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Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Concentus Musicus Wien

Gustav Leonhardt & Leonhardt-Consort

Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions - Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Where Harnoncourt is coming from

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
Here are some excerpts from Harnoncourt's own chapter "Articulation" in Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech, 1982. He doesn't say where he assembled this set of ideas from (the way a positivist would footnote every reference), but is simply describing the big picture of his approach to the music. His books explicate the Credo of his convictions, and are not dissertations. This is polemic. He of course realized he would be read both by positivists/literalists ready to blame or credit him down to every dot and cross, and by readers more interested in the broader sweeps of expression. And this was 20 years ago already!...keep that in mind in the things he's reacting to. To Harnoncourt, intuition and experience are as valid as scholarly inquiry.

And I think that, as often as not, Harnoncourt's performances are like this as well: he's as concerned with shaking people up, startling them--being a polemicist--as with playing the music. He's a reactionary. He puts his own personality into the music, and
firmly picks a role within culture as he sees it. Conviction is the thing. I admire this willingness to put himself so deeply into it, even when I'm sometimes not pleased by the results he offers. He's anti-fundamentalism, anti-positivism, in favor of imagination and conviction, freedom and personal intensity.

Obviously, to him it's a virtue to have a profile (whatever that profile might be, even if some may find it offensive)...and about the worst thing an artist can do is to be boring and unimaginative, limited to one-dimensional or two-dimensional performances, a mere puppet with nothing to say. That's Harnoncourt's personal premise about a performer's role, it's an artistic choice, take it or leave it. That sits well with me, too. The play's the thing. – Brad Lehman



"Articulation is the technical process in producing speech, the way in which different vowels and consonants are produced. The 1903 edition of _Meyers Lexikon_ defines articulation: 'to organize, express something point by point; to permit the individual parts of a whole, particularly the sounds and syllables of words, to appear clearly. In music, articulation signifies the linking and separation of tones, the legato and staccato and their mixture, sometimes misleadingly called "phrasing".' Problems of articulation are especially apparent in Baroque music, or more generally in music from about 1600 to 1800 since, as a rule, this music is basically related to speech. The parallels to speech were strongly emphasized by all theorists of the period. Music was often described as 'speech in tones.' To put this in simplified and somewhat approximate terms, I like to say that music prior to 1800 speaks, which subsequent music paints. The former must be understood, since anything that is spoken presupposes understanding. The latter affects us by means of moods which need not be understood, because they should be felt."


"We all know how a foreign language is learned. By analogy, Baroque music is for us a foreign language, since we obviously do not live in the Baroque period. Therefore, as in the case of a foreign language, we must learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation—musical articulation, the theory of harmony, the theory of phrasing and accentuation. The simple application of these theories to the performance of music by no means implies that we are making music; this is simply spelling in tones. Even if the spelling is well and correctly done, we can only create music when we no longer need to think of grammar and vocabulary, when we no longer translate, but simply speak, in short, when it becomes our own natural speech. This is our goal. We must, therefore, learn the 'grammar' of old music. Unfortunately, uninformed musicians often undertake this task, for we constantly hear musicians who have only mastered the grammar of music, but, like linguistics professors with dust in their veins, simply translate music. However, we cannot blame the rules for this unhappy outcome, since we cannot do without them."

"As was true of all aspects of life during that period, Baroque music is hierarchically arranged. I do not want to get into the question of whether this is good or bad--much has already been said and written on this issue--, but only want to point out that this hierarchy exists. There are 'noble' and 'ignoble', good and bad notes. I find very interesting the fact that this hierarchy practically ceased to exist after the French Revolution, both in terms of music and the social order as well. According to the musical authors of the 17th and 18th Centuries, in ordinary 4/4 time we have good and bad tones, nobiles and viles, i.e. a noble one, a bad two, a not-quite-so-noble three and a miserable four. The concept of 'noble' and 'ignoble' refers of course to the stress. This means therefore: ONE-two-three-(four)."

"This accent scheme as a kind of curve of changing weight is one of the basic tenets of Baroque music. It was also expanded to apply to groups of measures--a 'good' group is answered by a 'bad' group. We can thus apply the same curve to entire movements, even to entire works, which thus offers a clearly recognizable structure of tension and relaxation. This accentuation curve of the measure was also reduced in scale so that it applies to eighth as well as sixteenth-note passages. Thus a complicated, interwoven pattern of hierarchies exists, but the same organizing principle governs each. This form of organization is ubiquitous in the Baroque period, since art and life were governed by the same concepts."

