About this Recording
8.111055 - LANDOWSKA, Wanda: Dances of Ancient Poland (1946, 1951)

Wanda Landowska (1879-1959)
Treasury of Harpsichord Music
Dances of Ancient Poland

Wanda Landowska’s father was an amateur musician and lawyer in Warsaw. Her mother spoke six languages and was the first person to translate the works of Mark Twain into Polish. She also founded the first Berlitz Language School in Warsaw. Their daughter Wanda was born in Warsaw in 1879 and began to play the piano at the age of four. Her first teacher was Jan Kleczyn´ski and she continued her tuition at the Warsaw Conservatory with Aleksander Michalowski. At seventeen Landowska went to Berlin to complete her studies in piano with Moritz Moszkowski and took lessons in composition from Heinrich Urban.

In 1900 Landowska moved to Paris, where she married Henri Lew. It was Lew, whom she had met in Berlin, who encouraged her to explore music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Landowska was introduced to Vincent d’Indy, Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, who founded the Schola Cantorum in order to promote ancient music, as well as Albert Schweitzer. Between 1905 and 1909 she wrote a number of scholarly articles which were published in book form as Musique Ancienne in 1909. From 1903 she began to appear in public as a harpsichordist, and it is with this instrument that her name is usually connected, although she did continue to play the piano in public.

In 1907 Landowska visited Russia with her harpsichord, and on the second visit two years later played for Leo Tolstoy. She toured throughout Europe as a harpsichordist and just before the First World War taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Landowska and her husband remained in Berlin, but as civil prisoners on parôle, because they were French citizens. After the War, Landowska taught harpsichord at the Conservatory in Basel for a short period and then returned to Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne and Ecole Normale de Musique.

Landowska’s husband had been killed in a road accident in 1919. She founded the Ecole de Musique Ancienne near Paris at Saint-Leu-la-Fôret where she had settled in 1925. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she continued to tour and perform on both the harpsichord and piano, often playing works specially written for her and her harpsichord such as the Concert Champêtre by Poulenc and the Concerto for Harpsichord by Manuel de Falla.

At the Nazi invasion of Paris, Landowska and her pupil and companion Denise Restout escaped, first to a town on the Spanish boarder, then to New York. In 1947 Landowska settled in Lakeville Connecticut with Restout, whom she had met in 1933, and remained there for the rest of her life. She continued to perform into the 1950s and became renowned as the most eminent harpsichordist of the first half of the twentieth century, and the individual responsible for resurrecting the instrument and a scholarly approach to the performance of music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Not long after her arrival in New York and just after the end of the Second World War, Landowska recorded a group of short pieces for Victor between January and November 1946 at the Lotos Club in New York City. Issued as a Treasury of Harpsichord Music, it is an enjoyable collection of works by many of the greatest keyboard writers including, Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin, Handel and Mozart, the last of whose works would have been played on harpsichords still extant in many people’s homes at the end of the eighteenth century.

In old age Landowska was recorded at her home in Connecticut. Between 1950 and 1954 she recorded Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier and made her last recordings at the age of eighty in the spring of 1959. In May 1951, whilst in her early seventies, she recorded a selection of short pieces of Polish music. When originally issued, the LP was titled Landowska plays for Paderewski, because, as she wrote herself, ‘The pieces included in this recording are those Paderewski loved most. I often played them for him and – at his request – repeated them.’

All the music is by Polish composers with the exception of Cato who was Venetian (though he lived in Poland from an early age) and François Couperin and Rameau who were, of course, French, although both works have Polish connections. Jacob le Polonais was a Polish lutenist and composer born around 1550. He went to France in 1574 working as a musician for Henri III and it is now known that he is one and the same person as Jakub Reys. Diomedes Cato was an Italian lutenist and composer employed at the court of King Sigismund III of Poland from 1588 to 1602 whilst Michael Cleophas Ogin´ski, nephew of the musician and poet Prince Michal´ Kazimierz Ogin´ski, was born near Warsaw in 1765 and died in Florence in 1833. He wrote some twenty Polonaises for the piano which were published in Warsaw in 1803. Much of this music has been adapted or arranged by Landowska while some of the other pieces are her own arrangements of folk-tunes such as The Hop, which is a reference to the plant where in Poland it is a symbol of marriage.

The Polish dance form is typified by Chopin’s Mazurkas. Landowska wrote that ‘it is important to be aware of the character of the mazur to avoid turning it into an elegant salon piece, accented like a Viennese waltz’. Chopin’s music played on the harpsichord may be thought of as incongruous, yet Landowska in her inimitable way wrote, ‘Yes, on the harpsichord! Do not be angry with me, my pianist friends! And now, let me tell you why I do this: The harpsichord, reservoir of sharp colours, flute, strings, nasal oboes, bagpipes, contrabass, is the ideal instrument to render folk-music. You will hear it in The Hop, the most authentic, the most striking mazurka that ever existed.’

Nearly sixty years after these recordings were made Landowska’s style and choice of harpsichord may upset some listeners who vie for ‘historical accuracy’ in performance style and instrument. Not only did Landowska believe her music-making to be historically accurate, she played this music with such a conviction as to silence any future detractors. She was such a great artist that when she played these works she could communicate her love, joy and wonderment in these compositions: she loved this music and wanted her audience to share in the enjoyment of her revelations with her.

© Jonathan Summers

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