“Landowska’s return to the United States was unforgettably signalized by her recital in Town Hall, New York, on 21 February 1942, when she played the Bach Goldberg Variations before one of the most distinguished audiences ever assembled there,” wrote Robert Sabin in 1959.1 But Virgil Thomson was the commentator who best captured the significance of this historic return. His extraordinarily perceptive review remains a classic of music criticism:
Wanda Landowska’s return to us after a fourteen-year interval was celebrated yesterday afternoon at the Town Hall in a ceremony both imposing and heartwarming. She played Bach’s thirty “Goldberg Variations” to a full house that was virtually a social register of professional musicians; and she received a welcome and a final ovation from the distinguished assembly that were tribute equally to her penetrating musicianship and to her powers of virtuoso execution on that most exacting of all keyboard instruments, the harpsichord.
I am not going to review the “Goldberg Variations,” which are one of the monuments of musical art, except to note that, as Madame Landowska played them, there were no dull moments, though the concert lasted little less than two hours. I should like rather to cast an analytic eye on the work of this extraordinary performer, whose execution, no matter what she plays, is one of the richest and grandest experiences available to lovers of the tonal art. That she should play for two hours without striking a false note is admirable, of course; that she should play thirty pieces varying greatly in volume without ever allowing us to hear any thumping down of the keys proves a mastery of the harpsichord that is, to my knowledge, unique. That she should phrase and register the “Goldberg Variations” with such clarity and freedom that they all sound like new pieces is evidence of some quality at work besides mere musicianship, though the musicianship does run high in this case.
A performance so complete, so wholly integrated, so prepared, is rarely to be encountered. Most artists, by the time they have worked out that much detail, are heartily sick of any piece and either walk through it half asleep or ham it up. It is part of the harpsichord’s curious power that the more one is meticulous and finicky about detail, the livelier the whole effect becomes.
All musicianly and expert qualities are observable at their highest in Madame Landowska’s harpsichord-playing. But so are they in the work of many another virtuoso. Her especial and unique grandeur is her rhythm. It is modern quantitative scansion at its purest. Benny Goodman himself can do no better. And it is Bach’s rhythm, as that must have been. Writing constantly for instruments of no tonic accent, like the harpsichord and the organ, all Bach’s music is made up out of length values. If you want to realize how difficult it is to express a clear rhythm without the aid of tonic stresses, or down-beats, just try it on an electric buzzer. And if you want to realize what elaborate rhythmic complications the eighteenth-century performers did manage to make clear . . . on accentless instruments, just take a look at Bach’s music for organ and that for harpsichord, particularly the “Goldberg Variations.”
. . . (Highly dramatic accents can be obtained with no added force . . . by delaying ever so slightly the attack on the note it is desired to accent. Also, expressive liberties of rhythm only take on their full expression as liberties when they are liberties taken upon some previously established rhythmic exactitude.)
Of all these matters Landowska is mistress. The pungency and high relief of her playing are the result of such a mastery’s being placed at the service of a penetrating intelligence and a passionate Polish temperament. The final achievement is a musical experience that clarifies the past by revealing it to us through the present, through something we all take for granted nowadays, as Bach’s century took it for granted, but that for a hundred and fifty years has been neglected, out of style, forgotten. That is the cultivation of rhythmic complexity by an elimination from musical thought of all dependence on rhythmic beat.2
Such command, such security, and such vitality, at such a time! Because of her Jewish ancestry Landowska and her companion Denise Restout had fled the oncoming Nazi invasion of France3 and sought refuge in the south. At first, having left nearly everything at St. Leu, Landowska did not even have a harpsichord. This sad situation was rectified when “a student from Switzerland [Isabelle Nef] came to see Landowska at Banyuls-sur-Mer and was distressed to see her without an instrument. So she went back home and sold her life insurance to buy the last available Pleyel in Paris.”4 After eighteen months, Landowska and Restout made their way through Spain to Lisbon. They embarked for the United States, reaching New York harbor on 7 December 1941, an arrival somewhat overshadowed by that day’s Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
We did look rather suspicious arriving in America with practically no luggage and one large harpsichord. That very day the government had rounded up all the Japanese people and had put them in confinement and we were placed on Ellis Island. We didn’t know why we were there or why we were being held. At that time I did not speak one word of English. Not one word. Landowska spoke some English but not me. It was very confusing. Finally we were told that our passports were only good for three months. In order to let us in they had to be for more than that. . . .
Some friends of ours knew we were arriving and they finally discovered that we were being held on Ellis Island. The singer Doda Conrad, who was the son of a classmate of Landowska, went to every musician in New York and got letters from them for the authorities telling who Landowska was and why she should be permitted to enter the country. Finally we were released but we had to deposit a bond of $500 for each of us. That was $1,000 and we only had a total of $1300 to our names, so we arrived in the New World with a harpsichord and $300.5
Claude Jean Chiasson described his first meeting with the great harpsichordist:
When Landowska arrived in this country as a refugee, with a harpsichord and a secretary, she arrived on Pearl Harbor Day, 1941. I had my Christmas programs at church [in] Cambridge and couldn’t get away until after the programs were out of the way. I took the first train I could, on a Sunday I believe, after my services and went to New York to meet Landowska. She was in a little rundown New York hotel, the Hotel Langwell which was right off Times Square. It was a dismal building with holes in the carpet. We had a long talk about many things. We shared the same friends and loved the same composers. During the course of conversation I asked her if she needed any money. At this her eyes filled with tears and she lowered her head and said “If you only knew the people I considered friends who have not thought to ask that question. No thank you, I do not need money. Victor has taken care of me. Royalties from the recordings.”6
Royalties came, at this time, only from earlier recordings. A three-year strike in the recording industry kept Landowska from resuming that part of her career until June 1945. The first project was the Goldberg Variations, issued on six twelve-inch records. At the conclusion of the extensive notes to this album appears this notice:
[These records were made] in the New York studios of RCA Victor. Improved techniques for capturing the true tone of the harpsichord dictated the present recording; hence it is not to be confused with an earlier recording of the Goldberg Variations, made in France a number of years ago by Mme. Landowska and issued by “His Master’s Voice” in a limited Bach Society edition, available through subscription only.
