Published March 16, 2010
The harpsichord was the stalwart of Baroque music. It provided rhythm and harmony in almost every ensemble piece, whether a sonata for harpsichord and violin or a concerto grosso for full orchestra. The harpsichord and Baroque music thrive these days, and Baroque music lovers are fortunate that many ensembles specialize in correct historical performance of Baroque music, one of the best being Apollo’s Fire, based in Cleveland.
They nearly died out after J.S. Bach died, when Mozart, Handel, Bach’s sons and others composed homophonic music and considered Bach’s complex, elegant polyphony to be outdated and outmoded. But J.S. Bach, the harpsichord and polyphony saw a revival in the early 1900s, much of it thanks to the inimitable Wanda Landowska.
“One cannot enter, it goes without saying, into the world of pure polyphony with the same casualness as into that of the accompanied melody,” Landowska writes in her liner notes to her monumental recording spanning six long-play records of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” “The fugue, a high and involved art form, appeals to musicians who know how to listen, to those who are able to single out a voice and detach it from the others, even when that voice happens not to be the subject.”
Michael Kennedy, in the “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music,” Third Edition, writes that Landowska was born in 1879 in Warsaw, Poland, and died in 1959 in Lakeville, Conn. She studied at the Warsaw Conservatory and in Berlin, moved to Paris in 1900, and toured Europe and the United States, giving recitals of Baroque music on the piano and harpsichord. She was head of harpsichord classes at Berlin Hochschule from 1912-19; lived again in France from 1919-38, teaching and giving concerts; and lived in New York from 1940-47 and in Lakeville, Conn., from 1947-59. Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and French composer Francis Poulenc wrote harpsichord works for her. She wrote “Musique Ancienne,” published in 1909.
The record “Memorial Edition Wanda Landowska,” RCA LM-2389, features Landowska playing J.S. Bach’s three-part and two-part inventions on harpsichord and a spoken track where Landowska explains that Bach’s two-part inventions are worthy of serious consideration and are not mere exercises, that belief grounded in the fact that one of Bach’s sons played the pieces as a child.
“It is not given to many musicians to revive public interest either in an instrument or a literature,” writes Irving Kolodin in the liner notes. “That Wanda Landowska accomplished both in a long, full and productive life is a measure of the force that resided in her seemingly frail frame.” ... “There are not many things for which we can thank the Nazis, but it is hardly likely that much of this would have been an American experience without the invasion that uprooted her from the pleasant surroundings at St. Leu-La-Foret, which has been her beloved school since 1927.” ... “On more than one occasion she said: ‘Bach and I, we understand each other: we make a happy couple.’ And she self-described her recording of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ as ‘my last will and testament.’”
“The Well-Tempered Clavier,” comprising 48 preludes and fugues, was released in 1954 in a boxed set, RCA LM-6801, and included a 16-page book printed on heavy laid paper written by Landowska that describes Bach’s style of composition, the pieces on the album, and the recording process. Landowska said they recorded the first eight preludes and fugues in the RCA Victor studios in New York in “the terrific heat of June 1949,” recording at night “to avoid the noises of the air conditioning and general daytime disturbances.” They decided to record the following preludes and fugues at her house in Connecticut, acoustical needs demanding they move a rug, hang a blanket on the wall, and move furniture.
“... in this old-fashioned house with its paneled walls, the sonority of the harpsichord enveloped us and recreated for us the atmosphere of Bach’s home,” she wrote. “We seemed to be among his children and pupils for whom he wrote the Preludes and Fugues ...”