I am delighted to be able to present the third in what I hope will be an unending series of ‘Guest Postings’ by friends, acquaintances and strangers who are active in or around the musical world and have interesting things to say.
For this posting, I have to thank the Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (ماهان اصفهانی , if your Farsi is up to the job), who since Spring 2015 has been Professor of Harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
The story behind the posting is this. Earlier today, I saw a ‘social media’ message in which Esfahani — who I’d never previously met or communicated with — told a story from the life of the great Polish-French harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959). Since the events of the story actually took place on this day in 1942, I asked him if he would be so kind as to consider writing a few paragraphs that presented these details as well as providing some useful context — and now, just a few hours later, that text has arrived!
Over to Professor Esfahani…
* * *
By the age of 61, Wanda Landowska had happily settled in the small town of St.-Leu-la-Foret outside of Paris. There she had established her ‘Ecole de la Musique Ancienne’ with its collection of instruments, extensive library, and small concert hall attached. Following the upheavals of the First World War and the tumultuous 1920s in Paris, she had certainly come to a point in life where she thought that she was achieving her life’s work in the calm of circumstances.
That was all to change with the Second World War. In June of 1940, as the Germans were fast descending upon Paris, she and her companion Denise Restout fled St.-Leu, able only to take three boxes’ worth of papers and some scores and notebooks. They managed to take mostly some lecture notes and teaching outlines, and, incredibly, no instruments.
Not only did they leave Landowska’s own Pleyel harpsichords behind (the ones on which she performed and recorded), but also her priceless collection of antique instruments — a virginals by Ruckers of Antwerp, a seventeenth-century fretted clavichord, an early Baroque Italian harpsichord, and other items – which were left to the invaders and dispersed here and there. Landowska and Restout fled to the south of France, and thence to Portugal, where they boarded a ship to the United States.
On the 7th of December, 1941, their ship reached New York harbour. Little did they know that on that same day, some time zones to the west, Pearl Harbor was being attacked. Landowska, generally oblivious to these things, had no time to waste. As Restout reported it, when they arrived on Ellis Island and were herded into the waiting room, amidst all those frightened people, crying children, and huddled families, Landowska found an old upright piano. Restout cleaned the keyboard up a bit with her handkerchief and … Landowska sat down to practise.
A year later, she performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations to a sold-out Town Hall in New York City. The great Wanda Landowska, single-handedly responsible for the mainstream revival of the harpsichord, was herself revived.
So, December 7th 1941 should be a day of memory for us harpsichordists, too!
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