First Snapshot: Landowska and Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana (1907)

A significant 1907 black and white photograph captures a young Wanda Landowska seated at the piano.  Behind her stands Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, in the Cossack garb of his later years.  The photograph was taken at the author’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, by his wife, Sophia.  That would have been just three years before Tolstoy would leave both his wife and estate behind, ultimately dying of pneumonia in a lonely railway station of the remote Russian countryside.

The image of Tolstoy in his last moments is a lasting, if silent one: the final flash of a life that was everywhere marked by an introspective struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence.  In his A Confession of 1882, you can get Tolstoy’s own account of his spiritual development.

The 1907 photograph also takes on something of a resonant note in the context of Landowska’s own life.  For it was one of the few personal possessions she could bring with her to America, a few months after the 1940 approach of the invading Nazi forces forced her to flee her adopted home of Saint-Leu-la-Forêt.  It was there, on the outskirts of Paris, that Landowska had founded her Temple de la Musique Ancienne, her school and concert house.  Her longtime student, Denis Restout, recounts that the Nazis looted all of Landowska’s treasure – her numerous instruments, her thousands of books and manuscripts – and left not a wreck behind.

Second Snapshot: Landowska's Wartime Scarlatti

In one of Landowska’s many 1940 recordings, we have one of the more remarkable musical documents of the era.  In the studio Landowska performs one of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas.  In the distance we hear the sounds of bomb or artillery fire as the Nazis move in on the French capital.

You can listen to it here.

The bombs fall at approximately the two-minute mark.  As the studio engineers run for cover, an extraordinarily concentrated Landowska completes the performance without missing a beat.  Amazing.

That recording must have taken place only hours before Landowska would leave France behind.  In that sense, and like her cherished photograph of 1907, it anchors a would-be fleeting moment.

These two snapshots of Landowska’s life remind me of the power of such historical documents: They capture, they anchor moments.  And in allowing us to hear echoes of the past, they anchor us as well.