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 Jewish refugee, she was interned at Ellis Island because the name on her passport was Lew and not Landowska, as on the ship’s list. Letters from known musicians, however, procured by the singer Doda Conrad, got her released overnight, along with her cased-in-lead harpsichord. This going-away gift from a Swiss pupil she had awaited some eighteen months in Marseille, her own instruments and library having all been left behind in her hasty departure from Saint-Leu of June 1940. Henceforth she lived only in New York and in Lakeville, Connecticut, where till near her death at eighty, in 1959, she continued to play, teach, and record her repertory.

Denise Restout, her pupil, musical assistant, and constant companion for twenty-six years, has preserved the notes, diaries, and manuscripts that were not lost in the systematic sacking of her house in France; and a selection of these, translated, forms the main part of the present book.

These vary in seriousness from the highly documented emendation of a Bach fugue—subject to the casual remark that this same fugue (the first of the Forty-eight) always makes her “think involuntarily of the overture to Die Meistersinger.” They are in fact a monologue at once learned and lively, penetrating, and to any musician communicative, yet as often as not improvisatory, dithyrambic, and embarrassing.

The book’s beginning part is a condensed version of Musique Ancienne incorporating six earlier articles and one later one. The second section, mostly new, details the observations of a knowledgeable and passionate interpreter about the keyboard works of J. S. Bach, W. F. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, of Handel, of all three Couperins, of Rameau, Chambonnières, Scarlatti, Purcell, and the Elizabethans—in other words the harpsichord repertory as established by Landowska. Also, on the Haydn Concerto, which she brought to light, and on certain pianoforte concertos and sonatas by Mozart. Biographical items are being kept back for another volume and those considered over-technical for mere reading reserved for direct pedagogy. A third part, which might well have been entitled Rhapsodic Remarks, is salted up here and there by a neat malice toward contemporary composition. For she really liked of recent times only Gershwin and jazz.


Wanda Landowska was an interpreter of high temperament, a technician of phenomenal finger-discipline (one wholly invented by her for the harpsichord), and a scholar whose learning was used only to facilitate familiarity with times past and identifications with composers long dead. Her origins as an East European still remembering Romanticism, her subsequent submission in France to the disciplines of musicology, and her constant covering of the entire continent on scholarly errands and concert tours all made of her an exemplary European and an embodiment of what used to be called “la grande sensibilité européene.” Her view of Europe as a diversified breeding-ground of individuals rather than as a stud-farm for producing characteristically French or German genius-types, enabled her to see differences and similarities in European history with a fresh eye. And her special position in the great musical centers as both a foreigner and a woman made it urgent to permit herself no weaknesses regarding mastery.

A certain Easternizing of the West (in Vienna absorbed by “pop” music, in France this went straight to the top) was clear in the 1830s with Liszt and Chopin being adopted by Paris. Later the Russian virtuosos also came to stay, and in our time the whole entourage of Diaghilev, including Stravinsky. Only eight years younger than Landowska, the half-Russian Nadia Boulanger gave also to the teaching of music in France a dimension just newly available. And this novel dimension, the same indeed as Landowska’s—for in its origins it was both an outsider’s view and a woman’s—was an ability to recognize in any music its uniqueness and particularity, in other words, to spot by instinct what makes one piece of it different from another, surprising resemblances, of course, helping out this identification.

Wilhelm Friedman Bach, for example, “makes [Landowska] think of Brahms, while Karl Phillip Emanuel strongly evokes Schumann. His [K.P.E.’s] excessively sorrowful and morbid character indicates degeneracy…. Whereas Johann Sebastian’s music, carved out of granite, powerful and inexorable, is sensuousness itself, that of…Karl Phillip Emanuel, the king of the gallant style, is emotive, but devoid of sensuousness.”

And as one argument for the influence on Chopin of Chambonnières, Couperin, and Rameau (indirect, for Chopin surely did not know their music) she remarks that “the fundamental trait of the harmony in Couperin as well as in Chopin is the consubstantiality of this harmony with the melody…. This is why it is impossible to suppress the slightest retard and to change the placement of an imperceptible passing note without altering the logic of the harmony or the expressive truth of the phrase.”

“Rameau’s Sarabande in A-major, [though] only twenty-eight bars long,…is the queen among [his] works for the harpsichord. Its unrestrained surrender, its ardor, the rustling of its immense arpeggios, the irresistible sweetness of its melody, and its regal deportment give a most shattering denial to those who see Rameau only as a calculator and maker of treatises.”

“Scarlatti,” on the other hand, “depicts neither the sumptuousness of palaces nor the ostentatious magnificence of princes. It is the people whom he loves…the motley and swarming crowd.”

And in her description of individual pieces by Bach, Handel, Purcell, and the rest she is always alert to identify a dance-rhythm. None so quick as she, indeed, to unmask an allemande, or to observe (though not in the present book) that a certain middle movement in Mozart is a love scene betwen two persons who are at the same time dancing a minuet.

