Musings on Wanda Landowska

The following appears in the programme booklet for a recital I will be giving on Wanda Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord at the Library of Congress on the 29th of May.


A Harpsichordist’s Scattered Personal Musings on Wanda Landowska.

Writing toward the end of her life, Wanda Landowska took a moment to remark on the mid-twentieth century fixation with ”authenticity” in music. With the elan and a polemical style born of a deep love for her mission as a musician that so typified many of her utterances, she wrote:

”This sobriety has for its aim the objective presentation of the text without any personal involvement. But is not this tone of indigent indifference another roundabout way of being subjective, since it is deliberate and merely a simulation of indifference?…Rare are the interpreters who know how to take liberties. But rarer are the listeners who know that certain liberties were laws and customs at one time. Usually the ignorance of these people makes them aggressive….The tragedy in the interpretation of music of the past lies in the fact that is confined to concert halls, congresses of musicology, or conservatory classes. Let us bring it out of these respectable and dull places; let us air it; let us shake prejudices, and let us revive the dead letter of old treatises. Music needs air, sunlight, and liberty to be alive. It is then only that it will impart to us surprising secrets.”

And so, it is perhaps with the same feeling of reverence for the past and an awareness of our own epoch that one must approach Landowska’s work and legacy – for she, too, is now a ”period piece.” While being conscious of those liberties and mannerisms that were, in her words, ”customs at one [or her!] time,” we can still, one hopes, unblock ourselves from the self-satisfaction of our own era to listen to the beautiful message of this fervent pioneer.

It is all too easy to lapse into platitudes when speaking from the personal ”I” as a musician. We performers are supposed to keep our mouths shut and express ourselves through our performances. Fair enough. But the experience of playing Landowska’s harpsichord is, for me, an event of deep emotional significance that goes beyond that of most concerts and recitals. By choosing to perform works that were associated with Landowska’s career as a touring and recording artist, I am, in effect, inviting the audience to my own personal conversation with one of my idols. I must have spent many hours if not days listening to Landowska’s recordings, collecting her 78s and LPs, making notes of her registrations, and trying to understand and digest her commanding sense of rhythm and gift for agogic rhetoric. Even as I have gone on to embrace instruments and technical approaches vastly different from hers, I am still in awe of her illuminating understanding of the harpsichord as a medium and her deep sense of the spirit and language of Baroque music. Her achievements in this field are even more remarkable when one considers that she virtually invented her own instrument and the technical approach she used to make it come alive.

But to imitate her own performance style? This I simply cannot do – nor would she have approved. For all her talk about playing Bach ”his way,” she herself decried slavish imitation and the abnegation of the self, exclaiming:

”If Rameau himself would rise from his grave to demand of me some changes in my interpretation of his Dauphine, I would answer, ‘You gave birth to it; it is beautiful. But now leave me alone with it. You have nothing more to say; go away!…The idea of objectivity is utopian. Can the music of any composer maintain its integrity after passing through the living complex – sanguine or phlegmatic – of this or that interpreter? Can an interpreter restrict himself to remaining in the shadow of the author? What a commonplace! What a joke!”

Landowska was, like any artist, a product of her time. She was speaking to listeners both weary of the grandiosity of hyper-Romanticism and not yet ready for a total transformation of their listening sensibilities. Were she to have embraced total authenticity in the historicist sense, she probably would not have gotten very far. But that she was able to associate with the harpsichord the aura and professionalism of the distinguished concert pianists and other performers who were her contemporaries was itself an achievement, for she brought the harpsichord out of the purview of the dead and, upon her death in 1959, left it as an established member of the brotherhood of concert instruments.

With the hindsight afforded by living in an age in which historical performance and the building of instruments on historical principles are established and aided by a much more nuanced view of the gifts of the past, we would do well to appreciate why, perhaps more than any other figure, Wanda Landowska is the name most commonly associated with the harpsichord and its repertoire. How can we blame she who first introduced us to the food of the gods? Again, Landowska was never interested in ”authenticity” as a museum-piece in the way that we understand that term. But her way of communicating the vitality of the music of the past for our own time was nothing short of authentic. To this day, I know of no recording or performance that has taken me in mind and spirit to Elizabethan England like her brief 78-rpm side of Byrd’s Wolsey’s Wilde, or any interpretation of daring and subtlety that comes close to her peerless recording of Chambonnières’ Chaconne in F, which contains in it all the modern consciousness of nostalgia for a world gone by (and that her Chambonnières is spoken in the accent of a modern makes it, if anything, even more beautiful)! It is with a sense of great honour that I play this harpsichord of an artist who gave the world back its musical heritage.