"If all Baroque music were to be played in keeping with this strict accentuation system performances would be very tedious, indeed monotonous. Such performances would be almost as monotonous—a concept completely antithetical to the Baroque sense--as the performances with their machine-like regularity which are common today. Both approaches are incorrect and boring, because after ten measures we know precisely what is going to happen for the next half hour. Thank God there are other superior hierarchies which defeat the inevitable monotony of stresses, the most important of which is harmony. A dissonance must always be stressed, even if placed on a weak or bad beat. The resolution of the dissonance--and each dissonance in Baroque music has a resolution--must be unstressed, since otherwise there would be no 'resolution'. We physically experience a similar sequence with a physical pain that gradually subsides, then disappears, followed by a feeling of relief. To describe the way such resolutions should be conceived, Leopold Mozart in his violin method used a lovely phrase: 'fading away'. Thus we have a powerful counter-hierarchy, which immediately breathes rhythm and life into the main hierarchy. All of this is like a scaffolding, a skeleton, a system that has a definite order. This system is breached over and over again by stresses of dissonances."

(...) [discussion of individual tones] (...)

"Now to the tone groups or figures. How should fast notes, for example the eighths in alla breve or the sixteenths in 4/4 C allegro, be played? According to most present-day music pedagogues, identical note values should be played or sung as regularly as possible, just like pearls on a string, all precisely the same! This style was perfected after World War II by a few chamber orchestras and established a certain way of playing sixteenth notes which evoked great enthusiasm throughout the world (this playing was given the most inappropriate name conceivable: 'Bach-bowing'). This way of playing does not give the effect of speaking at all. Rather it smacks of something mechanical, but because our age has enslaved itself to machines, no one has noticed that this was wrong. But now we are looking for what is correct. What is supposed tohappen with these sixteenth notes? Most composers, after all, do not write articulation signs in their music, except for Bach, who, as we have pointed out, left us many very precisely marked works. In the instrumental part of the bass aria of Cantata BWV 47, for example, he articulates a group of four notes by dotting the first and slurring the other three. Yet in the same Cantata, the same figure occurs vocally, with the text: 'Jesu, beuge doch mein Herze', and here, groups of two notes are joined together."

"This example is very important to me because what Bach is saying by this is: there is not just one correct articulation for a musical figure, but several; here they even occur simultaneously! Of course, there are possible ways of articulating that are absolutely wrong, which we must identify in order to avoid them. In any case we see that in the same piece, the composer wanted two quite different articulations for the same passage. Just how precisely he wants this variants distinguished can be seen from the articulation dot in the above example."

"This leads to a further consideration. In oil paintings using glazes, the paint is transparent; we can see through one layer to the next, so that we look through four or five layers to the drawing that lies beneath them. Something similar happens when we listen to a well-articulated piece of music. Our ears penetrate it in depth and we clearly hear the different levels, which nonetheless merge to form a whole. On the foundation level we hear the 'design', the plan; on another level we find accented dissonances; in the next, a voice which is softly slurred in its diction, and another which is strongly articulated. All of this is at the same time, synchronized. The listener is not able to comprehend everything contained in the piece at once, but wanders through the various levels of the piece, always hearing something different. This multi-layered concept is extremely important for understanding this music. It is almost never satisfied with a mere two-dimensional approach."

"Bach's vocal parts often contain an articulation different from that of the accompanying instruments, as seen in the example above. Unfortunately, this difference is today usually construed as an 'error' by the composer and is 'corrected'. It is very difficult for us to understand and to accept the intricacy, the simultaneity of differing usages; we want order of the simplest kind. On the contrary, the 18th Century wanted richness, even excess: at whatever level one listens, one receives information, nothing is reduced to a common denominator. Things are looked at from all sides at the same time! There is no such thing as an articulatory synchronicity of the Colla parte instruments. The orchestra articulates in a different way than does the chorus. Even most 'Baroque specialists' are not familiar with this; they always to even things out, to have everything as much alike as possible and to hear beautiful straight columns of sound, but not diversity."


"In Baroque music, the basic meaning of the slur is that the first note is to be emphasized. As was previously noted, the fundamental hierarchy of stress within the measure is broken up by articulation and dissonance. And this breaking up is what is interesting; just as an irritant in an oyster makes a pearl, in music, irritation makes the listener keenly attentive. Again and again it is said that the listener is transformed by music. This can only happen if the music has a physical and spiritual effect. Let us imagine a dominant seventh chord. When we hear it, we also feel a physical tension: the dissonance demands a resolution; when it has occurred, we experience relaxation and relief. It is with this bodily reaction, tension and relief in the listener, with which the composer works. No one can avoid the compulsion to react with physical motion when listening to music; test yourself and observe audience in any concert hall. This is part of the experience of music. The result is that the entire complex of articulation involves not only performing music, but also listening to it. Well-articulated music is heard in a completely different way than music which is played two-dimensionally. It affects us physically and forces our minds to listen actively, to engage in a dialogue."