Anticipating a limited sale for such an “esoteric offering,” Victor was caught off guard. Demand skyrocketed to eight times the original pressing. More than 30,000 copies were sold.7 On 10 March 1947 Landowska attended a dinner at the Hotel Plaza to receive the Review of Recorded Music award for the outstanding instrumental recording of serious music issued during 1946.8
Meanwhile, in lieu of recordings, Landowska lived on the proceeds from concerts and private lessons. She had sufficient income to rent a summer house in Scarsdale. Back in the city a larger and more suitable apartment at the corner of 65th Street and Central Park West became Landowska’s residence in the fall of 1942.
A glimpse into Landowska’s teaching has been preserved in detailed notes about a lesson given to Mrs. Bert Thomas of Columbus, Ohio:
1946: 39 years old. After three telephone calls to the secretary a private lesson was set for February 26th at 6 p.m. I had scarcely time to get from the friends in Greenwich Village to Landowska’s place, but I stopped by our Hotel to change from the heavy Oxfords which I had just purchased into lighter shoes and to remove the red from my fingernails, for she might have something against that.
. . . [Denise Restout] brought me into the studio, which was disappointing. It appeared as though they had just moved in although they had already been there for years: no curtains at the windows, not much furniture. It was an elegant dwelling from an earlier age: two large rooms made into one. It was an ideal space for the instruments: two Steinway pianos next to one another covered with cloths. The large Pleyel harpsichord stood near by, covered with two linen cloths and a cover. As I waited for ten minutes I became more and more nervous. Denise said, “I will see what is keeping her.” A minute later she appeared.
I knew only her profile from photographs, so I was unprepared for this small serene person, not nearly so large as I, with a rather undistinguished face, keen dark eyes, round brown hornrimmed spectacles.
As she came toward me I didn’t know what I should do, but she extended her hand in a reserved way. She wore a long dark velvet dress with lapels and cuffs faced in a tan velvet lace which appeared to be handmade. At the top it was open and she would always lap it over, but it would never stay. She could have used a zipper! Her hair was dark with a little white, very odd hair, parted in the middle, pulled severely to both sides, fastened together in the back. I forgot to observe her profile and don’t know whether it is similar to the photos or not. She directed me to sit beside her at a long table, considered me for awhile, asked what I had for an instrument. A Challis concert instrument was in her studio for some days on its way to Boston for one of her students. She said that Challis wanted to know what she thought about the instrument. I found it pleasing, for it had a very beautiful sound, but I can’t say anything about her instrument.
She questioned: “What brought you to the harpsichord?” “Playing the recorder.” She wanted to know what we had played and the editions, but I couldn’t tell her. “Did I play the piano also?” “Yes, I practice almost everything at the piano and I wondered if my lesson was to be at the piano.” She opened the harpsichord and said that I could play what I liked. Then she said, “Show me your hands.” “How can you play with such long fingernails?” They were not really so long. But the whites of her nails were completely gone and I was happy that the red polish was off mine. “Wouldn’t you like to get them right? But you will also need to use water. I have two kinds: one for me, and one for my hands. Take your time and go into the bathroom.” I went and she asked me if I had scissors. During this time she played Bach on the piano very beautifully. She had a collection of nailfiles on the harpsichord. Then I had to remove my jacket and take off my wristwatch. “Now play something.” I played Couperin’s first Prelude quite well and she said, “You are very musical; very musical; please play something else, but relax; don’t be so nervous. You can see that I am a relaxed person. I love my students as if they were my children; so, play.” A Sarabande of a French Suite. She said, “You have a feel for this music, perhaps from the recorder playing, but you know nothing about how it should be played. You can’t learn it in a short time as if you were to jump from the street to the tip of the Empire State Building! Play something else.” I had not brought anything else with me, but I knew an English Suite. Denise was asked to bring the music. It was a totally different edition than that to which I was accustomed. Landowska recommended the Steingraber Edition as the best.
Here she got down to brass tacks. I played and then she played in the usual teacher-student relationship. She advocated especially the importance of writing in fingering and that one must find a way to play a complete legato without gaps. The ends she went to were most extraordinary. I was so taken with her perfect legato that I looked at her score for a moment and she said, “Look at my hands and not at the music.” I cannot describe how unusual her hands were. No fatty tissue at all between the joints, and the fingers agile and totally independent with a wide reach. Once she played a note with both thumbs so that one thumb could hold the key while the other played on. I could not grasp this fingering at once until she had played it for me several times.
