Wanda Landowska

Landowska on Music

collected, edited, and translated by Denise Restout, assisted by Robert Hawkins
Stein and Day, 434 pp., $9.95

Wanda Landowska
Wanda Landowska; drawing by David Levine

Born in 1879 in Poland, Wanda Landowska was a product both of the nineteenth century and of Eastern Europe. In Warsaw she studied piano with teachers who specialized in Chopin. At sixteen she went to Berlin to learn to compose; and it was there that she formed the musical attachment that was to guide her life, an unquenchable passion for the works of J. S. Bach.

At twenty-one she “eloped” to Paris with a compatriot, Henry Lew, who, though he had adventured in journalism and in acting, was primarily an ethnologist. It was largely under his guidance, in fact, and certainly with his help, that she shortly began the historical studies that led her to the publication in 1909 of a pioneering book about the harpsichord and its repertory, Musique Ancienne, titled in its American edition of 1924 Music of the Past. She had formed friendships almost instantly, moreover, with the French performing musicologists of the Renaissance, Charles Bordes and Henri Expert, with the medievalist Maurice Emmanuel, and with the Bach scholars André Pirro and Albert Schweitzer.

Presented to Paris in 1901 as a rising composer and as a piano virtuoso of some renown, by 1903 she was beginning to play Bach on the harpsichord—to the vigorous disapproval of Charles Bordes, though not of Schweitzer. In the latter’s famous Jean Sebastien Bach, le Musicien-Poète, of 1905, he praised her performance of the Italian Concerto on a Pleyel harpsichord, though this instrument has usually been thought of as having come into existence later, since the public debut of the large Pleyel with octave bass did not occur until 1912.

In the meantime, however, Landowska toured Europe unceasingly from Russia to Portugal, always with some sort of harpsichord, at first playing on it only one piece per concert, so disturbing was its sound in Bach to piano-conditioned ears; and everywhere by mouth and by print she preached its virtues. Everywhere too Henry Lew was her personal representative and impresario. Indeed, she became so used to his care that she took it for nonexistent and refused to believe, touring America alone in 1923 with four very large Pleyels, that she needed either a concert manager or anyone in charge of logistics.

During her touring years she amassed a notable collection of keyboard instruments, old and new, acquired valuable books and manuscripts, bought eventually at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, just north of Paris, a comfortable house to lodge them all, adding to its garden a hall for playing concerts of a Sunday to paying pilgrims and establishing there her own Ecole de Musique Ancienne.

Save for one unhappy essay at teaching in Berlin, where she moved with Lew in 1913 and where, being caught by the 1914 War, they were prisoners on parole until its end, France was her home base from 1900 till the end of 1941. When on Pearl Harbor day she arrived in America as a…

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