(...) [dots, dynamics] (...)

"Common sense tells us that dotted rhythms as such resist any precise classification. The length of the long and the brevity of the short notes are determined by the character of the piece and compositional consideration. There are, to be sure, some authors of the 17th and 18th Centuries who held that the short note in a dotted rhythm ought to be taken at the last moment; nonetheless, I believe this advice applies only to unusual cases and ignores the other and more common cases since they were taken to be self-evident. If we were to take every rule literally and apply it universally, without understanding its limits, we would soon end up in serious difficulties. In my view, fundamentalists are the worst enemies of religion: blind faith in the sources is dangerous."

"Granted that the way dotted rhythms are played today, i.e. by holding the dotted note precisely three times as long as the following short note, is a precise interpretation of the written text, it remains in most cases simply wrong. It leads to a regular kind of sub-rhythm which destroys the dotting. Clearly a deficiency in notation exists. It is simply not customary to express the desired relation in numbers; one cannot write nine, for example, above the long note and two above the short note. Baroque composers often wrote a dotted quarter note and three thirty-seconds. The many professional pedants who have unfortunately gravitated to music do not approve of such ideas, so they calculate how many thirty-seconds are contained in one eighth note, i.e. four. This they write down and link the first of these with a tie to the long note. [illustration] The composer could surely have done this, had he wished to. But he simply wanted a dotted long and three short notes. His intentions should not be changed in new editions, because a dotted rhythm is played more freely than one which is written down precisely."

"Unfortunately, during the past 50 years, a dangerous trend toward 'faithfulness' to the work has emerged, one of whose corollaries has been to banish all those good traditions which conveyed the correct interpretation of the score in favor of the authority of the written score alone. As late as 1910, the way a dotted rhythm should be played was still known and sensed, as old recordings show (e.g., a rehearsal with Bruno Walter). Only since Gustav Mahler insisted on a very precise way of playing exactly what was written has this knowledge been gradually lost. I find it regrettable that faithfulness to the notes has replaced faithfulness to the work—that we have forgotten many things which used to be living knowledge. This knowledge must now be rediscovered through arduous effort on our part. The same holds true for articulation. Many musicians today believe that when no articulation signs are given, they have to play such groups of notes in precisely the unarticulated way in which they are written--out of loyalty to the composer, i.e. out of 'faithfulness' to the work, an approach which attempts to render the notes rather than the work. This oft-cited 'faithfulness to the work' appears to me the worst enemy of an honest interpretation, because it attempts to make music out of what is written down—while ignoring the underlying meaning. Notation as such cannot convey a piece of music, but only serves as a point of reference. The only person who is faithful to the work, in the true meaning of the word, is the performer who recognizes what the composer intended to convey with the notes and plays them accordingly. If the composer writes a whole note, but means a sixteenth note, the 'faithful' musician is one who plays the sixteenth note, not the one who plays the whole note."

"One final word about articulation. By all means let us study the sources, tryto learn everything we can about slurs and their execution. Let us try to feel exactly why the resolution of a dissonance must be played in a particular manner, why a dotted rhythm
has to be played this way and not that. However, when we make music, then we must forget everything we have read. The listener should never be given the impression that we are playing something we have learned. It must have been assimilated into our very being, it must have become a part of our personality. We ourselves are no longer aware that we have learned something nor where we learned it. Perhaps we will again do something 'wrong'--in literal terms. But a 'mistake' which comes from conviction, from educated taste and feeling, is more convincing than any musical cogitation."


Some more background on Harnoncourt, all affecting his outlook:

As Harry Haskell points out in The Early Music Revival: A History, "Vienna's rise to prominence in the 1950s stemmed largely from the musicologist Josef Mertin, who counted Harnoncourt, Rene Clemencic and Eduard Melkus among his pupils at the Akademie fuer Musik. As the home of Leonhardt (who taught at the academy in the early fifties), the Concentus Musicus, the Clemencic Consort, Melkus's Capella Academica and the Wiener Blockfloetenensemble, Vienna staked its claim to being a capital of the early music world." (p168)

Harnoncourt's early professional career was as an orchestral cellist playing for 17 years in the Vienna Symphony. That is, he comes from knowing the "standard" orchestral and operatic repertoire first...and has spent much of his subsequent career reacting against things he didn't like in the "standard" approach, as well as keeping practical habits he learned there. It's an intensely personal mixture he chooses.

