Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) was a Polish harpsichordist who is symbolic of (and partially, arguably greatly responsible for) the early music revival in the 20th century. Her brilliant musical interpretations gave her star power outside of early music circles, and her performances and recordings led to the eventual re-acceptance of the harpsichord as a valid concert instrument. Her advocacy for and research of early music unlocked a wealth of nearly-forgotten repertoire that we still benefit from today. She moved to Paris and married in 1900. However, she and her husband both took female lovers: Wanda Landowska was an out-of-the-closet lesbian in 1900.
Her husband passed in 1919, but Landowska had become a naturalized French citizen and remained there after his passing. As a Jew, she was forced to flee Europe when the Nazis invaded France. She arrived in New York, with her partner Denise Restout, on the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked (December 7, 1941). Her house outside Paris had been looted and she had no assets, only $1300 with which to start a new life. She settled in Connecticut and eventually re-established herself as a musician, giving performances and making recordings until shortly before her death.
She also recorded this piece by François Couperin (le grand) in 1954, which I find incredibly haunting and have been unable to shake since I listened to it for the first time last week.
The name of the piece is “La Favorite,” and it begins at the top of the video and lasts until about 4:40. Listen to the theme that begins the piece: it is a series of four descending notes, repeated three times, each time starting on a lower note. This cyclical theme is recalled several times throughout the piece, the backbone of a musical form called the rondeau—where a refrain is interrupted by a series of different interludes or “episodes.”
The musicologist in me knows that this is a common musical form and that I should expect this theme to keep coming back. But when I listen to this piece, it feels like Couperin (or possibly Mme. Landowska) was himself haunted by something, like he was trying to think his way away from something only to find himself back at the beginning no matter how hard he tried.
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