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.

Musical Studies

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 Barocks. 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 University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (Photo: Public Domain)
Chapter: Concentus Musicus

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.

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Concentus in Concert – Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Live Holland Festival 1973 Lutherse Kerk Den Haag. Source: FlickR – Creative Commons license

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.

Concentus Musicus - Image collection set to music. Concentus Musicus Wien, 1964 - Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048, Bach
Chapter: Historic music

On the Interpretation of Historical Music

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“The Division Violist”, de Christopher Simpson, UK, 1659-1667

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.

Harnoncourt-Clavecin
Harpsichord – Among keyboard instruments, the most dramatic disappearance was that of the harpsichord, which gradually went out of style during the second half of the 18th century. The fortepiano became more popular by such a degree that harpsichords were destroyed; indeed, the Paris Conservatory is notorious for having used harpsichords for firewood during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times. Clavecin Ruckers & Taskin

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.

Concert and interviews: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Cecilia Bartoli and Concentus Musicus - "Armida" (Haydn)
The facade of the world famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, The Netherlands at night. (Photo: By Massimo Catarinella via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Renovation of orchestral playing

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.

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt 2012. (Press photo: Marco Borggreve, Sony Classics)

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.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Chapter: Mixed Influences

Mixed influences

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 30’s and sent the latest piano sheets by Gershwin to Harnoncourt’s father.

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George Gershwin, 1937 Carl Van Vechten Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Graz, Austria (Photo: Mfield via Wikimedia Commons)
Porgy & Bess
Eric Ericsons Chamber Choir at the Polar Music Prize ceremony 1994
Chapter: Polar Music Prize

Stockholm May 1994

Cogently reflected, 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.

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Receiving the prize from the hands of HM The King of Sweden. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)

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.

"Allegro Malinconico" performed by Anna Norberg and Lars-David Nilsson
With the Royal Family and Quincy Jones, the other Laureate of 1994 (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)