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.