Modern music lovers with a penchant for the Baroque may assume that the much-loved timbre of the harpsichord has been popular ever since its development in the 15th century. But according to Grove Music Online, the instrument fell almost entirely out of favor by the early 19th century, owing to the emergence of the piano.
Keyboardist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) was one of the leading figures in the 20th-century revival of interest in the harpsichord. She indirectly inspired the wave of harpsichord use by British Invasion bands of the 1960’s, like The Beatles (“In my life”), The Kinks (“Session man”) and the Yardbirds (“For your love”), as well as the “Baroque pop” of The Left Banke (“Walk away Renee”).
The Music Division is home to the Wanda Landowska Collection, which features not only manuscripts, recordings and printed ephemera, but a number of her instruments, including two Pleyel harpsichords, one Challis clavichord.
This month the Music Division celebrates Landowska with screenings, presentations, and a concert in conjunction with the 39th Annual Meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society. The documentary Landowska: Uncommon Visionary will be screened in the Mary Pickford Theater on Wednesday, May 26th at 7:00pm, and on Saturday, May 29th at 12:00 noon. Editor Kathleen Soulliere will speak at the screening Wednesday night. The Mary Pickford Theater is located on the third floor of the James Madison Building. Admission to the screenings is free, but seating is limited, and will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Landowska had a large two-manual harpsichord built to her specifications by the French firm Pleyel, which she played in concert for the first time in 1912. The Music Division owns two of these instruments, and you can hear one in the Coolidge Auditorium next Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm. London-based, Washington-raised Mahan Esfahani, a soloist and collaborative artist on harpsichord, foretepiano, and organ, will play Wanda Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord, featuring pieces from her 1927 concert at the Library of Congress. See a copy of the program from that 1927 concert here. No tickets are required. Watch Esfahani in a piece from BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists series here.