His full name is Johann Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt; he is a descendant of an old aristocratic family from Luxembourg and Lorraine. His father was a civil engineer, eventually the head of the department of culture in the Austrian state of Styria. That is, Nikolaus Harnoncourt comes to music from a position of privilege.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for quoting all the Harnoncourt. I saved it for posterity! You made my day!! I have his "Musical Dialogue". Is the book you quoted from out of print or is it still available?

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] You're welcome. It appears to go into and out of print in cycles; presently out of print, as far as I know. :(

Here are some links:

And there are always libraries.... Good luck!

When I got my copy it was a required textbook in a performance-practice course taught by Parmentier. Another was Quantz' On Playing the Flute. Great course: we argued about this stuff, and looked at dozens of original treatises, and had individual research projects, and analyzed the SMP and the Brandenburgs in depth. One of the best and most stimulating music courses I've ever taken.

And when we were working on issues of expression and ornamentation, Parmentier had us sing all our examples (individually) in class rather than letting us play them on our instruments, where finger habits might have taken over. Make up syllables that exactly fit the articulations and dynamic shaping we're demonstrating. That was a particularly helpful pedagogic technique, since these things are all supposed to go back ultimately to emulate the human voice anyway. (In issues other than pitch control, if you can't imagine the interpretation of something clearly enough in your head to sing it, your playing is not going to get it vocally enough either.) I agree with that...and it fits nicely with the way Pablo Casals rehearsed his orchestras, too, singing and grunting at them. :)

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for all your efforts in putting together information that I was looking for. It does appear that Kuijken is just a blip on the radar screen compared to what Harnoncourt has outlined here. Also the idea of the Viennese school of early music performance is important for me to look into. All of this will be quite helpful information.

I will need time to 'chew on' all this information before I will be able to come up with a meaningful response. (no knee-jerk reactions that might appear to be Harnoncourt bashing!!)

Thanks again.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 12, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Personally, of the several hundred Harnoncourt recordings I have (about 2/3 non-Bach), I have to say my favorites are the following:

- the Beethoven symphony cycle, terrifying, especially the blazing 7

- Johann Strauss: two discs of dances, and "Fledermaus" which I haven't listened to as much yet...I of course made sure to watch his New Year's Day from Vienna broadcast last year

- some of the Haydn symphonies, so full of humor and dance...more successful than Harnoncourt's Mozart or Schubert symphonies, and I don't think his Brahms or Bruckner flow well enough...well, some of the Mozart serenades and symphonies go well; the Mozart operas so-so

- some of his Schumann and Mendelssohn

- Mozart Requiem, heart-rending, and the Solemn Vespers, and some of the masses

- his second B Minor Mass (BWV 232), with the mixed chorus; and the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). I haven't heard the new SMP (BWV 244). I like the earlier SJP (BWV 245), SMP (BWV 248), and BMM (BWV 232), but they don't move me. And I don't like his way with the cantatas or the orchestral music...too labored and rough. A long time ago there was a televised Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) by him that I liked even better than his studio recording. I saw it only that one time, but it really moved me.

- the wacky live "Messiah" with that Swedish choir

- the Handel organ concertos (with Tachezi improvising up a storm) and concerti grossi...but I haven't been able to find many of these on CD

- Orfeo

- the Four Seasons and Water Music, just for the wildness nearing insanity

In all these, what I like best is the way he makes big spacious gestures in the music, and occasionally (as in the Beethoven) makes the detail and energy almost unbearably exciting. When I sense he's going with his feelings on something, listening to the way his body wants to move, it's really compelling. When it seems he's being more intellectual or trying to make a didactic point, it can be he's out to pique us or demonstrate something (or Be Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the way Gould often fell into Being Glenn Gould) instead of just playing the music intensely.

Harnoncourt can be all over the place in his recordings. When he lets things swing naturally, focused on the sense and mood of the words (if any, as in the Mozart Requiem) he can be one of my favorite conductors. But I think that overall his Bach is some of his weakest work. I think in general he gets the big public "extraverted" music better than he catches the nuances of introversion. That's why the Brahms/Schubert/Bruckner/Dvorak and the intimate side of Bach don't quite have the lucidity in Harnoncourt's performances, though they have plenty of interesting detail.... He really dissects the Brahms concertos!

I couldn't stand to keep his Bach cello suites in the house; got rid of it. So boring: didactic style, no substance. I liked the LP set of flute sonatas with Leopold Stastny pretty well, though, and some of the other non-Bach chamber music the CMW was playing at that time. Some of their playing sounds like fun, and at other times it's pedantry. A real mix, as always with any performer this willful.

