Nikolaus Harnoncourt has died, weeks after posting a hand-written farewell note on his website, a personal touch which shows the measure of the man (Read it here). Harnoncourt's values.transformed the whole way in which music is approached. His insights into the spirit of the baroque illuminate approaches to repertoire far beyond his own areas of expertise - respect for the composer and period, respect for individuality and well-informed experimentation. Note, well-informed and disciplined, not self-indulgence for the sake of ego. Harnoncourt connected the adventurous spirit of the baroque to modern music making, connecting European performance practice to its fundamental roots. He wasn't the only one to do so, but it's no exaggeration to say that, without him, European music wouldn't be what it is. I've written quite a bit about the way baroque values apply to new music - there are connections between baroque values and Boulez!
It's highly significant that the start of his career coincided with the boom in commercial recording, where music was packaged and made available as consumer product, reaching audiences who didn't necessarily have musical grounding but were shaped by what they bought. In principle, that's no bad thing, but consider the values of the Cold War - conformity, fear of the unknown, dependence on the trappings of success. Hence the taste for "classics", for "interventionist" interpretation, for big, flashy orchestras. Harnoncourt's interest in the baroque stemmed from reappraising the past, when live performance connected players and audience, when music was made in nice surroundings, but where the emphasis was on serious listening.
Harnoncourt made his own instruments, not just because he was a sculptor but also because he wanted to understand the physicality of sound and how each instrument has an individual voice. He studied original manuscript scores to get a better idea of how music might have sounded to a composer. The idea that historically-informed performance is wimpy and weedy is nonsense. "(We) don't eat baroque food!" he said, meaning that no-one can truly replicate the baroque mindset. "I'm not a warden in a museum". What mattered were principles - clarity, discipline, integrity. Maybe even the idea that maybe we don't know everything and need to keep learning.
HERE is a link to a documentary made for Harnoncourt's 80th birthday. At first, it might seem it hasn't much to do with music, but persist. Its real title is "A Journey into the self". What we see is a portrait of the man and the motivations behind what he did. Hence, no dogmas, no formulae.
See also my "Harnoncourt against the safe and bland" which has a link to a BBC interview which is still live.
Original Content: Nikolaus Harnoncourt - his true significance