Then she showed me something that she said was very private: music which she had edited and music which all her students had to play to learn fingering and phrasing with all notes fingered. I asked her why she had not published it. “No time.” “You know that my Goldberg Variations were sold out in fifteen days and the record company wants me to make a hundred more recordings! It will bring me to my grave!” As she clarified various details of the music she said often “Very few people know that; only my students play so.” She said, “Kirkpatrick’s edition of the Goldbergs is not really good. He is one of my students, as you know.”
I had noticed from recordings that her ornamentation was never fast and she said “The ornamentation is always a part of the melody. The appoggiatura is the most important ornament; the trill is an endless appoggiatura; in Bach the dissonance, the impassioned conflict, which is always followed by the glorious resolution.” This she explained with many gestures.
I played further and she explained much and always asked, “Do you understand?” especially for every note of the Sarabande from the English Suite. As I had begun, she questioned, “But tell me, why do you always play sarabandes? Do you like them so much?” I answered her that I found the legato so particularly difficult in them, and she said, “Yes, they are the most difficult to play.” At one point she told me that Denise had come with her to be her secretary and I said, “That is very nice for you.” “Oh, it’s very nice for her; she is very happy to be with me.”
After finishing the Sarabande I asked her about ornamentation in the Bourree and Gigue and she explained it to me.
As I prepared to leave Denise came in and Landowska said to her, “She understands; she is talented.” [There followed compliments that Mrs. Thomas looked so young and jokes about the atomic work in which her husband was engaged.] She said, “You are serious about this music; everything is learned a little at a time. It requires hard work, but it is wonderful.” (She said that several times.) “I often work until 2 a.m.” She instructed me a second time to arrange the ending of the Goldbergs for recorder. She told me about her student who had written a very good article about ornamentation in the Harvard Dictionary [Putnam Aldrich].
Lessons were to be arranged after a preceding letter. But my first letter had never been answered! Landowska headed toward her own room and said twice, “God bless you” and threw me a kiss with a gesture of her head.
Denise told me the story of how the harpsichord had come to the U.S.
The lesson lasted seventy minutes, and some had told me that it would last only thirty. She was an inspiring woman, in contrast to what many had predicted to me.9
Teaching, concerts; concerts, critics. During the 1940s, the Indian summer of her long career, Landowska continued to be idolized by both press and public.
Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recital of last evening at the Town Hall was as stimulating as a needle shower.
. . . She played everything better than anybody else ever does. One might almost say, were not such a comparison foolish, that she plays the harpsichord better than anybody else ever plays anything. That is to say that the way she makes music is so deeply satisfactory that one has the feeling of a fruition, of a completeness at once intellectual and sensuously auditory beyond which it is difficult to imagine anything further.10
Wanda Landowska’s playing of the harpsichord at Town Hall last night reminded one all over again that there is nothing else in the world like it. There does not exist in the world today, nor has there existed in my lifetime, another soloist of this or of any other instrument whose work is so dependable, so authoritative, and so thoroughly satisfactory. From all the points of view—historical knowledge, style, taste, understanding, and spontaneous musicality—her renderings of harpsichord repertory are, for our epoch, definitive. Criticism is unavailing against them, has been so, indeed, for thirty years.11
In 1947 Landowska rented the house in Lakeville, Connecticut that was to be her final home and working place. At first it was used as a summer retreat; but after 1950, when she gave up the Central Park West apartment, it became the residence. The charm of this situation for Landowska the nature lover lay in the surroundings:
[The house] was a large wooden structure painted a mustard yellow which appeared to have seen a number of years of weather. To the rear and left side of the house, large trees grew closely together and cast dark shadows over the building. A large porch covered the front of the building and overlooked an opening in the woods. In the center of this opening stood one of the strangest and most hauntingly beautiful oak trees I have ever seen. It looked as if it were several hundred years old and was anchored in the earth so securely it could stand for several more centuries. The massive trunk was black and gnarled with age. At a height of about fifteen feet, the trunk separated into a dozen or more huge limbs, each the size of a telephone pole, which writhed and twisted about in a very tortured manner.12
A reunion with her maid of many years further brightened Landowska’s personal life:
Admitted by . . . Miss Denise, the group [of interviewer, researcher, and photographer] was taken to a small bedroom, for Madame was not yet ready.
At this point they were introduced to Miss Elsa [Schunicke], who was beaming and plump. She, it appeared, had been with Mme. Landowska for more than thirty-five years. . . . Miss Elsa, a personal factotum, was ecstatic. The weekend before she had just arrived in this country, having been separated from her mistress for seven long war years.
Suddenly Miss Elsa announced that Madame was ready. She was introduced in the large living room, where stood the harpsichord. . . . She spoke in a soft voice, in clear, French-accented English. A woman of positive opinions, she objected to one picture angle as unflattering, but agreed to it in exchange for one of her own choice. All the while she played vigorously at the harpsichord.
When the pictures were taken, she insisted on literally taking down her hair, to prove, she explained, that it was all hers. Then she ordered benedictine, and when the photographer pleaded that he had to leave to snap a certain well-known multimillionaire, she said: “Tell him of my mission. He should give money to support it.”