I think I'd like a Harnoncourt "Symphonie Fantastique" and the Suppe overtures, if he ever gets around to those. And maybe a "Gurrelieder" or some Hindemith. Some thifitting the strengths of his personality.

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled Bach.

Brad Lehman (Harnoncourt fan)

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 12, 2002):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < - the Beethoven symphony cycle, terrifying, especially the blazing 7 >
I'll look for this...

Donald Satz wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Yes, the Harnoncourt/Beethoven symphony cycle is stunning. I was getting so bored with the recordings I had; then Harnoncourt opened up these symphonies for me and made them fresh and full of new insights. I don't know if the set is still at the original price, but it's worth every penny. If both Brad and I have praise for the set, it must be very good.

Laurent Planchon wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Donald Satz] Last time I checked, you could still get the whole Beethoven set (including the Missa Solemnis, the ouvertures and the violin concerto which are all superb too) for $50 at Berkshire. I don't think you can beat that.

BTW, contrary to Brad, I find his Dvorak and Bruckner amazingly good. His Brahms, Schumann and Mendelsohn less so, but still very decent. His Schubert is a mixed bag with an especially good 4 (with Berlin. Oddly enough he must like this symphony more than the others as he as recorded it 3 times !). Mozart and Haydn (pretty much all of them) are also a must. As far as early music is concerned, it seems to me that, except of his Rameau, he succeeded at everything. All (almost) his Bach is good IMHO, even his Brandburg (2nd recording. Nobody comes close to his concerto #1), his Haendel -although sometimes a bit unusual- is superb, his Vivaldi, (well do I really need to mention that ? He singlehandly reinvinted the way everybody plays this music now, just ask Il Giardino Armonico what they think about him), his onteverdi,
and so on and so forth.

I don't think we will ever hear a note by Berlioz and Malher from him. He finds them a bit too personal (in an autobiographical sense). But then he also said that he would never record Wagner, and he thinks now about doing Tristan. So time will tell. I would be very interested to hear his Berlioz, but his experience with Rameau makes me wonder whether he would really do it well.

Pete Blue wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] Not a MENTION, not even a dismissive one, of the Schonbrunn Brandenburgs? My first Harnoncourt acquisition (on LP) and my most-played. Like Francine, I return to it again and again. I think he went downhill when he moved to the Concertgebouw and what sounds like a pickup group in the Beethoven. You want powerful Beethoven Symphonies: how about Leibowitz? Scherchen? Toscanini/NY Phil? Harnoncourt's I find not powerful but precarious; he's a pygmy among giants in this music. The phrasing is bizarre. The ensemble is scruffy (so is Scherchen's but there are compensations). Kirk: audition extensively before buying, if you can.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Donald Satz] Do you have the Norrington set, just rereleased at bargain basement price by Virgin? I find that interesting. This said, I am not an expert on Beethoven...

Donald Satz wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Yes, I have the Norrington. I think well of it, but the Harnoncourt is the special set.

Santu De Silva wrote (March 13, 2002):
[To Pete Blue] Peter Blue's suggestions seem to reveal what he likes in a Beethoven symphony performance. The rough, 'scruffy' sound of Harnoncourt does tend to obscure certain aspects of the music- -at least, it did for me, until I was completely
accustomed to the raw sound of Harnoncourt.

Neither style is a complete substitute for the other, which is why we always say: get both.

I think to call Harnoncourt a pygmy among giants is not a true description of the situation; I'd say he was a "barbarian" among Romans, and I'd go further: perhaps the barbarians have their own take on Beethoven's music, and a useful one, too.

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (March 14, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I didn't think that anyone could rethink the symphonies but, Harnoncourt certainly did and they are my favorites too, esp the blazing No. 2!

Drew Pierce wrote (March 14, 2002):
[To Trevor Evans-Young] Since we're on the topic of Beethoven symphonies, anyone familiar with the Gardiner cycle? I bought the recordings a few years ago (Columbia House had a pretty good deal -- around $32) and am generally pretty happy with them.

But then I am no Beethoven expert. I especially like Gardiner's 9th, and the spoken CD that comes with the complete set, where he explains his interpretive approach on period instruments, giving illustrations from the music.

Robert Sherman wrote (March 20, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman} Didn't think I'd find myself to the left of Brad, but in this case I am. I like the 2 a lot in this set. Ed Tarr's playing in this 2 is the ONLY valveless trumpet playing I've ever heard that I could listen to for enjoyment rather than curiousity, without thinking "that's technically impressive, but imagine how much better it would sound if he used a modern beryllium-bell piccolo trumpet."

