Though one of the most important instruments during the Baroque and early Classical eras, the harpsichord by the 20th century was considered a museum piece, a quaint relic long ago displaced by the more powerful piano in the world’s concert halls. Thanks to Polish concert pianist Wanda Landowska, who took the unusual step of playing the harpsichord in her recitals, the silvery-voiced instrument began to attract attention and interest from modern listeners.

After moving to Paris to further her career, Landowska commissioned new works from prominent contemporary composers, including Manuel de Falla and Francis Poulenc.

Wanda Landowska

Wanda Landowska

Musicologist and lecturer Laura Prichard describes her transformation from concert pianist to early music advocate: “In Paris, partly through museums, and partly through local musicians, Landowska became interested in the harpsichord, and basically abandoned the modern concert piano, which horrified her friends. She wanted to develop a repertoire that [included] trying to revive Bach, which she became very well known for, as well as commissioning new pieces.”

One of those works, Concert champêtre (Pastoral Concerto), which Poulenc wrote for Landowska and her modern Pleyel harpsichord, will be performed in three concerts beginning April 30 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Harry Bicket. The program also features music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and J.S. Bach, including Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement of four Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It will provide a rare opportunity to hear music of Bach and modern music inspired by Bach, all interpreted by Bicket, artistic director of the early music group the English Concert, and especially noted for his interpretation of Baroque and Classical repertoire.

Shortly before the premiere of Concert champêtre in 1929, Poulenc said: “”Most of all, I wanted to use the harpsichord in a manner that was both French, modern and did not sound like a pastiche. I wanted to prove that the harpsichord was not an obsolete, inefficient instrument of merely historical interest, but on the contrary that it was and remains an instrument that had reached its point of perfection, with its specific characteristics, its own properties, timbres and accents that no other instrument can replace.”

Poulenc’s comment, reprinted in Francis Poulenc: Articles and Interviews: Notes from the Heart by Nicolas Southon, raises a question pertinent to modern listeners: Is the harpsichord merely appropriate for early music but not for modern composers writing in a modern idiom? Or does the harpsichord have something to say to the modern world as well?

Clearly, Poulenc thought so. But Stravinsky, another composer who found inspiration in music of the 18th century, used the harpsichord prominently in only one of his neo-classical works, the 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress. The harpsichord accompanies the recitatives, much as it did in operas of the 18th century.

Acclaimed conductor and keyboardist Christopher Hogwood once had the opportunity to talk with Stravinsky about his use of the harpsichord in  Rake’s Progress. “I asked him whether he would write something more for the harpsichord. He just rolled his eyes! I think that he himself was not a great admirer of the harpsichord as an instrument with a future for him, but it was clearly an instrument with an enormous past and to include it in a neo-Mozartian score was clearly an obvious thing to do,” Hogwood said.

Although Stravinsky may not have embraced the harpsichord as a vehicle for his modernist compositions, he was certainly a great admirer of music written for the instrument.  As CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher writes in his notes for this week’s program, “The Well-Tempered Clavier was Igor Stravinsky’s daily fare at the end of his life — he loved to begin the day by playing a page or two, as a way of exercising his fingers and jump-starting his thoughts. Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s longtime colleague and amanuensis, said that after the composer died, he found the music of Bach’s E-Flat Minor prelude still open on the piano. It was the last piece Stravinsky had played, just days earlier.”

Louise Burton is a Chicago-based arts writer.

 TOP: Detail of a harpsichord keyboard.