Sunday, August 9, 2009

A kind of prelude

"One must never be afraid to start all over again as many times as it it necessary."
– Wanda Landowska, Landowska on Music

In writing about Wanda Landowska, I frequently feel lost and frustrated, uncertain about what story I'm trying to tell. I know that I'm interested in the power of her personality, the span of her influence and the significance of her pedagogy. What does it matter that she revived the harpsichord? What does it matter that she was bisexual? What does it matter that she called her recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier her last will and testament? These are the most important questions I have at this point, but I know the list will get longer if I keep after this thing.

I also really liked the X-ray as a writing prompt. I see the image as a kind of metaphorical gateway into an extended meditation on why music matters to human beings and how it matters. In Seymour Bernstein's book With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music, in a chapter titled "A Reason for Practicing," the author describes a challenge that every performer faces at some point: "how to coordinate musical needs with physical resources."

Surely Landowska was constantly assessing and reassessing her own physical resources (as well as those of her students, her competitors and even her lovers). Now I find myself assessing those physical resources, too, trying to garner sufficient evidence that it was something physiological that allowed her to play that way.

Below are the very first sentences I ever wrote about Wanda and the X-ray.


After the electrons had bombarded the tungsten target, the X-ray showed everything:

The skyline of Warsaw and the lights of Paris; Huck Finn in Polish and the family piano; Henry’s smile and the hasty wedding; blueprints from Pleyel and thin sheaves of Bach, the notes alternately tinny and thundering; then later Denise, always Denise, and the first time Wanda had reached toward her face and realized the gesture was like playing an instrument; and everything lost at Saint-Leu-la-Foret and everything gained when they landed at Lakeville; and El retablo de maese de Pedro, and the rest of the music, preludes, fugues and all of the fury; all of the music rattling across two centuries, thundering in her marrow even before she’d ever heard a harpsichord herself and long before she made everyone in that Goddamned symphony hall hear it, 5,000 miles from home…

All of it was evident in her carpals and phalanges, if you knew what you were looking for. The radiologist responsible must have shuddered when he saw it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Landowska leads me to Emil Orlik

Emil Orlik is yet another artist I discovered while researching Wanda Landowska. Of the 6,030 results a Google image search for WL yields, most are photographs, but a few illustrations and paintings are out there too. Clicking on the image shown at right took me to

The artist was an Austrian citizen, born in Prague on July 21, 1870, when the city was still the capital of a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Orlik's career spanned more than 50 years, but the English-speaking knows almost nothing of him, as nearly all of the biographical and critical scholarship on him has been done in German. I learned this on the Essay Page at and then spent more than an hour trolling around the fabulous collection of images on the site.

I wondered how Orlik had come to do the portrait of Wanda, whether it was commissioned or if the two of them had known each other. I got my answer from Alan Wolman, who runs a specialty print dealership in London and maintains as "a labour of love."

"Amongst the musicans with whom EO were friendly were Fürtwängler, Hubermann, Willem Mengelberg (a close friend), Konrad Ansorge, Alexander Zemlinsky et al, including the subject of your interest, Wanda Landowska," Wolman wrote to me by e-mail. "She performed throughout Europe as you know and they must have come into contact frequently. The very formal portrait etching of her might well have been commissioned by her as a promotional aide. It was considered prestigious to be portrayed by Orlik. A less formal sketch of her appears in Orlik's first book of portrait sketches 95 Köpfe."

Wolman sent me that less formal sketch, shown at right, and also recounted that as a child in the late 1940s, he went to hear Landowska play recitals of Bach at Wigmore Hall. He described her performances in a single word: "Memorable."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Landowska leads me to Thomson

Sometimes I think that the best thing I will gain from my fits-and-starts research on Wanda Landowska is knowledge of (and connection to) so many other artists & musicians whose work matters to me.

For instance, I discovered the terrific writer and composer Virgil Thomson because of his writings on WL. A few lines I particularly loved were these, from a recital review that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on Oct. 22, 1942: "Landowska's program was all Bach and Rameau... She played everything better than anybody else ever does. One might almost say, were not such a comparison foolish, that she plays the harpsichord better than anybody else ever plays anything."

Thomson is the only person I've ever heard called a "Franco-Missourian" — his music is equal parts Kansas City and Paris, just as his life was. Working in film and theatre, he collaborated with Gertrude Stein and Orson Welles, and his film score for Louisiana Story earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1949. For the playfulness and thoughtful muscularity of his music criticism, he has become one of my heroes. Get yourself A Virgil Thomson Reader , and you'll understand why.

The YouTube video of pianist MMLeung playing Thomson's Double Glissando Etude has already been viewed 20,586 times. To me, there's something sweeter about Edward Leung playing the Ragtime Bass. Could be that it was the guy's first concert. See below.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wanda Landowska on Apture

When I'm not writing about or listening to Wanda Landowska, I work as the editor of Birmingham Weekly, the largest, independently owned newsweekly in the state of Alabama. On the Weekly website, we recently started using a terrific service called Apture, which allows bloggers to layer in multimedia content for readers to search without leaving the page. I knew it would be terrific for this burgeoning blog: An Apture search for Wanda Landowska yields a link to a Wikipedia page, Twitter search results and dozens of video clips from YouTube. All you have to do to check out some of the content is move your mouse over that small icon in front of her name in the previous sentence. A new window will open, giving you access to several choices of audio and video clips.

