based on historical instruments, came to span from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. One of the first milestones was Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with authentic instrumentation (1962), followed eventually by his complete choral compositions. Since then, Concentus Musicus, under Harnoncourt´s leadership, has become an established concept within the profound artistic renewal of performing practice concerning the early repertoire.
On the Interpretation of Historical Music
On the Interpretation of Historical Music is an essay of Nikolaus Harnoncourt from 1954. It has been the creed for Concentus Musicus since the beginning. Harnoncourt here develops the ideal approach of using past techniques and instruments to re-create a vibrant contemporary music, instead of either transplant historical music into the present but with the risk of transforming it too much because of new playing techniques, or academically transplant oneself into the past and thus lose connection with the present.
The ensemble has strongly influenced and changed the performance and recording of early music by contemporary musicians, as it emphasized the use of period instruments.
Renovation of orchestral playing
Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his debut as a conductor in 1970 and then got the possibility to interpret works in an even more personal way. He made a sharp turn from the historical instrument period, conducting Haydn and Mozart symphonies in the 1980’s with the gleaming modern forces of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. His later Mozart symphonies’ characteristics are more in a dark and dramatic style, rather than the lighter classical way that the listener might be used to.
He altered course again in 1991, using the seemingly lighter Chamber Orchestra of Europe, still with modern instruments, to record the nine Beethoven symphonies, again with powerful and innovative results. Then, in 1994, it was back to the Concertgebouw for the complete Schubert symphonies, where he also was named Honorary Guest Conductor in 2000.
In interviews, Harnoncourt often refers to Gershwin as the first composer he listened to as a child, even before he heard Bach and Mozart. Part of his family lived in the US in the 1930s and sent the latest piano sheets by Gershwin to Harnoncourt’s father.
In 2009 Harnoncourt finally made the wish he had had his whole life come true with his interpretation of Gershwin’s opera saga Porgy and Bess, performed for the first time at the Graz’s Styriarte festival in 2009, in his hometown.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt passed away in 2016.
Stockholm, May 1994
Cogently reflected and dedicated concert activities coupled with outstanding research achievement – also resulting in a number of books, such as “Das Musizieren mit alten Instrumente. Einflüsse der Spieltechnik auf die Interpretation (1967) and Musik als Klangerede (1982) – have earned Nikolaus Harnoncourt an eminent position in the revival of early music.
He has paved the way for a view of interpretation which in our own time and in a radical – many would say: provocative – manner has opened doors to a fresh understanding of the Romantic repertoire as well.