The Clavecin Pleyel of 1912.

For harpsichordists who have come of age after Frank Hubbard’s ground-breaking Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (1965), the clavecin Pleyel is indeed a strange bird. Take the pedals, for instance. The provision of these seven pedals to make quick registration changes resulted, most likely, from an early twentieth-century fixation with the idea that dynamics in the Baroque period must have been effected through the addition and subtraction of registers and colours in the manner of nineteenth-century organ performance. This idea of ”terraced dynamics,” unfortunately still in currency to-day, was probably first articulated in the writings of Albert Schweitzer. So writes Schweitzer in his now-legendary Jean-Sébastien Bach, le musicien-poète (1904):

”Bach is an organist rather than a ‘klavierist.’ His music is more architectonic than ‘sentimental.’ That is to say, his feelings express themselves in a kind of acoustic design….Bach’s music is Gothic. Just as in Gothic architecture the great plan develops out of the simple motive, but enfolds itself in the richest detail instead of in rigid line, and only makes its effect when every detail is truly vital, so does the impression a Bach work makes on the hearer depend on the player communicating to him the massive outline and the details together, both equally clear and equally full of life.” (355-363)

For all these occasional missteps, Schweitzer’s understanding of Bach and his music is the basis for our own modern appreciation, and it is as a visionary and a pioneer that we must revere him. Others are consigned to less fortunate legacies, and for good reason. In the profoundly misguided Interpretation of Bach’s Keyboard Works (published at the alarmingly late date of 1960 while across the ocean Gustav Leonhardt was ordering his J.D. Dulcken copy from Skowroneck of Bremen!), the scholar and harpsichordist Erwin Bodky wrote:

”[C]rescendo and diminuendo cannot be produced an a harpsichord. The boredom created by such a deficiency was early recognized, and since no change in the tone volume could be achieved by mechanical devices, the only way to give the instrument any variety of sound was to add more sets of strings….’‘ (6)

Nowhere throughout this long and tedious tome, which entered the world of obsolescence upon its first printing, does Bodky mention anything meaningful about the use of articulation and phrasing to effect dynamic changes which we now know are possible on harpsichords built on historical principles. Rather, he devotes tens of pages to registration problems having to do with foot-technique at the pedals; in a sub-chapter on the performance of Bach on the piano, he even calls for the performance of Bach’s works with two pianists in order to properly execute Bach’s registrational intentions! Because they were unable to understand why their modern copies of harpsichords were incapable of dynamic shadings based on finger-technique alone, many an early music pioneer wasted much time to such straw men.

Why did Landowska and the engineers at Pleyel also decide to make the various registers of the harpsichord fire off at once instead of being staggered in the manner of period instruments? Why the use of leather plectra which wear out so quickly? Why the insistence on a 16′ register on an instrument scaled for two 8′ and one 4′ registers? Why the totally useless system of ‘fine tuning’ which is the plague of any harpsichord technician and tuner? These are questions that hopefully can be answered in what I hope will be a new age for a re-evaluation of the early years of the revival of Baroque music. Poking fun at man’s early efforts in anything is, after all, far easier than meaningful, critical analysis. But for its time, the Pleyel harpsichord was really one of the very few options for performing, touring, and recording pioneers in the harpsichord revival. Compared to the Serien-Instrumenten of Neupert, Wittmayer, and their lesser contemporaries, based – loosely, one might add – on the spurious ‘Bach-Fluegel’ in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Berlin, the Pleyel is a work of magnificent, if misguided, beauty. In having come to know the Pleyel better, one is filled with even deeper respect for Landowska and her work – indeed, in spite of some of the Pleyel’s great qualities (its aesthetic beauty as a work of piano engineering, to name but one example) only a musician of true greatness could have made any semblance of music on such an instrument.


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