This kind of detective work is always intuitive and as often as not unconvincing. A dance-meter once revealed remains revealed, but a feeling identified bears little evidence. In fact, another speed than the accustomed one can radically change any assumption about a passage’s meaning. But that is of no matter. Because for choosing a speed, every performer is obliged to assume a meaning. And this meaning must take into account not only the author’s notation but all that can be learned from interior and exterior evidence about what the piece might originally have been qualified to mean. For all music has meanings, often multiple meanings. And the music of a past time cannot be restored as communication without a great deal of study, a great deal of worrying about it, and a great deal of trying it on for fit with respect to known models. It is not that in the long run any one solution is the right one; it is rather that many solutions are demonstrably wrong. And certainly Landowska in her playing and in her recording came far more often than not to articulate a piece in a way that all musicians, both the knowing and the merely instinctive, could be happy about. This was her gift, an early facility for rightness perfected through study.


An awareness of the dance was always present in her playing wherever the music gave excuse for that, along with a certain relentlessness in the rhythm that was neighbor and kin to that of Boulanger—a feminine, all too feminine relentlessness, but none the less commanding. And though her way with an expressive line could lean toward a Chopin-playing manner of the 1890s, of personal display there was never any trace; she worked wholly within the framework of the music, clarifying it with knowledge, warming it with all her resources of training and temperament. Consistently hot in the blood but cool of head, she was as incomparable a pedagogue, moreover, as she was a performer. She could animate any student to his potential. Indeed, there are in all today’s welter of harpsichordists virtually none who are not her pupils or the pupils of her pupils.

Yet not one plays with her especial grandeur. Some have her share of learning, a few of them maybe more. But there is something a bit parochial about them all. For no one is nourished today by the whole of Europe. Its partition has changed all that, its partition plus its sterilization in the virile parts, all of which lie in the East. “La grande sensibilité européene,” which came out of the East, will not exist again in our century. Nor will anyone collect out of the present book pearls comparable to those that are everywhere in Landowska’s recordings. Students may get a hint or two helpful toward the rendering of Landowska’s repertory. But her rhapsodic style may well put other readers off. (“Oh, the burning delights, the mortal anguish I experience in playing!”) For indeed she was a gusher, in every use of the term.

The truth is that performing artists rarely speak well about music. Though they may communicate wisdom, they tend rather to overstate everything, simply because language for them refuses to sing. To verbalize the emotional content of music is impossible anyway. Nevertheless, it has to be tried. Because the history and analysis of a work without reference to its content are futile, and musicology’s only proper end is musical performance. The rest is fringe-benefits. Nor is there value in any scholastic hope of “merely playing the notes.” Notation is too vague for that; its translation into sound depends on too many unwritten conventions, most of them lost. Where these cannot be retrieved they must be imagined. Not to have the courage for this is to bury a resurrected past all over again.

The aging Wanda knew how personal were many of her readings, and she confesses it. At the same time she claims her right, on grounds of vast experience, much learning, and an impeccable sincerity, to restore to our hearing as best she can the sound and sense of Bach. That is where the young Wanda had started out; she wanted to see him truly. At the end she was far from sure about the objective truth of what she saw; but she knew she had seen many, many wonders and that she had put some on view. And if she was not exactly modest, never that, humble she remained before music’s miracles.

But not before big modern reputations. Of Tchaikovsky she wrote, “he cries louder than any suffering could justify.” She found Prokofiev’s Suggestions Diaboliques “ridiculously silly.” “The sumptuousness of Stravinsky dazzles me,” she writes, “but rarely gives me happiness.” “An air-conditioned room,” she finds him, “compared to the normal temperature of the street.” She speaks with consideration of Poulenc and of De Falla, both of whom wrote harpsichord concertos for her; but her disappointment with the De Falla work, often expressed privately, does not appear in this volume. Actually she played it seldom, considering the composer to have made errors of balance that should have been corrected when she pointed them out. She even warned one pupil that “it injures the hands.” Toward the end of the book she begins to wonder “what modern music can bring me.” She had never doubted the music of earlier centuries.

Though this book gives us close-up views of the long-since-ended harpsichord war and of its winning general, it is finally tedious because we know beforehand how that war came out. Landowska’s sketchy notes, moreover, though sharply penetrating about composers and their pieces, are too deeply overlaid with self-advertisement to constitute a worthy or becoming self-portrait. There is charm, however, in the persistent gallicisms of their translation—genial, for instance, where informed by genius is meant; wonderment for, I presume, émerveillement; appeasement for the calming of a fever; the use as English words of chatoyant and melisms, not to mention the innocent confusions that result from calling Chopin “the Cantor of Poland” and from constantly referring to music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as “ancient.”

A life-and-times objectively reconstructed could have had major interest. A fingered and phrased edition of the Landowska repertory would certainly have value for professionals. The present grab-bag of casual observations and incomplete analyses, for all its air of being the harpsichord’s inside-story, is woefully short of hard-core material. Though the volume is handsomely designed and has glowing photographs, as a ten-dollar book it is strictly for the fans.

This Issue

January 28, 1965