Sigiswald Kuijken pioneered the revival of Baroque music in the 1960s. Behind his jovial manners, he has a boundless appetite and enthusiasm for rediscovering forgotten instruments and how to play them. This well-rounded, highly-respected musician is equally at home in the solo violin repertoire as in sweeping choral works, and defends historically-authentic performances of Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn or Debussy.
Sigiswald Kuijken studied violin in Bruges then at the Brussels conservatoire, where he graduated with distinction in 1964. With his brothers Wieland (a gambist) and Barthold (a flautist), he was one of the first to take an interest in early music and do research into the playing techniques used in the Baroque period. In 1969, he rediscovered how to play the violin without a chin rest, which radically changed the approach to this instrument for decades after. He readily exchanges his violin for a viola da gamba when, for example, there is a continuo part to play. Between 1964 and 1972, as a member of the Alarius ensemble, he performed across Europe and America, playing chamber music with such emblematic figures of the Baroque revival as Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, Anner Bylsma, Alfred Deller and René Jacobs.
In 1972, when Gustav Leonhardt was engaged to conduct Lully's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Sigiswald Kuijken founded La Petite Bande for the purpose: an orchestra made up of Belgian and Dutch musicians, specialised in early music. Sigiswald is the ensemble's permanent conductor and conducts mostly from the violin, whether they are playing Haydn symphonies or Bach's B minor Mass. He founded the Kuijken String Quartet in 1986 to perform the Viennese Classical repertoire.
In the 2000s, he was convinced by the arguments put forward by the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin, that Bach's choral works can be performed with a single singer for each part. He has accordingly followed this principle in the ensemble's subsequent recordings of the two Passions, the B minor Mass, the motets and a full liturgical year of sacred cantatas.
After in-depth musicological research, backed by substantial evidence, in 2004 he presented to audiences the violoncello da spalla (literally a shoulder cello), an instrument half-way between the modern cello and the viola. Most seventeenth and eighteenth-century works should probably be played on this instrument rather than the modern cello. Sigiswald Kuijken has recorded Bach's Six Suites for cello on the earlier violoncello da spalla, making him the first musician to record these works and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, in two versions.
Sigiswald Kuijken by no means confines his music-making to the Baroque repertoire: he can be heard playing Debussy's chamber music or conducting a variety of symphony orchestras in the major German Romantic works.
Six landmark dates in the life of Sigiswald Kuijken:
1969: rediscovers how to play the violin without a chin rest
1970: starts teaching Baroque violin in The Hague
1972: co-founds La Petite Bande with Gustav Leonhardt
1986: founds the Kuijken String Quartet
2004: rediscovers the violoncello da spalla
2007: records Monteverdi's Vespers with custom-built period instruments
Biography compiled from Radio France musical documentation, December 2014