Asked if she had ever received any bad reviews, Mme. Landowska said she really didn’t know, as she never read the critics. There were, however, several copies of The New York Times’s review of her new record album prominently placed around the apartment. By now, it was obvious that she was impatient about something and had retreated into some world of her own. When the drinks were brought in, the impatience was explained: she wanted to practice—and she did, placing a large screen between her and her guests.
Over the benedictine in another corner, Miss Denise and Miss Elsa cleared up several points. No, contrary to some stories, Madame does not play in heavy socks. For greater flexibility in handling the seven pedals on her harpsichord, she wears ballet-like soft slippers, which Miss Elsa makes to match her flowing velvet robes.
Yes, Miss Denise said, Madame works constantly, and especially late at night—which is why the country place in Connecticut is good for her. There she can also walk as much as she likes to. No, she is never nervous over a performance, and yes, she is in excellent health, and eats a diet of broiled meat, vegetables, and fruits.
And, yes, everybody in the household can tune harpsichords.13
The popular news magazines were paying an unprecedented attention to the harpsichord. Of course the fact that its high priestess, Landowska, was extraordinarily good copy did not hurt at all. Amid the general acclaim it was refreshing to find an occasional dissenting voice. The thoughtful criticisms of writer-composer Robert Evett foreshadowed a coming aesthetic change, a retreat from the impressionistic, color-filled style of playing that Landowska had championed throughout her long career:
The Romantic Bach
Gertrude Stein says that “it is hard to kill a century almost impossible.” She saw the Nineteenth Century dying hard ten years ago , but its thinking is still with us; the apparent indestructibility of Romantic thought lends itself to a rather gratifying comparison with the survival of the Baroque, that exotic product of the Seventeenth Century which reached its fullest musical expression only after it had become passé.
. . . In the Romantic view, Bach was a Titan, a self-consciously grand figure, concerned with profundities and, unfortunately, hamstrung by an over fussy style. The idea that a great composer could be capable of an almost kittenish levity is incompatible with Romantic sentiments; because of this, the Romantics tended to apologize for Bach’s charm, and to exaggerate that seriousness which is certainly to be found here. . . . Tampering with Bach was a respectable occupation in the 1840s, and it has not yet gone into complete disrepute.
Modern intellectuals, who seem to have a need for Baroque order, have become very leery of the padded Bach; they seem to prefer something approximating the original form, but in this regard they have shown a gullibility which is, at the least, startling. They assume that anyone who advertises himself as a purist is just that, and that anyone who plays the harpsichord is offering them Baroque music in its original form.
In the playing of the harpsichord, Mme. Wanda Landowska has accomplished a feat which should have warmed the cockles of P. T. Barnum’s black heart. Mme. Landowska has seduced the brighter part of the American public into believing that she offers it an authentic reading of Bach and his predecessors. What this lady actually uses is a modern Pleyel harpsichord, an instrument that she employs as a sort of dispose-all. The great virtue of this contraption is that it can produce a dozen coloristic effects that were unknown in the Baroque era; its special vice—though, actually, the vice is in the player rather than in the instrument—is in a complicated set of pedals by which the pitch can be altered an octave or more at will. There is no reason that Landowska could not play well on this instrument if she wanted to; like the organ, a modern harpsichord is an agent of taste, and an infallible testing ground for taste. Unfortunately, Landowska, like so many of her contemporaries, uses it as an instrument for producing mud pies. After fifteen years of incredulous listening, I am finally convinced that this woman kicks all the pedals in sight when she senses danger ahead. When she sits down to play a Bach fugue, I go through all the torments that a passenger experiences when he is being driven over a treacherous mountain road by an erratic driver, and when she finally finishes the thing it is almost a pleasure to relax into nausea.
Landowska’s furious pedalling seems to be directed more and more towards a lever that controls the sixteen-foot stop. This device, which was virtually unknown on ancient harpsichords, produces an almost unintelligible roar, an octave below the written note, so that clarity yields to an ungodly jangle. More than anyone else, Mme. Landowska is responsible for the current view that, to be authentic, old music must sound bad.14
Another observer who was not totally submerged by Landowska’s mystique was Halina Rodzinski, wife of the conductor Artur Rodzinski:
Mme. Landowska was to play Mozart and Haydn Concertos [with the New York Philharmonic], and, according to Artur’s inflexible rule, the two were to have a work session alone before the orchestral rehearsal. The rule was bent slightly, however; the work would be done at Mme. Landowska’s apartment on Central Park West. I went along, partly from curiosity, partly as a courtesy. Ultimately, it was for laughs.
Mme. Landowska was a creation. When Artur and I arrived, the door was opened by one of the musician’s two live-in assistants. We were led by her into a music room suggestive of a Pleyel showroom or funeral parlor. It was stuffed with the black, coffinlike cases of several harpsichords, and a piano. Soon the other assistant came to greet us, then the two assistants opened the door for “Mamusia” (Little Mother), as they called her, who made an entrance almost as spectacular as Paderewski’s so long before at his Swiss residence. Mme. Landowska stood, effectively backlit, in the doorway, transfixed like some gorgeous, huge, wine-red butterfly, its velvet wings lightly shedding dust motes. It was a shock when she actually moved forward to greet us, quite effusively, I should add, and extended a hand for Artur to kiss.
