Landowska at her Pleyel harpsichord in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt (1933).

In November of 1933, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska put to wax the very first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It’s true that the Goldbergs, at least since the time of Glenn Gould’s historic piano recording for Columbia in 1955, have been widely recorded by pianists and harpsichordists alike.  In fact, the market has been so inundated with stellar recordings of the Golbergs that I sometimes catch myself wishing that the record industry – to summon but one of the mercilessly many, inane slogans from the business world – would diversify its portfolio.  But I know that it’s ultimately an embarrassment of riches, and I remind myself that in 1933, before the Goldbergs met the gramophone (and well before the levy broke) the public had very little opportunity to hear this great music.  Audiences, for that matter,  had very little exposure to the harpsichord, Landowska’s ultimate instrument of choice.  Peering into the early twentieth century, we find a time in which the harpsichord was perceived as a relic of a bygone age.  We find an era in classical music history that is often characterized as the golden age of the piano.


Landowska was instrumental in reviving the harpsichord as something other than a mere museum piece.  By the time of her first recording of the Goldbergs, Landowska had already publicly championed the instrument for close to three decades.  She had scoured Europe for clavichords, harpsichords and examples of other period keyboard instruments.  Her years of study of the keyboard music and literature of the preceding centuries culminated in 1909 with the publication of La musique ancienne.  Shortly thereafter, she commissioned the Pleyel company to build her a personalized instrument that was capable of greater dynamic range and tonal colour than more conventional, less muscled harpsichords.  She exhibited four such Pleyels to American audiences during a tour of the US in 1923.

You can hear one in action here in a sampling of her Paris Goldberg sessions of the subsequent decade.

Landowska’s performances, like her writings, were positioned and persuasive, and their impact on music culture was both immediate and sustained.  As a result, the harpsichord came to be resurrected as the instrument on which to perform Bach “properly.”  So considerable was the move to “proper” – which is to say “historically informed” –  performance practice that pianists were reluctant to go near the music of the periwigged one.  (Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau in the ‘30s, and Rosalyn Tureck shortly thereafter, are three of the more remarkable exceptions to that lamentable trend.)

The Harpsichord: “the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” ~ Sir Thomas Beecham

In Landowska’s wake came the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) brigade.  Its proponents, for whom I’ve coined the term HIPsters, followed Landowska in holding that music should be played in accordance with the standards of performance – and on the instruments – of the historical period in which it was composed.  Now it’s all in good fun that I call them HIPsters here; and I recognize that their opinions are rich and varied, if sometimes prone to dogmatism.  I’ll write more on another day, and I mention them here for a simple reason:

In following through on Landowska’s contention that musical interpretation should everywhere be informed by the principles of performance of a given historical period, HIPsters came to believe that Landowska’s own interpretations of Bach’s music were bygone and inauthentic – which is to say not “historically informed.”  Writing of the Pleyel and its chief ambassador, one writer tells it as he sees it:

“Undue emphasis was laid on the ability of the harpsichord to vary its tone color. . . .  These instruments produced an enormous variety of sounds, all bad.  However, Pleyel was blessed by the genius of a young Polish pianist named Wanda Landowska, who in a transcendent exercise of pure imagination found a way of using even the Pleyel to make viable music.  Thus, for nearly fifty years the movement to revive the literature of the harpsichord was to be dominated by this perversity.”*

The Pleyel was a harpsichord in name, perhaps, but it had the capacity for sonics that were not proper to keyboard instruments of Bach’s day.  Some chose to label it a “perversity,” and found equally perverse Landowska’s approach to Bach’s music: Landowska, high-priestess of Baroque music, played it like a hopeless Romantic (or so some thought).

“You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” ~ Wanda Landowska

It’s true that Landowska was also sometimes guilty of taking a firmer-than-necessary stance on the nature of correct or proper performance.  But the mythologized words above, so often taken out of context and even falsely attributed, were actually said in jest during an interchange with cello great Pablo Casals in 1941.

Landowska am Cembalo ("Landowska at the Harpsichord") 1920

In La music ancienne of 1909, published in English some 15 years later as Music of the Past, Landowska attempts to debunk “the sorry legislators of taste” who, in the name of progress, undersold the harpsichord and the musical riches of a bygone age: “In all times, not only the mediocre minds, but sometimes the cultivated musicians as well, have imagined that their art had surpassed that of their predecessors.”**

It turned out that in dusting off the harpsichord, Landowska had inadvertently laid the ground for a school of Historically Informed Performance that would imagine that its art had eclipsed her own.

Myths of progress, myths of “proper” performance: In the extreme, they run counter to the notion of art as something in motion, bound to unfold in ways unforeseen.

In coming to terms with the history of music, it’s as important to look ahead as it is to look back.  And that, in my view, is yet another expression of artistry that is truly historically informed.  If we can draw lines, if we can impose boundaries, then I see them as traced in sand rather than as set in stone.  I still believe that the history of music is guided by a principle of process rather than of progress.

Landowska’s 1933 recording of the Goldberg Variations – a work which she called “a secular temple of absolute music” – is an invitation to think it through all over again.

________

Recommended Recording:

  • J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations / Italian Concerto / Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1933-36) – Wanda Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord – Naxos Records. (More info here.)

Harpsichord Comparison:

You can sound out for yourselves the differences between Landoswka’s Pleyel harpsichord and a period harpsichord from Bach’s day by clicking on the two great performances below.  (Remember that in terms of audio fidelity, the Landowska has the disadvantage of some sixty years):

  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord
  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Christophe Rousset, Harpsichord (Henri Hamsch, Paris 1751)

Notes:

* Quote taken from Frank Hubbard, “Reconstructing the Harpsichord,” in The Historical Harpsichord I, edited by H. Schott (New York, 1984), p. 8.

** Wanda Landowska, Music of the Past, translated by William Aspenwall Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 5.

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