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 20, 2002):
Yes, the Harnoncourt 1960's recording at the Palace Schoenbrunn (the Brandenburgs) is the only one that so deeply moves and inspires me. And I have lots of Brandenburgs to compare with also. I almost want to cry with happiness when I hear them! Definitely a desert island CD! Warm wishes, Francine (so sorry to repeat myself!)

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 20, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] I'm curious which other sets of Brandenburgs you're comparing it with.

I think we'll just have to respectfully disagree on our opinions about this one; I'm glad that it moves you, while it does nothing for me. I listened to the whole set again this week, and found it to be one of the most boring and stiff recordings of the Brandenburgs that I can remember. (The dubious honor of "most stiff" goes to Marriner with Szeryng, Petri, et al...coincidentally we heard the #4 from that one last night on the radio while driving, and my wife started tapping me on the knee to show that she hated their rigid meter. With no prompting from me, she commented that whoever-this-is is incredibly boring, and I agreed. We had to wait through the end and confirmed that our guess was right: probably had to be either Marriner or Gerard Schwarz, and it was Marriner.)

But back to this CMW set at hand. As I hear it, these performances are so deadly rigid in meter, and have so few dynamic or tonal inflections, the music seems to take forever and go nowhere. The ensemble sounds so cautious and tense, getting all the notes as they appear on the page (but I listened without the score). Whether this is toward a goal of "objectivity" or whether the players could barely get the notes, let alone interpret the music, it's not clear from the essay. The ensemble balance is natural and good, sure, as Harnoncourt proudly points out...but there's just not much *happening* during the playing. Sorry! I can't shake the impression that this performance is pedantic and laborious, directionless, having not enough (any?) personality. I especially don't like Georg Fischer's playing of the harpsichord part, as I mentioned recently. Concertos 6 and 3 come off best here; 5, 2, and 1 the worst. In #4 they play the middle movement with a misguided inegal reading of the rhythm, and that's at least interesting.

For its own time this set was revelatory, presenting the novel sound of the period instruments...but I think it's been surpassed by so many others where the playing is more involved.

As has been said here several times, "your mileage may vary." :)

I'm also curious about this "Palace Schoenbrunn" reported both by you and Pete. Is Teldec trying to revise history on us when reissuing this on CD? The original Telefunken LP set has an essay by Harnoncourt, and he clearly credits the location as "Barocksaal des Schönburg-Palais in Wien"--in all three languages of the booklet. This recording location of the Palace Schönburg is also consistent with other CMW recordings from the mid-1960s. It was a much-used venue for recordings, and not only by CMW:

And here's the official site of Schoenbrunn:

This week I also listened to the set by the "Chamber Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera" conducted by Felix Prohaska, 1954. Young Nikolaus Harnoncourt played viola da gamba in that one (#6), ten years before making his own set that we're talking about. It's considerably more interesting, with more personal inflection and phrasing from all the players, and a conductor who's not simultaneously playing. They brought in "authentic Baroque instruments such as the viola-da-gamba and the recorder" as much as they could, while keeping everybody else on normal modern instruments. The exception is in #2, where they admitted the recorder part was too difficult for their available players: "(...) the flute is used instead of the recorder, the technical difficulties of which, in combination with the brilliant high trumpet part would have made the recording too hazardous." :)

The set that best moves and inspires me is Savall's. There are things I like in some others, but Savall's is the one that resonates best with me.