After a short discussion about the Mozart specifics, Mme. Landowska moved toward her piano to play for Artur. Her assistants preceded like acolytes, to open the piano case and keyboard with great ceremony, place her music on the rack, then drape on the floor the folds of her dress. Raising her handsome head, its raven hair parted down the middle to a knot at the nape of her neck, she stared into space. Then her long graceful hands darted out of her cavernous sleeves to play the Mozart. From time to time she abruptly stopped to explain how or why she executed a certain passage, then continued her reading, which, if taped, could have been spliced into consecutive sense, so thoroughly did she pick up a dynamic level or an ictus.
When she moved to a harpsichord for the Haydn Concerto, the same little procession and ritual ensued. I was fascinated by the show of it all, without which she could never have brought the harpsichord and its literature into vogue again. People who entered the Landowska cult for a whimsy came away musically enriched. But her eccentricities were also a large part of the whole thing, though some of them were rather private. . . .
Her appearance on stage was electrifying: she glided on like a classic Roman matron. Her performance was a thing of great exquisiteness, and Artur strove to give her the cleanest, most sympathetic accompaniment he could; but unknown to him, he made a faux pas—awful, but not irreparable. After the orchestral tutti before the first movement cadenza in the Mozart, Artur rested his left hand on the piano case. Landowska rose up in an explosion of velvet and stood back as if bitten or stung. She walked over to Artur, lifted his hand from the lid, then executed the pyrotechnics. Later, Artur said he was so startled he almost forgot to cue the orchestra for the coda. But he accepted her peculiarities as the price of her artistry. And it was art that made her move his hand. “It affects the sound of the piano,” she explained.15
Another aspect of Landowska’s career was her championing of a few contemporary works:
Without trying to imitate the effects or procedure of older composers the king of instruments, resuscitated, will lend an attentive and benevolent ear to the nostalgic searching of modern composers, granting them the unexplored wealth of its sonorous possibilities. It will set ablaze the whole ensemble with its rhythmical flashes; it will pour out the flamboyant rustling of its radiant timbres. With its volatile double keyboards, now a mysterious organ, now a hyperbolic guitar, it will stir by its sharpness and enrapture the somewhat blase body of the orchestra. Surrounding it with its quivering and scintillating sonorous web, and its slender although firm rays, the harpsichord will allow imagery and that which is whimsical or unexpected to escape from its swishing meshes.16
In Concert Champêtre, for harpsichord and orchestra, by French composer Francis Poulenc, Landowska had such a twentieth-century work at her disposal. Poulenc had heard Landowska play the premiere of Falla’s Retablo at the home of the Princesse de Polignac in Paris in 1923. Upon meeting him, Landowska said, “Write me a concerto.” Eventually he did, working on the score from October 1927 until September 1928. Not satisfied with the writing for harpsichord, Landowska went over each note in the score with the young composer. Poulenc recalled, “We did not change a measure or a melodic line, but the keyboard writing and the choice of instruments for the orchestra were the chief aims of our most extensive research. Above all, we clarified the writing, either by condensing chords or by suppressing notes. . . .”17
When Landowska performed this elegant and beautiful work for the last times on 17, 19, and 20 November 1949 at Carnegie Hall, Leopold Stokowski, her old friend and champion, conducted the New York Philharmonic. This first American concert presentation of the work with harpsichord has been preserved on records.18 The performance presents an incredibly youthful-sounding soloist reveling in Poulenc’s youthful music. “Will my audience forgive this explosion of dionysiac joy, this flaming torrent. Evidently this is no longer expected of a lady of seventy. But I can’t help it,” wrote Landowska in her diary.19
There are lamentable lapses in the orchestral playing, but the sheer magic of Landowska’s performance comes through and makes all subsequent recordings sound stodgy. On receiving a copy of the recording, the composer wrote to Landowska,
How can I tell you my emotion at hearing my goddess play the Champetre? What joy you gave me! I suddenly felt rejuvenated, happy. The cherries from your garden at Saint-Leu were in my mouth. I confess to stealing some in those days, long ago, when I was but a student musician. Now that I wonder every day if my music will live, you have given me the illusion that it will. For this, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 20
Joy had been a theme of Landowska’s concerts in 1949:
During the course of her recital [Town Hall, 23 February] Mme. Landowska told her listeners that she had been working all winter at her Connecticut home “to make you happy.” She succeeded, to the extent of her fondest hopes. The capacity audience heard her play Couperin’s Passacaille; Handel’s Suite in G minor; Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, opus 66, the only piano work on the program; and Rameau’s Suite in E minor; demanded a generous group of encores; and then recalled her a half dozen times to express its gratitude for a musical revelation of the loftiest kind. A lifetime of devotion, labor and concentration have brought to her a complete control of every aspect of musical interpretation. Le Rappel des Oiseaux, from the Rameau suite, was incredibly deft and fluid; the tone and phrasing of the Haydn piano sonata rivalled the human voice or the violin in their plasticity; and the Handel suite was performed with towering majesty.
Mme. Landowska always plans her programs carefully as to key relationships, changes of mood and variety of style. This one represented a progress from darkness to light, from tragic solemnity to pastoral gaiety. She used appropriately sober registration for the Couperin passacaglia and the Handel suite, achieving a remarkable variety of emphasis in the Couperin work, despite its reiterative theme and design. In the Handel music her matchless comprehension of eighteenth-century style was exemplified in her embellishments. Not only was the music enriched by ornaments, but she added a beautiful variant in the Sarabande, in the manner of the period. Again, in the Haydn sonata, the cadenzas and entrances were improvised with the most exquisite taste. By using a piano technique analogous to harpsichord technique in its meticulous clarity, quantitative rhythm, and finger legato, Mme. Landowska succeeds in making the modern instrument sound like its ancestor of Haydn’s day. Those who heard Ralph Kirkpatrick play a reproduction of an eighteenth-century piano at the New York Public Library benefit concert earlier this season must have been struck by the similarity of effect between that instrument and Mme. Landowska’s modern grand.
