If Wanda Landowska were alive today...
On February 21, 1942 (sixty-six years ago yesterday) Wanda Landowska -- a Warsaw-born Jewish musician with a mastery of the harpsichord -- made history with a performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" at New York's Town Hall. It was the first time in the 20th century that the piece, originally written for the harpsichord, was performed publicly on that instrument. A student of Landowska's later remembered that hearing her performance was "like being in front of one of the greatest wonders of nature."
Landowska's story offers us something else to wonder about: her unconventional personal history. It goes like this: In 1909, she co-authored a book with her husband Henry Lew (who died in 1919). In 1941, she fled Nazi-occupied Paris with Denise Restout, the woman known as her life partner. The two eventually made their way to the United States where they settled permanently.
Landowska's story is likely one of many throughout history. But narratives that fall outside of the hetero-normative canon aren't always told. Rarely are they celebrated. Certainly today, a relationship trajectory like Landowska's would be wildly sensationalized and subject to intense scrutiny. Anyone following the "news" knows it's nearly impossible to escape the slew of cover story "scandals" plucked from the lives of our politicians and pop-stars (presidential candidates are no exception). Were Landowska not a 20th century harpsichordist but a 21st century American Idol celebrity, I'm sure that, she too, would have herself a prized cover of Us Weekly with GAY! affixed to her name.
What interests me, though, is how stories like Landowska's get told and transmitted over time. What gets subverted, scandalized, or celebrated? What's included and what's left out in recounting women's collective history? Can we, today, identify Landowska as a lesbian when she might not have used that word herself? How do we effectively -- and visibly -- identify role models in ways that are honest and full? Perhaps most importantly, what's our role in making sure that the life complexities of women like Wanda Landowska don't simply get ignored or exoticized?
How to cite this page
Namerow, Jordan. "If Wanda Landowska were alive today... ." 22 February 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 14, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/wanda-landowska>.