Madame Landowska is physically absent from my very favorite YouTube video of her. I discovered this gem from 78Man even before I had Apture:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Finding Kindred Souls

You could say that David Gurewitsch inherited Wanda Landowska from his mother. A pioneer of rehabilitative medicine, Dr. Maria Gurewitsch treated Wanda for more than a decade. The problem was that Wanda never paid her bills. Weary of making collection calls, Maria Gurewitsch picked up the phone and struck a bargain:

“If I can come and listen to you practice, you don’t have to pay your bills.”

Wanda agreed but added a caveat. “You may come and listen to me practice, but I won’t tell you ahead of time. I will call you and you must be able to drop everything come at that very moment.”

One more proviso and the deal was made: “Very well, then,” Gurewitsch said. “I shall come when you call, but I would like for my son David to have the same privilege.”
It was the younger Dr. Gurewitsch, a physician who reveled in metaphor, who on May 31, 1946, took an X-ray of Wanda Landowska’s hands. He had no medical purpose in mind but was hoping to see what her bones showed: Could a skeleton reveal what it took to make a fugue transcendent? The implicit playful question was whether a look inside her might explain how she played that way.

I learned about Wanda's practice-as-payment plans from Mrs. Edna P. Gurewitsch, the widow of David. Reading the caption on the plaque beneath the X-ray led me to research the physician and right away I learned that Wanda wasn't the only female historical figure with whom David Gurewitsch had a connection.

From 1948 to 1962, Gurewitsch served as the personal physician to Eleanor Roosevelt. The two shared a passionate mutual attachment that might best be described as a chaste affair. Mrs. Roosevelt confessed to David Gurewitsch that she had fallen in love with him. The romantic feelings were unrequited but the friendship continued and flourished. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt spent most of the last decade of her life living with Dr. Gurewitsch and his wife, Edna. The latter recounted at length her husband’s special relationship with Mrs. Roosevelt in a memoir titled Kindred Souls. Edna P. Gurewitsch briefly recounted her husband's friendship (and her mother-in-law’s friendship) with Wanda Landowska in a brief series of phone conversations and letters with me in 2008.

For anyone interested in a moving, personal narrative about Mrs. Roosevelt, Kindred Souls is a terrific read.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A woman with pluck

In the second half of the 20th century, nearly every harpsichord player in the Western world was either one of her students or the student of one of her students. Wanda Landowska was almost single-handedly (or rather, double-handedly) responsible for the revival of the harpsichord at a time when the instrument had been relegated to museum displays for most of two centuries. Despite nagging protests from detractors who preferred the piano, she was determined that the music of the past sounded best when played on the instruments of the past. In a spirited argument about how best to interpret the music of her favorite composer, she reportedly patted the hand of a rival and said: “Why don’t you play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way?”

In short, the woman had pluck.

She was a child prodigy in Warsaw, a teenage virtuoso in Berlin, a grownup doyenne in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, to where she eloped at age 21 with the Polish folklorist Henry Lew. Her husband was her impresario, research assistant and first editor of her writings on music. At a certain point, however, Wanda asked to be “relieved of the obligations of marriage.” She proposed to Henry that they should stay married but should each have a woman on the side – or perhaps, even better, a woman to share. They lived in one love triangle after another, with Lew continuing to act as Wanda’s musical manager and collaborator, until his death in 1919, in one of the first automobile accidents in Paris.

Wanda never re-married; in fact, for the rest of her life, she lived with women, primarily Denise Restout. A student-turned-lover-turned-companion some 30 years her Wanda’s junior, Restout fled with mentor from France to the United States as the Nazis reached Paris. The couple landed at Ellis Island on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, and they lived together in New York and Lakeville, Conn., until Wanda’s death in 1959 at age 80.

Monday, April 27, 2009


The light box is white, slightly crooked, and has two tiny cracks on its face, which you only notice if you make yourself stop looking at her hands. Wanda Landowska’s fingers are splayed. She wears no rings, although there’s an odd fragment of line at her wrist that suggests the edge of a bracelet or wristwatch. The bones are neither stark white nor smoky gray nor steely blue, but all three, and then none of those colors, and then another color that doesn’t even have a name.
Somehow their position looks both modest and bold, although both seem like strange words to apply to a skeleton. In the upper right corner, the date is burned into the X-ray, with a short, straight vertical line posing as a comma between the day and year: MAY 31 | 1946.

There’s a smudgy plaque beneath the light box, which has a caption in all caps:


I am studying this when an announcement comes over the speakers, and the voice of a live woman is bouncing off the tiles.

“May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? Cancel fox code for the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers. Cancel fox code for the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers.”

I have no idea what a “fox code” is but I feel relieved that it’s canceled, considering that I’m standing on the fifth floor of Jefferson Towers. The building is better known to Birminghamians as the Spain Rehabilitation Center, and to the physicians, patients and staffers who populate it simply as Spain. I’m not here for rehabilitation, however, at least not as a patient. I am here to look at art, particularly an X-ray hung as art, of the hands of a great pianist and the harpsichord’s first great 20th century champion. The patient, the subject, was dead before this hospital ever opened its doors; she may have never even set foot in the state of Alabama. But here are her hands, hung up as art, the light box humming alongside humdrum watercolors. The X-ray was taken 50 years ago by a doctor remembered as a pioneer of rehabilitation and brought to Birmingham by another physician who had his own ideas about what her bones showed.