The richest colors of harpsichord registration were employed in the Rameau suite, especially in the Rigaudons, Musette en Rondeau, and La Villageoise. This music actually drugs the senses with its hypnotic rhythmic drone and melodic sweetness. Among the encores were the Purcell Ground in C minor and Mme. Landowska’s own Bourrée d’Auvergne.21
As summation of a brilliant career, Landowska began her most ambitious recording project slightly before the major Bach anniversary year of 1950. In its inimitable way, Time magazine described the goings-on:
Each Saturday and Sunday for the past three months, a little procession has arrived punctually at 6:30 p.m. at RCA Victor’s midtown Manhattan recording studios. The routine never varies. The youngest, Mile. Denise Restout, goes straight to the harpsichord, yanks open her tool kit, and starts tuning. The huskiest, Mile. Elsa Schunicke, carries the pillows and the hamper, loaded with sandwiches, a vacuum jug of coffee, and a supply of specially blended horehound drops. Then, her hands folded before her, and her craggy features blissfully composed, Mme. Wanda Landowska herself floats in like a tiny wraith, nods her greetings and disappears into the dressing room.
Last week, comfortable in blue knee-length socks, red fur-trimmed bedroom slippers and a loose-fitting smock, the great harpsichordist was finishing up the first sixth of a monumental recording task begun in her seventieth year. In the darkened studio, her eyes closed, she began to play the great Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-Sharp of Johann Sebastian Bach. Before the weekend was over, she had also played the rippling No. 6 in D minor and the fugue of No. 7 in E-flat to complete the first eight of the 48 brain-and finger-cracking preludes and fugues—two in each of the 24 keys—that constitute the musician’s bible and byword: Bach’s great Wohltem-perirtes Clavier (Well-Tempered Clavier).
Perfection. To Landowska, “this is my last will and testament. I have to make it perfect.” She was taking plenty of time to make it that way—to make sure that exactly the balance and quality she wanted to hear would come off the wax. In her weekly sessions, she had worked 42 hours, making retake after retake, to record 45 minutes of music. At seventy . . . the somewhat mystic, sometimes earthy little Polish-born woman is the acknowledged high priestess of the harpsichord, the sweet-sounding, twangy-bangy instrument she rescued from oblivion fifty years ago. She did not need much preparation before sitting down to record.
She had been playing Bach on the harpsichord in public for forty-six years: the great Hungarian conductor, Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) had long ago punningly tagged her “The Bachante.” And she had performed all of Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier last year in a series of Town Hall recitals to which her worshipful disciples—musicians, students and teachers alike—had flocked, music in hand. Some were occasionally surprised at her interpretations; Bach himself gave a few hints of exactly how fast and how loud his music should be played. But few had failed to be impressed with her magnificent authority—and delighted with her puckish platform informality. (Between numbers, she chats confidentially with her audience: “I have worked so hard to make this pleasure for you.”)
Pep. Although she is as spry and sparkling-eyed as ever (“I feel as young as a child”), Landowska has given up touring.
. . . Although she seldom goes out, she keeps up with the music and art worlds, mainly by voluminous reading. Listening to a playback after a recent recording session, Landowska cracked to a studio technician: “Sounds like old Grandma Moses here still has pep.”22
The scene of Landowska’s recording efforts moved to Lakeville shortly after this.
For the past few years she has been living in a large, old house on a hill not far from Lakeville, Conn. . . . the wood-paneled living room has been transformed into a recording studio, and the library is used as a control room. . . . On this secluded Connecticut hillside Mme. Landowska can play to her heart’s content. She has been known to get out of bed at 3 a.m. and play into the dawn while her household slept.
Some years ago, not long after coming permanently to this country, she said, “Everything begins to blossom—pupils, concerts, friends. Life for me is beginning all over in America.” Life is moving along serenely for her today, with music, particularly the treasured music of the past she has revivified, at its core.23
In 1952 Time chronicled the progress of Landowska’s WTC in a full-page Personality sketch:
The good citizens of quiet Lakeville, Connecticut, go to bed early—with one exception. But even the rare, late-homecoming villager is no longer surprised at the single globe of light shining from the ungainly green-and-yellow hilltop house which broods over the main street. He knows, along with those of his neighbors who have seen it, homeward bound from a church supper or Saturday-night movie, that Mme. Wanda Landowska is at her devotions: her altar, the harpsichord.
Pint-sized (4 feet 8 inches) Mme. Landowska, 73, is unchallenged high priestess of the plunky, double-keyboard instrument for which Bach wrote, before the piano supplanted it in the eighteenth century. Under her dedicated leadership, the harpsichord is having something of a revival, and her recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is already a modern classic. Next week RCA Victor will release its fifth album, leaving her one album still to do.
. . . [After several hours at the harpsichord] (“I never practice, I always play”), Mme. Landowska takes an hour’s walk around the countryside. Neither rain nor snow stops her from venturing outdoors among the Berkshire foothills she has loved since first she came in the summer of 1947.