I'll now go put on the period-instrument set I grew up with: Leonhardt's from 1976-7. (Between that one and the stereo Casals set I learned the Brandenburgs from some of the best!) What a lineup of "all-stars" Leonhardt had! I still like it for its spirit and
clarity, though it too has been surpassed by Savall and others. I suspect that a substantial part of "what moves and inspires" us stems from whatever we heard while younger. When I was 20 I took a tape of this Leonhardt set (and hardly any other music) for a three-month trip to another country, listened to it repeatedly, and this was undoubtedly formative.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for the correction regarding the place for recording the Harnoncourt Brandenburgs. Apparently I was mislead-- is there such a thing as the 'Schoenbrunn' as opposed to the Schoenburg Palace? I find nos. 4 and 5 the most moving of the six and like the ambience of the recording in the palace. The Brandenburgs I bought since then in chronological order are by: a) Wiener Akademie, directed by Martin Haselboeck on original instruments on the Novalis label. I bought this set long ago, but wanted better sound while also using original instruments. b) The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock on Archiv. I received this one as a gift I think. It moves really fast but I enjoy it. c) Philip Pickett with the New London Consort on L'Oiseau Lyre. The *only* reason I have this set is because of the outrageous and off-the-wall commentary by Pickett. The 'article' is called 'Vanitas' and basically goes all out with Renaissance symbolism. And finally, as a result of being in the great Bach Recordings group and with fine recommendations by you and Kirk, I also have d) Jordi Savall's on Astree played by Le Concert des Nations. I got it at a bargain or mid-range price so I didn't mind checking it out. It is graceful and probably a second choice after Harnoncourt. Finally I have e) which was also recommended by the group. At super bargain price I was so happy to have MAK with Reinhard Goebel on a DG 2-for-1 deal. This is my third place winner because it is so impeccable despite being played at literally lightening speed, with a percussive quality that one just can't simply sit down idly by. And having seen MAK play in Chicago doing the Brandenburgs at Orchestra Hall made it more personal to me. It's amazing how one's opinions differ from scores of people. It could also be a matter of 'imprinting' but whatever it is, the '60's Harnoncourt would be the first BB set to grab in case of fire.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] I wanted to add that Harnoncourt's BBs have beautiful dynamics, an ebb and flow. If you listen to nos. 4 and 5, for example, there is sort of a climax when the recorders and flutes come in, with the strings adding to the excitement of the moment. The pacing is just right too. An overall beautiful job from start to finish.

Joost wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Schoenbrunn is a palace in Vienna. See

Pete Blue wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Bradley Lehman] I just looked at the Harnoncourt liner notes for the first time in decades. Of course it's Schonburg (with umlaut), not -brunn. I think I'll blame Francine for my booboo.


Francine Renee Hall wrote (March 21, 2002):
[To Pete Blue & Bradley Lehman] So sorry for misleading both of you! Someone had told me the Schoenbrunn. Thanks Joost! Next time I'll look at my notes more closely! Also I meant one flute, not 'flutes' for the Brandenburg.

Thanks joost; sorry Pete and Brad

Harnoncourt's non-legato vocal line

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 25, 2002):
Brad Lehman (some time ago when he shared some long excerpts from Harnoncourt’s books) commented as follows :

“Here are some excerpts from Harnoncourt's own chapter "Articulation" in Baroque Music Today: Music As Speech, 1982. He doesn't say where he assembled this set of ideas from (the way a positivist would footnote every reference), but is simply describing the big picture of his approach to the music. His books explicate the Credo of his convictions, and are not dissertations. This is polemic.“

Harnoncourt goes into incredible detail on many points with little or no documentation. This notion of ‘simply describing the big picture’ could possibly serve to protect Harnoncourt from criticism since he was only expounding his personal view regarding HIP. As a pioneer, he admittedly ‘got things moving’ and ‘off dead center.’ But now is the time to reflect on the legacy that he has left us since it affects the very way we hear Bach being performed and recorded even today and perhaps for many years in the future. So the fault may not be Harnoncourt’s alone, but rather lie with all the major HIP conductors, who, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to question the various aspects of the Harnoncourt Doctrine.

One of the criticisms of the Harnoncourt (Teldec) cantata series that comes up frequently is about Harnoncourt’s fragmentary approach to a melodic line. If there is one thing that Harnoncourt abhors in a Bach cantata, it is a legato line that builds to a high point and then gradually subsides to its conclusion which is held out for its full note value. He will do just about anything to avoid this by using heavy accents, dividing a long phrase into many short ones, allowing frequent stops at the end of each micro-phrase, where the final note becomes inaudible, etc.) According to Harnoncourt, the period of Classicism (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) is known for its melodic element (Musik als Klangrede, 1982, p. 162) and the melodies must be played as beautiful melodies, 'since the melodic element is strongly emphasized in that period', but in the late Baroque, the emphasis in music was very different (read ‘disjointed,’ ‘aggressive,’ and using ‘faster tempi’ because of the type of instruments used in the Baroque.) What reasons does Harnoncourt give for thinking this way about Baroque music and Bach’s vocal music in particular? One line of reasoning that I do not want to get into here at this point derives from his long discussion (the name of the book indicates this) on how speech is really music which implies that music should be more like speech, rather than vice versa. Judging Harnoncourt’s efforts with choral music, I have come to the conclusion that this is an area where his experience is very limited. Let me rephrase this another way to avoid misunderstanding: Harnoncourt may have directed many performances with choral groups included, but he still lacks a true understanding of what is suitable for good vocal production. I would venture a guess that Harnoncourt himself has had very little experience in actually singing or even taking a few voice lessons in order to train his voice. In contrast, his expertise in playing the cello, and by extension understanding all other string instruments, is very great. So it is without being astounthat I read his conclusion, “Man kann mit einem Barockbogen kein schönes Sostenuto spielen.” (p. 128) [“It is not possible to play a beautiful sostenuto with a baroque bow.”] If speech can dictate what vocal music should sound like, then I can now see how Harnoncourt could easily apply an insight such as this lack of legato due to instrumental deficiencies to Bach’s choral music as well. The only problem with this application is that it flies in the face of traditional knowledge about choral singing and vocal production, but also evidence that completely contradicts the results we hear in Harnoncourt’s HIP versions of the Bach cantatas.

