"The term 'loss' doesn't suffice for what I feel," wrote conductor Franz Welser-Möst on the death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Pointing to his late colleague's "unshakable creativity," Welser-Möst placed Harnoncourt in the context of those performers "who changed our world in the past 50 years more than any other."
Deep sadness was also expressed by Mathis Huber, director of the Styriarte music festival in Graz, Austria founded in 1985 by Harnoncourt. Huber's only consolation: "Now he can ask Mozart and Bach those questions he hasn't been able to answer himself yet."
On behalf of the Vienna Philharmonic, orchestra manager Andreas Großbauer added: "His trailblazing interpretations took us to the limit and beyond. They alienated, shocked - and convinced us."
From the arts pages
Practically every serious newspaper in the German-speaking world elaborately summed up the conductor's life and work. Germany's "Die Welt" dubbed him "the big bang of historical performance practice and the most important conductor after [Herbert von] Karajan," adding, "Harnoncourt made the familiar dangerous again. And sharpened what had grown dull."
The "Frankfurter Rundschau" concurred: "Harnoncourt restored music's cutting edge and its decisiveness, its charm and its wit." The reviewer went on to stress Harnoncourt's lasting influence on the world of music: "Nowadays, hardly any conductor or orchestra doesn't [emulate him by seeking] the rhetorical, breathing gesture within music."
Harnoncourt was born in Berlin in 1929 into a family of nobility from Luxembourg and Lorraine, christened Count Johannes Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt. His mother was the great-great-great granddaughter of Emperor Franz I.
The musician must have radiated an aura of nobility as a young man. When Harnoncourt applied for a position as cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1952, its principal conductor Herbert von Karajan engaged him without an audition, finding sufficient reason "just in the way he sits."
It wasn't a mutual admiration society. In later years, Harnoncourt found words of recognition for Karajan's transparent musical lines and sense of structure but always vehemently opposed the older maestro's "beautiful sound." For the young artist, Karajan stood for everything he opposed in music making. The two parted ways over Harnoncourt's remark that Karajan was "a good Porsche driver." The older musician never forgot it.
Was he a privileged nobleman who didn't have to work hard? Far from it, as his website proves. A black-and-white photo on the site shows Nikolaus Harnoncourt as a young man, napping on a sofa, cello resting on his stomach. Then, to musical accompaniment, a musical score sweeps past with his achievements summed up in numbers: "1 life to music / 1 conductor / 2 New Year's Concerts / 9 World Tours / 28 Tailcoats / 43 Operas from Monteverdi to Gershwin / 1,938 Gut Strings / 7,240 Hours at the Conductor's Stand / 12,842 Liters of Sweat / 293,218 Sheets of Music / 48,849,000 Burned Calories / 1,000,000 Pieces of Information." One statistic is missing: nearly 500 recordings for record and CD. Apart from Herbert von Karajan and Neville Marriner, no conductor made as many as Harnoncourt.
Harnoncourt described himself as "resistance personified" and as someone "who questions everything," a characteristic that he said emerged in childhood. "Even when I was small, I always took the opposite point of view. I'm not someone who agrees," he once said. And: "It's true. At age 10, I told my father out of the blue, 'Politeness is a lie'."
Laughed at, then loved
In the early years of playing on period instruments with his wife Alice and cohorts, he was derided as the "knight of the gut strings." People in Vienna said, "The Harnoncourts sit on apple crates beneath their expensive violins, eating potatoes and salad."
Beyond the rediscovery of early instruments, it was painstaking source research that made Harnoncourt a highly-emulated model in the early music scene. "Historically informed" was the catchword - to which the conductor had this acerbic remark: "The expression 'historically informed' makes me sick." Instead, he considered himself "not informed, but curious."
"Art has many correct interpretations, but also many wrong ones," said Harnoncourt in an interview with the Austrian newspaper "Der Standard." That might indicate a dogmatic stance, but it was anything but. "I know of course that with nearly every opinion and piece of knowledge, the opposite opinion and piece of knowledge is equally true. Life isn't that simple. I can only learn through criticism."
That basic openness was reflected in Harnoncourt's work with orchestras. "I have always encouraged musicians to tell me immediately if something in my explanations sounds suspicious. And if, in return, they can convince me of something - and that has happened - then that's what we'll do."
Conducting without a baton, Harnoncourt used his hands, eyes - and his emotional and intellectual presence. Lacking in his gestures, however, was a clear indication of the beat. "We don't even look at him," one orchestra member revealed. Added a colleague, "We only play to see him look happy."
Praise and recognition from external sources seem to have made Harnoncourt less content, however. "Now they're lavishing praise over me for my lifetime achievement. Terrible. It sounds so final. I'm not finished yet! Or do you want this feeble old man to quit?" he asked rhetorically after winning the Echo-Klassik lifetime achievement award in 2014.
Art is universal but rare
The conductor who delved just as seriously into George Gershwin and Johann Strauss as he did Claudio Monteverdi and Johann Sebastian Bach never distinguished between serious and entertaining music. Harnoncourt had "blues in his blood," wrote the newspaper "Die Welt" in 2009 after hearing his rendition of Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess" in Graz.
"With jazz singers like Frank Sinatra," he explained, "I started wondering: Why do they sing that way, and why does a classical singer stand there and just sing the notes?!"
His artistic interests were wide: "To me, Shakespeare is very contemporary, and I don't see Michelangelo as an old sculptor. Bach and Monteverdi are not of their own times, but rather universal. But that, of course, applies to only few artists."
Taking music to the limits
Harnoncourt's artistic approach might be summed up in hi statement: "Music should rip the soul apart."
"Art isn't a pretty accessory - it's the umbilical cord that connects us with the divine. It insures our humanity," he wrote. And: "To be beautiful, music must operate on the outer fringes of catastrophe."
That stance came at a price, and had an effect: "If something in me were to stay the same, I'd be ashamed. In truth, I am not the same person I was yesterday."
A penultimate quote: "Impossibilities are the most beautiful possibilities."
Only a person of unshakable optimism could say that, one might think. Wrong again. Even here, Harnoncourt begged to differ: "I think there are only few intellectually interested people who are optimists - because optimism always requires a certain degree of stupidity."