Beyond Standardization and Packaging:

A Treatise is Not a Grant Application

Skip Sempé

Harpsichord lessons with Leonhardt were lessons in performance, history, aesthetics, culture, and, most of all, self-confidence to craft and develop one’s own musical personality. Leonhardt’s pre-twentieth-century approach to teaching by example and demonstration was based on his research on antique instruments, baroque repertoire, as well as the rhetorical principles of the visual and decorative arts.

The musical language he developed has settled into a primer for students in conservatories—not unlike a treatise. And since musicians tend to seek the principles that are easiest to adopt rather than interrogate the concepts that are most difficult to understand, such as passions and musical expression, the principles of communicating emotion transmitted by Leonhardt and his closest colleagues and many Renaissance and Baroque treatises have largely been left to the wayside. If the effort of checking off technical and stylistic requirements do not make for convincing performances, they do highlight certain aspects of performance practice that make the repertoire more accessible to a general public and easier to sell to concert organizers and recording labels.

Nevertheless, the investment and labor required to put these musical ideals into practice is precisely what makes a performance both historically informed and artistically convincing. It redirects musicians’ and listeners’ attention from “decorum” (the technical elements of early music performance) to décor (aesthetic context and background).

Leonhardt’s transcriptions of Bach’s solo sonatas, partitas, and suites are a model of how an intimate understanding of art, aesthetics, and idiomatic harpsichord writing can go beyond texts and sources to create a performance practice and a musical language that engage performers and listeners emotionally.