In cold weather, cocooned in several layers of shawls and scarves, and wrapped in a huge old overcoat, she sallies forth. Her hands nest mandarin-style in the large sleeves. Each day’s walk ends the same way—with a visit to her last “sweetheart,” an 80-year-old carpenter of Lakeville. “I spend my relaxation ration with him. We understand each other—we are both craftsmen: he loves his carpentry as I love my music. Our conversation is very condensed.” With a birdlike flutter of her thin-boned hands, Landowska adds: “But his niece—she is too bourgeoise. She does not understand why I am there every day. She is shocked, even now.”24
Then, in 1955:
“Now I have learned the key to the mystery. I must be concentrated about my work. This is why I came here to this house. I have to meditate about each note. Before I put a single sound on a record, I have to think a long, long time. . . .
“All my remaining time must go to my work. If I have the wish to see other people, they will come to me.”
There is no arguing with this logic. RCA officials shrugged their shoulders and sent a crew of engineers to Lakeville with instructions to turn part of the house into a recording studio. They soundproofed the walls, ripped up flooring and installed expensive recording equipment. Mme. Landowska, biting her lip fiercely, insisted that all the alterations conform with her decorative scheme; she ordered the engineers about as if they had been a team of moving men.
None of them complained. Though, on occasion, Wanda Landowska enjoys playing the prima donna to the hilt, no one who comes in contact with her can be annoyed with her for long. . . . Once, an engineer, impressed with her talent for comedy, asked her why she didn’t go on television. With all the hauteur that her years could muster, she answered: “Television cannot afford me.”25
But television lured her once, in 1953. For NBC’s Wisdom series Landowska gave a filmed interview with her recording engineer, John Pfeiffer.26 In this unique document she played several of the works with which she was most identified: the second and third movements of the Vivaldi D-major Concerto as arranged for harpsichord by J. S. Bach; a dance, she said, much loved by Tolstoy—the Bransle de Montirande by Antoine Francisque; and the first movement of the Italian Concerto of Bach. She also introduced a vast audience to “my child, the harpsichord,” which she described as an organ-like instrument. And she spoke about the great struggle of her life, the effort required to bring the ancient instrument back into the concert life of the twentieth century: “[Today] everywhere you can find a harpsichord-player. . . . They sprout like mushrooms. . . . They didn’t even know how hard the struggle was. Now everything is ready, victory is won, the table is laid. They only have to sit down and play—badly, perhaps—but anyway, they play!”27
Landowska’s highly regarded series of recitals at the Frick Collection in New York, which were broadcast by radio station WNYC, came to an end in 1954. William Buckley, Jr., recounts this anecdote:
A friend was present at the Frick Collection at what proved to be the last public performance of Landowska. She was playing an obscure [work] by Fischer . . . which my friend happened to have been studying. So that he knew it when what was being played suddenly ceased to be Fischer, becoming Landowska, improvising. My friend was concerned. What was she up to? memory lapse? But, the work being largely unknown, the audience did not react, and in due course she was back, playing what Fischer wrote.
Next on the program was the famous “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.” As was her habit, Landowska bowed her head slightly before beginning, bringing her hands—extended—to her lips, as if in prayer. Then the right hand was raised dramatically, as if to strike a hammer blow. Suddenly she stopped, wheeling thoughtfully about to address her audience in her heavily accented, high-pitched voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, lahst night I had a visitor. It was Poppa Bach. We spoke, of corrse in Cherrman. He said to me, ‘Vanda, haff you ever trried my fingerring on the “Chromatic Fantasy”?’ ‘No,’ I said to him, and he said the next time I must trry, So tonight, I will use a different fingerring and maybe the result will not be the same azz my incomparable recorrding.”
Wheel back to the instrument. Hands pressed together, raised to the lips. Right hand up.
And then the “Fantasy.” Landowska, having experienced the difficulty with Fischer, evidently did not know whether her memory, suddenly insecure, would sustain her through the “Fantasy” which, unlike the [earlier piece], is as familiar to Baroque-minded audiences as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” precluding surreptitious inprovisation.
No dramatist, given a full year’s notice, could have written lines more disarming than those she extemporized. And, of course, no one, in her presence, would profess skepticism about her personal familiarity with Poppa Bach.28
The completed Well-Tempered Clavier appeared in 1954, with RCA Victor issuing the last of the six long-playing discs late in the year. To mark Landowska’s seventy-sixth birthday on 5 July 1955, the entire set was made available in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, covered in black moire and signed by the artist in her customary purple ink.29
“In addition to intellectual integrity and instrumental mastery, Landowska possesses a magical individuality and expressiveness,” wrote pianist and critic Abram Chasins. “Even when an interpretation or a tempo is at drastic variance with one’s preconceived ideas, her intentions are so clear, and the force of her personality so overwhelming that one is ready to grant her conception, or more usually, to succumb.” But he does not succumb to her written commentaries on the pieces: “However, if Landowska wrote as perfectly as she played, the gods might become jealous and seek to destroy her.”30
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these late Landowska recordings; they are the performances by which an entire generation of music lovers discovered the harpsichord. Aided by a craze for buying examples of the new technology, the black vinyl long-playing discs sold by the thousands. The WTC was followed by successive recorded triumphs: “Landowska Plays for Paderewski,” in which she programmed Polish works to honor the centenary of her great countryman—including such bewitching music as her own compositions The Hop and Bourree d’Auvergne: Chopin’s Mazurka, opus 56, number 2 (a fitting retort to all the years of pianistic Baroque?); and French works in the Polish style by Couperin and Rameau.31 In an autumnal return to her other love, Landowska played Mozart works on the piano. A Haydn program was divided between piano and harpsichord. Then came “The Art of the Harpsichord,” in which she played the Fischer Passacaglia in D minor and a variety of works by Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, Partita No. 2 in C minor, and the brilliant Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906. Her last record, also music by Bach, contained the Two-Part Inventions and seven of the three-part Sinfonias. On 25 July 1959, the last time she sat at her harpsichord, Landowska was preparing the Sinfonia in E major for her next recording session.