Here is primary evidence in the form of a book “Anleitung zur Singkunst” “Instructions in the Art of Singing” by Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-1774), a pupil of Bach, whom Bach used to assist him in the production of his sacred cantatas and as an accompanist in the Collegium Musicum of Leipzig. (I am using the facsimile reprint of Agricola’s book that was printed in Berlin in 1757.) Agricola states on p. 50, “Hier gebe ich dem Sangmeister nur noch die nöthige Erinnerung, daß er ja Acht habe, damit die Töne, von dem Schüler, gehörig mit einander verbunden und zusammen gehänget werden mögen. Dieses geschieht, wenn man den vorhergehenden Ton so lange klingen läßt, bis der folgende anspricht: damit nichts Leeres dazwischen vernommen werde; wenn es nicht die Vorschrift des Componisten, es sey durch Pausen oder Abstoßungszeichen, oder die Nothwendigkeit Athem zu schöpfen, ausdrücklich verlanget. Gemeiniglich machen Anfänger, nach jeder Note, zumal wenn ein Sprung darauf folget, welchen sie sich nicht recht zu treffen getrauen, einen kleinen Stillstand. Hieraus kann eine üble Gewohnheit erwachsen, welcher also bey Zeiten vorgebauet, und dagegen der Grund zu einer der größten Annehmlichkeiten des Singens geleget werden muß.“ [„Here I will remind the voice teacher of just one more thing that he should pay attention to when instructing the voice student: make certain that the notes that the student produces are properly connected and arranged as a series of tones. This can happen, when you allow the previous tone/note to be sounded until the next one is attempted. This is done this way so that no emptiness [hiatus] between notes can be perceived, unless, of course, the composer has indicated otherwise by indicating rests or staccato, or it becomes absolutely necessary to take a breath between notes. The common mistake that beginners make is to insert tiny breaks after each note, particularly if an interval leap occurs right after the note. This can become a terrible habit, which, if preventive measures had been taken in time, could have been avoided. By correcting this habit, the singer will acquire a firm foundation that will provide for one of the most pleasant aspects of singing.”]

Harnoncourt’s methods for articulating even the simple line of a chorale so that a flowing singing line is avoided at all costs are the very opposite of the ideal singing technique that a singing teacher/coach and the budding vocalist should aspire to, as Agricola’s apt description implies. It is important to remember that Agricola studied under Bach’s guidance and had experience in performing Bach’s church cantatas under Bach’s direction.


In regard to matters such as these, that are crucial in recreating a viable HIP that more closely resembles that which Bach had originally intended, Harnoncourt is exposed as simply following his whims and his misinformed intuition. If it were not for the fact that he has produced many epigones in the HIP movement, this matter could simply be relegated to blip in the history of performance practice, a pioneering effort that could simply be regarded as such. The collectors could simply put his set of Bach cantatas on a shelf and label it, for the most part, as a crude, but perhaps necessary, pioneering effort. Unfortunately his legacy continues to be emulated many years later, whether consciously or unconsciously I can not decide; and it becomes imperative to require a more enlightened approach to Bach’s choral works (particularly the cantatas) from those conductors who are using the HIP methods. This can only be done by having the listening public become more aware of the numerous flawed aspects contained in Harnoncourt’s Doctrine as reflected in contemporary performances and recordings of the Bach cantatas. Harnoncourt's Credo is erroneous in many ways.

Continue on Part 5

Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Short Biography | Concentus Musicus Wien | Harnoncourt – Glorious Bach! (DVD) | Motets – Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - Harnoncourt | BWV 244 – Harnoncourt | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger
Gustav Leonhardt: Short Biography | BWV 232 – Leonhardt | BWV 244 – Leonhardt | Inventions & Sinfonias BWV 772-801 - Leonhardt | BWV 988 Goldberg Variations - Leonhardt
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt – Recordings:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Harnoncourt & Leonhardt – General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Conductors of Vocal Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | Singers & Instrumentalists


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