Skip Sempé





Country of Residence


Year of birth


Year(s) in which you received lessons from Gustav Leonhardt


The lessons were

As a guest student at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (Amsterdamsch Conservatorium, Sweelinck Conservatorium)

In public masterclasses as a player (participant)

How did you first come into contact with Gustav Leonhardt, and how did you get the opportunity to study with him? Did you have to wait before you could become his student?

The first contact was in a five-day masterclass in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977. There was a cancellation for 1981/82 in Amsterdam, and I was accepted after he heard me in Ann Arbor.

Briefly describe your level of musical education when you started lessons with Gustav Leonhardt. How many years had you studied an early keyboard instrument? What academic qualifications did you have, if any?

Bachelor of Music, Oberlin College, 1980. I also played a variety of instruments as a teenager, including studying recorder with Marianne Kuiper-Milks, a student of Frans Brüggen who was living in New Orleans in the 1970s. From this training I was familiar with the Dutch school many years before I studied with Leonhardt in Amsterdam.

What repertoire did you study with Gustav Leonhardt? You may answer along general lines or give a list.

Mostly 17th-century repertoire, lots of virginal music and French 17th and 18th-century music, Froberger, Frescobaldi...

Did you present each piece of music only once, or more often? Was this your own choice?

Only ever once, except the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (twice). I had heard that Leonhardt only wanted to hear a piece once, and I trusted my sources.

Please describe a typical lesson or various types of lessons you received. For example: the frequency, length and location of the lessons, the specific instruments used, the number of pieces you typically presented, how much discussion there was, how much Leonhardt played and at what point during the lesson, etc.

About once a week. All the lessons were in the big garden room on the Herengracht on the Paris Dowd Blanchet. I usually played 3 or 4 pieces, and most of the lessons took one hour. One was 20 minutes, a few others were 90. I had 36 in all. Leonhardt played often in the lessons, to demonstrate articulations, phrasings and variety of sound and touch.

Did Gustav Leonhardt discuss and/or demonstrate keyboard technique, fingerings, hand and arm position,etc.? If so, did he relate these aspects to different periods, traditions and/or national styles of early keyboard music?

He only demonstrated musical results. There was never any discussion about keyboard technique, fingerings (old or modern), hand / arm position, etc. Only once did he mention to 'drop the wrist a little for difficult, fast scale passages'.

Did he discuss historical​ ​ performance practice or different types of historic instruments, refer to musicological research, performance treatises, ornament tables, etc.? If so, in what particular situations and musical contexts?

No, he heard that I had already accessed that information before becoming a student of his.

Did you notice that he commented at greater length or with more enthusiasm on particular pieces, composers, or types of repertoire? If so, which ones?

Virginal music, Froberger and Louis Couperin.

How did he engage with the works you presented? For example, did he offer stylistic considerations or make a formal analysis? Did he place the pieces within a larger context, musical or other? Did he use metaphors or make analogies when talking about the music?

The metaphors and analogies generally concerned the relationship between the spirit of the music and the spirit of 16th- to 18th-century visual arts. But he knew that I was very interested in this way of thinking, so he quite probably used this tool to greater advantage with me. Such as the detail of engraving on silver as opposed to the 'illusionistic' properties / qualities of quick and bold brush stokes in painting.

Did he ask you to defend your interpretive choices? More generally, did he approach questions of personal autonomy and individuality as a performer during your studies? In what way?


What did you hope or expect to achieve from your lessons with Gustav Leonhardt?

To learn what he had learned about 16th- to 18th-century music and harpsichord playing, directly from him, at home, not in a conservatory classroom. Neither one of us liked the lighting in conservatory classrooms.

After your period of study, did you have further contacts with Gustav Leonhardt that contributed to your development as a musician?

Yes, because he continued to do new repertoire and to change slightly in details of approach after 1982. For the rest of his life we saw each other, mostly at his home on the Herengracht. We talked about music, harpsichords, harpsichord makers, furniture, exhibitions, historic houses, historic preservation, gardens, travel, mutual friends, the older and the younger generation of baroque musicians. We also attended each other's concerts from time to time, which we both enjoyed - but any discussion after any concert centered on subjects other than music and performance.

Did his approach to teaching influence the approach you have taken with your own students? If so, how?

Yes. I teach what I learned from him, what I learned from well-selected others (generally from the musicians with whom I perform and record), and my own musical and artistic distillation of what I have learned by playing the harpsichord, rehearsing, performing and recording.

Has your perspective on your lessons with Gustav Leonhardt changed over the years? In what way?

I now understand things that he talked about that I did not understand in 1981/82. Much of this understanding has occurred only in the last five years. Thirty years of thought - during a period in which a mentor such as Leonhardt was alive - was finally not as efficient as a continuing search at a point when a mentor such as Leonhardt is no longer with us.

What are the most important things Gustav Leonhardt taught you, or the ways he most influenced you as a musician?

Never let a musician who is not your equal tell you that you are wrong.

In this area, you can describe your lessons with Gustav Leonhardt in any way you wish.

The lessons were all wonderful. Had I not had lessons with Gustav Leonhardt, many important elements of harpsichord playing would have remained a mystery. It was a wonderful experience to learn these things from the very person who had rediscovered the traditional harpsichord and its wide-ranging repertoire.

Curriculum Vitae

Skip Sempé grew up in New Orleans, studied music, musicology, organology and the history of art in the United States at the Oberlin Conservatory and completed his training in Europe with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. He remained in Europe to embark on his own pioneering reconsideration of well and lesser-known repertoire ranging from 1500 to 1750. Sempé quickly earned a reputation as a musician whose knowledge of historical instrumental techniques provided the basis for a renewed interpretive conception of sonority and improvisation that had its origins in the music of the Renaissance. Harpsichordist and conductor, he created Capriccio Stravagante in 1986, which now includes three ensembles: Capriccio Stravagante, the Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra and Capriccio Stravagante Les 24 Violins. Skip Sempé is particularly known for his interpretations of the French classical harpsichord literature including Chambonnières, d’Anglebert, Forqueray, Louis and François Couperin and Rameau, for his adventurous Bach and Scarlatti, and for the earlier virginalist repertoire of Byrd and his contemporaries. He is regularly invited as a guest director, and has performed with Julien Martin, Josh Cheatham, Sophie Gent, Olivier Fortin, Pierre Hantaï, Doron Sherwin, and the ensembles B’Rock, Collegium Vocale Gent, Vox Luminis, Capella Cracoviensis, Chœur Pygmalion, Chanticleer, Les Voix Humaines, the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montreal, the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. In founding the Paradizo label in 2006, Skip Sempé added the role of impresario and recording producer to his ever-growing list of activities as harpsichordist, musical director of Capriccio Stravagante, guest musical director, teacher, coach and lecturer. Paradizo also undertakes special projects, including a documented homage to Wanda Landowska and a volume of Skip Sempé’s Essays on Music and Performance.