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.