Hogwood’s Gift

One of the most influential, engaging, far-reaching, and indefatigable musicians of the last half-century, Christopher Hogwood died this week at his home in Cambridge, England, succumbing at the age of seventy-three to the illness he had been battling for several months. He has been rightly lauded in remembrances appearing this week in the wake of his death as a towering figure of early music, the movement that reinvigorated the performance and understanding of historic repertories through engagement with instruments, manuscripts, and treatises stemming from the period when the works were composed. Yet the gifts Hogwood gave—and the music he made—extend far beyond a circumscribed historical period sometimes still known as the baroque. Fascinated by the old, he was a man vigorously engaged with the musical culture of the present.

Born in Nottingham in 1941, Hogwood studied classics at Cambridge as an undergraduate, while also pursuing his musical interests under the guidance of that formidable pioneer of early music scholarship and performance, Thurston Dart. Some years ago Hogwood offered a charming vignette of university life with Dart about:

“When I first arrived in Cambridge in 1960, Thurston Dart was the prime and in those days lone advocate of pursuing both paths [of performance and scholarship]; he was keyboard player, orchestra director, musicologist, editor, writer, teacher and broadcaster — a fine and I thought very tempting mix. He was also blunt in his criticisms; seeing me in the street clutching a newly-purchased copy of the standard edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, he stopped me to point out that I had paid for ‘twenty errors on every page!’ He may have been exaggerating, but his proposed cure was most effective: “My dear sir, go to the Museum down the road and look at the real thing.”

The “real thing” was the sumptuous Elizabethan manuscript itself, and Dart’s injunction can be taken as a kind of motto for the musician Hogwood would become: he did his homework, but did not let scholarly rigor shackle his music-making, rendering it merely antiquarian. Hogwood did not have formal academic training in musical scholarship, but was nonetheless one of the most scholarly of conductors and keyboard players; he developed his considerable skills out of necessity, in order to answer the manifest questions that a conscientious performer should pose rather than simply relying on traditions passed down (and distorted) across over generations of interpreters. That sense of critical confrontation is the crucial legacy of the early music movement at whose leading edge Hogwood so long strode.

Among his hundreds of recordings as conductor and soloists is a fine one made twenty years after that pavement encounter with Dart of music from that very Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. On those two LPS (later made available as a CD) Hogwood did indeed correct those mistakes, but more importantly made the dances dance, and the counterpoint sing on each of the instruments he chose—virginal, organ, harpsichord, and spinet. Like so many of Hogwood’s productions, the recording was nominated for a Gramophone award.

While at Cambridge, Hogwood found himself increasingly drawn to music as a possible professional, becoming harpsichordist and resident musicologist for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and a founding member of David Munrow’s Early Music Consort in the mid 1960s in which he played percussion, harp, and keyboard instruments—that multi-tasking characteristic of an atmosphere Hogwood would later describe as an “inspired circus.”

But it was in 1973 that Hogwood founded the Academy of Ancient Music—or perhaps one would better say revived it, since the name was taken from a predecessor established back in 1726 and even then dedicated to the performance of music at least a century old; Hogwood’s own name and legacy will remain most closely bound up with this group, through innumerable concerts and tours, but also some two hundred recordings made under his direction. The most celebrated and best-selling of all these was the seminal 1980 recording of Handel’s Messiah in which this most famous and oft-performed piece was born anew in gleaming Georgian hues, the magnificent façade scrubbed of the sooty layers of lumbering tempos and heaving choirs.  Particularly as he looked back at that project some decades later, Hogwood himself was in no way doctrinaire about this crucial refashioning of Handel’s master famous work, unwilling to pass judgment on those who preferred a chorus of hundreds, rather than a lean corps of men and boys and the glinting baroque instruments he commanded with his baton. The admittedly partisan BBC Music Magazine rightly hailed this Messiah as one of the top fifty recordings of all time.

Among the impressive large-scale projects such as the first complete cycle of Mozart’s forty-one symphonies, an attempt at the hundred and some of Haydn (abandoned by Hogwood’s label L’Oiseau-Lyre after the three-quarter mark), and all of Beethoven’s nine, are dozens and dozens of other projects. But as he pushed back into the seventeenth century and farther into the nineteenth and twentieth, Hogwood remained a classicist, never exaggerated or mannerist in his interpretations, instead cleaving to ideals of clarity and reasoned communication. Some—notably and notoriously Richard Taruskin—unfairly excoriated him for these values. There was always abundant life and light in what Hogwood created.

On Hogwood’s sprawling and hugely informative website  one can browse the astounding diversity of his hundreds of recordings; at the top of the web page are the composers he will long be identified with — Bach, Handel, Purcell Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi. Others from Albinoni to Zachow crop up on the long list below.  But also at the top of the page, among the baroque and classical titans just mentioned is Boruslav Martinu the twentieth-century Czech composer from whose vast oeuvre Hogwood drew two dozens of recordings made from the early 1990s (with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which Hogwood led from 1988 to 1992) into the first decade of this century with the Czech Philharmonic, an outstanding ensemble with which he also enjoyed a tremendously fruitful collaboration.

Hogwood also led Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society from 1986 to 2001, and was responsible for transforming that storied orchestra into a period instrument group. One of my favorite CDs is the Handel and Haydn Society’s 1990 reading of Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s fetching pastoral Acis and Galatea: the project of listening to Mozart listening to Handel captured much of Hogwood’s own mission of placing himself in a long and crucial line of evolving engagement with music of the past. As the Handel and Haydn Society’s conductor laureate he was due back in Boston to lead a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah this coming spring.

Even while Hogwood was in such great demand as a conductor at leading symphony halls and opera houses around the globe, he had the seemingly inexhaustible energy to pursue his scholarly work, the making of editions and writing of books and articles. His biography of Handel (first published 1988; revised edition of 2007) is a wonderfully written and admirably concise account of the composer’s long musical life, exploring with graceful erudition the rich cultural milieu in which the great man lived and work.

Less easily quantified than his recordings and many honors are connections he forged with younger musicians and scholars, always willing as he was to support and to contribute to their initiatives. Hogwood always seemed more eager to hear your story rather than tell his own.

Hogwood was a great expert on, and advocate for, the music of C. P. E. Bach. Indeed, he was due back next weekend to Cornell University, where he had been appointed as an Andrew Dixon White Professor-at-Large last year, for a festival commemorating this Bach’s tercentenary.  We will have to go on without him, even if his galvanizing spirit will animate these many lectures and performances.

Even while Hogwood worked in impressive genres of opera and symphony, he was, like C. P. E. Bach, a great lover of that most intimate of musical instruments the clavichord, for many years running a festival dedicated to it in Magnano in the Piedmont of northern Italy. Hogwood was a tremendous collector of musicalia, visual art, glass, and historical keyboard instruments; in the Cambridge house where he died a few days ago he offered access to his tremendous collection freely to students and colleagues.

Pride of place should be given to the first instrument encountered on his website: a beautifully decorated clavichord made by Johann Adolph Hass in Hamburg in 1761, some six years before C. P. E. Bach became director of music in that city. In Hogwood’s house now, even in his absence, each time that instrument is played—and played well—it will speak with his voice.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com