This session was not to occur: on 16 August Landowska suffered a stroke and died. Her ashes are buried near St. Leu. In a garden at Taverny, a place associated with François Couperin, who had composed a Musete de Taverni, Restout’s father “designed the grave [with] a bench where one may rest, meditate, and enjoy the beautiful view.”32
What of her legacy? Landowska taught a number of students in her later years. Among the most brilliant who carried on the Landowska tradition was Rafael Puyana (born 1931) of Colombia. His first exposure to harpsichord was at New England Conservatory, which he entered in 1949. He had been allowed to look at the Dolmetsch-Chickering instrument at the school, but the first harpsichord which he could actually touch was the “bad Kirckman copy” at the home of one of his teachers, Margaret Mason. (She had purchased it from Claude Jean Chiasson.) Puyana studied with Landowska from 1951 until 1957, the year of his Town Hall debut. His American tours, accomplished in style with a large Buick station wagon, driver, and Pleyel instrument, delivered harpsichord music to localities large and small. Played with South American fire and musical brilliance, Puyana’s concerts were long remembered by those who attended.33
Marie Zorn was already a professor of piano at Indiana University when she went to play Bach for Landowska in 1956. Zorn remained for two years, returning to Indiana to teach on her Pleyels until 1976.34 Other Landowska students were Irma Rogell, Paul Wolf, and, of course, Denise Restout, the inheritor of Landowska’s Lakeville home, who continued to teach there at her Landowska Center.
Other expatriates from Europe helped to spread the gospel of early music played on a suitable keyboard instrument. Ernst Victor Wolff (1889–1960) recorded the Bach Saint Matthew Passion with Koussevitzsky in Boston; Erwin Bodky (1896–1958) founded the Cambridge Collegium Musicum, now the Cambridge Society for Early Music, which perpetuates his name by sponsoring the prestigious Bodky International Competition for young performers; and Edith Weiss-Mann (1885–1951), from Hamburg, who had been influenced by Landowska in the early years of the century in Berlin, and who played the first complete cycle of the harpsichord concertos of J. S. Bach in New York with conductor Otto Klemperer. These and others left the war-torn continent and found new lives and new careers in the United States. But it was Landowska, the artist who was most gifted, most recorded, most tenacious in her mission, who was able not only to capture the public’s interest but, most remarkably, to hold it. What other name immediately evokes an image of the harpsichord?
Twenty years after Landowska’s death, Joseph Hansen’s mystery Skinflick was published. The central character, detective Dave Brandstetter, “pushed the power button. Harpsichord, Bach, Wanda Landowska. . . .”35 In Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, a comedy by William M. Hoffman and Anthony Holland, the stage directions read: “We hear harpsichord music—Couperin—from another room. . . . Enter Africa, massaging her fingers like Wanda Landowska. . . .36 In a cartoon in Stereo Review an audiophile speaks to his butler, “This toccata by Wanda Landowska sounds a wee fit fuzzy, Manchester. Try a little more spit on the stylus.”37 And so it continues. Landowska, as synonym for harpsichord, has triumphed with the general public.
For succeeding generations of players accustomed to instruments more closely patterned on Baroque models than was Landowska’s Pleyel, and to interpretations more in keeping with the registrational possibilities inherent in the Baroque harpsichord, Landowska’s colorful performances might seem anachronistic—more indicative, in many ways, of the impressionistic, turn-of-the-century aesthetic in which she matured. Despite volumes of polemics for her chosen instrument, neither Landowska herself nor any of her disciple-apologists has been able to equate, convincingly, the heavy, modern Pleyel harpsichord with any instrument known to a Baroque composer. True, a 16-foot register was to be found occasionally in the old instruments; yes, a registrational device such as a pedal or a knee-lever could be found; perhaps the wooden jacks in Landowska’s Pleyel might be considered more authentic than the plastic used by some other contemporary builders. On the other hand the early harpsichord never had such a complicated mechanism; never was the sound produced by hard leather considered the normal harpsichord color—such are the arguments against her instrument.
But, apart from the type of harpsichord chosen as her medium, the deep musical instincts of Wanda Landowska rang true to the spirit of the bygone composers. The letter of the law might have been lacking, but the content was overwhelming. Generation after generation of grateful listeners respond to her astounding rhythmic vitality and her love for music. Her playing reaches across the years to stimulate and move, to cause a tapping of feet or a motion of the body as she inflects the infectious rhythm of a dance. The strength of this musical personality, an artist to be emulated not imitated, is with us still.