Exhibition remembers Landowska's advocacy of the harpsichord
On September 22, 1911, the New Bach Society of Leipzig sponsored a musical battle in Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian.
The combatants faced off. In the left ring, two pianofortes. In the right, a harpsichord.
There was little doubt about the victor. The harpsichord.
This season is the last chance to catch “Memories of Wanda Landowska,” an exhibition at the Bachhaus Eisenach dedicated to the woman known as the “rediscover of the harpsichord.”
As quaint as the idea may seem from today’s perspective, the Eisenach showdown was instrumental (no pun intended) in convincing people that the harpsichord was indeed Bach’s true instrument. A contemporary review declared that the evening proved that “musical right, if I may put it like this, was on [Landowska’s] side.”
Spread over two rooms, the Bachhaus’s intimate exhibition illustrates Landowska’s story through pictures, documents, objects and audio and video recordings.
Though born in Poland to a Jewish family, Landowska is most associated with her adoptive home, France. The exhibit discusses Landowska’s “Temple de la Musique Ancienne in Saint-Leu-de-la-Forêt”, her home, concert hall and retreat outside Paris. Between 1927 and 1940, when the Nazis drove her out, illustrious visitors to this musical mecca included Francis Poulenc, Vladimir Horowitz and Edith Wharton. She eventually sought refuge in America, where she taught and performed in Lakeville, Connecticut.
The show’s centerpiece is a 1927 Pleyel harpsichord, similar to the ones built to Landowska’s specifications. Along with demonstrations of the instrument, audio samples of Landowska’s recordings of Bach keyboard works give visitors a sampling of Landowska’s craft. Warning: Glenn Gould fans are in for a shock.
The exhibition argues against a view of Landowska as doctrinally rigid, a perception that stems from her cutting and oft-quoted comment to Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play Bach his way”.
Ton Koopman explains in a recorded interview featured in the exhibition that Landowska needs to be seen as a product of her time, no more or less than any other musician. As he explains, “we shouldn’t think that our Bach in our age is the definitive Bach”.
The exhibition reminds us that up until quite recently, period instruments were considered quaint relics good for little more than being admired in a museum. Early music specialists the world-over owe Landowska a great debt of gratitude.
In a TV interview recorded for NBC, given as an old woman, Landowska explained just how necessary that event a century ago in Eisenach was: “It is understandable that I had to fight for this instrument because it is so different from the piano.”
Memories of Wanda Landowska
On view at the Bachhaus Eisenach until November 11, 2011
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. His articles on classical music have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Europe, Opera News Magazine and the Forward.