Composer / Pianist  Gardner  Jencks

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


See my interviews with Elliott Carter, Arthur Berger, Roger Goeb, and Nicolas Slonimsky

In October of 1987, we had a splendid telephone conversation.  Despite the lack of visual contact, Jencks spoke freely of his work, and pulled no punches when giving his opinions.

Here is that chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are you pleased that some of your music now is being made available?

Gardner Jencks:   Oh, yes.

BD:   In the notes it says that for a long time you worked in comparative isolation.

Jencks:   I didn’t do that on purpose.  I just didn’t push it.  I used a lot of energy pushing myself by giving concerts for over twenty years.  For the concerts, I didn’t have to do much.  They just came, so I thought the same thing would happen with composing.  But it didn’t, and I didn’t like that.  I didn’t do any pushing.  I just kept on writing.

BD:   Is this, perhaps, part of the advice you would have for other composers
to do more pushing of their own music?

Jencks:   It’s up to them.

BD:   Is that something that perhaps should be taught in the composing school
besides writing the notesself-promotion?

Jencks:   That doesn’t interest me.  You can’t teach anything, anyway.  It
s got to be done, but the composition is what counts.  So, I wouldnt say anything about that.  It’s up to the person.

BD:   Is composition something that can be taught at all?

Jencks:   You have to learn everything that anybody ever knew if you can, but it doesn
t help you much.  I won’t say too much about that.  That’s sort of commonplace.  Youve got to find out for yourself what you need to do.  Wallace Stevens wrote a book called The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.  What he says is quite good, and it has nothing to do with what anybody tells you, but it certainly includes everything that you could possibly learn from anybody.  That’s the way I would say that.


Wallace Stevens
(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) was an American modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955.

Stevens studied the art of poetic expression in many of his writings and poems including The Necessary Angel where he stated, "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have."

BD:   When you are composing a piece of music, are you in control of the piece or is the piece in control of you?

Jencks:   It’s too complicated to say.  It’s obviously both.  Different pieces are different.  It depends what forced you to do it.  Some things are so powerful that you have hardly any control.  They come because they have to.  You don’t have any control, and you don’t have anything to do about the scene that you’re in control of.  It’s like when you give a concert.  You’ve had experiences in your life, and they
re strong enough so it forces you to play a certain piece.  Then when youre playing it, some of that memory may be on your mind.  The tremendous control comes because you had to work it, playing it 3,000 times before you play it in public.  That’s called control, but it isn’t because its the slow emerging.  There’s a wonderful book on mathematics by Jacque Hadamard.  Its called The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.  It’s the description of how about a couple hundred European mathematicians were interviewed, and where their ideas came from.  This very problem is stated quite clearly, that whether its a discovery or an invention, nobody knows.  These words are very subtle, but whether you give yourself over to the thing, or whether it takes hold of you, you don’t have much choice.  You don’t have any mathematics, of course, but the same thing is somewhat true in composition, and it comes on a much deeper level because it comes from your emotional life.  It’s something that happens to you.  I dont say that some of it wasnt your fault, but when it happens, experiences are very quick sometimes.  I remember when the Korean War was announced on a radio, I was with some friends.  This sudden knowledge that we were back like the Second World War again, which everybody hoped we wouldn’t be, and there we were.  That hits you like a knife going through you.  Any experience you have for the next five years in regard to that war is subservient to that moment.  You cant help that, and that’s the kind of thing that produces a few notes, or a piece, or something.  Im not interested in the music all by itself.  It has to come from something that is powerful enough to produce something, as far as Im concerned.

BD:   Should the public be expected to understand where the music came from, or should they just listen to the music as they hear it?

Jencks:   No, they should just listen because, obviously, they don
t know or care what you thought, only if the thing that you felt was strong enough.  This is true in concerts, too.  Obviously, they dont give a damn about the experience that you had.  There’s no reason why they should.  But the effect of that experience has an impact on your performance, or on the notes that you write.  Every note has a relation to every other note, and those are chosen in a certain sense, not consciously always or even ever.  It’s hard.  I spoke about that before, but its a difficult problem.  Your experience isn’t going to be communicated, but the experience is strong enough so that theres something in their life that it would touch.

BD:   Is a piece of music which you wrote at one time going to change at all as the collective experience of the audience changes over the years?

Jencks:   Each person gets something different from it, so it has nothing to do with the original experience I might have had.  That’s a pure accident.  In my career, I wrote a piece that started out one way, and I didn’t even know there are a few details in a piece that come like that.  The person who hears it will never think of that, but there’ll be some other terrible things or wonderful things.  If it’s something that’s the very opposite, and there’s something in their life that’s like that, those things always exist, and they always are different to each person, or to each generation.  That’s the lucky thing about music.  You don’t have to have a whole lot of beliefs that he has, which get in the way.

BD:   Does the audience have to believe in music?

Jencks:   Of course.  They can’t help that.  Their overtones are related.  Nobody can do anything about that.  You hit them over the head with that, and that’s the end of it.

BD:   [Being a bit more gentle about it]  Are you really hitting them over the head with it, or are you serving it to them on a silver platter?

Jencks:   Both.

BD:   At the same time?

Jencks:   Yup.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a balance question.  In your music, or perhaps in any music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Jencks:   I don’t think of entertainment.  Zero to 100 I would say.

BD:   No entertainment at all?

jencks Jencks:   No.  That is not what I’m interested in.  That’s probably pretty peculiar, but I just dont think in those terms.  The fact is it always irritates me when I read The New York Times, and it says arts and entertainment.  That’s crazy. Ive been reading Shaw recently.  His whole attitude towards art is very interesting.  I dont have to agree with it.  Its certainly far away from that.  Oh, its entertaining, but thats different.  It’s not entertainment.  There’s nobody more entertaining than Shaw, but he’s got something to say.  I dont agree with what he has to say about dictatorships.  I’m not a great admirer of Stalin, or Mussolini, or even Hitler, and Shaw liked dictatorships.  But aside from that little detail, he knows what he’s talking about.  He has something that he wants to say, and he says it very entertainingly, which I’m afraid my music doesn’t go with.

BD:   I was going to ask, is the music of Jencks entertaining at all?

Jencks:   No, unfortunately.  I wish it were, but it isn’t.

BD:   Then what do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

Jencks:   What’s the purpose of eating?  To stay alive, I guess.

BD:   We need music to stay alive???

Jencks:   Yes.  I couldn’t live without it, and a great many people who maybe don’t think they could, but there’s very little else in the world now, or even at any time, that makes much sense.  I’m impressed and satisfied to see the quietness of an audience.  For a moment, these people are paying attention.  When you see them driving their cars or doing anything else, it’s not the same thing.  There’s something that’s needed there.  They used to get it out of religion, but they don’t have that any more.  I don’t think arts are religion, exactly.  Nobody knows how to explain these things, but it’s not an entertainment.  I don
t say that it can’t be entertaining, but the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion are not entertainment.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, for whom do you write?

Jencks:   Anybody.

BD:   Anybody at all?

Jencks:   Anybody at all.  Same thing when I was playing.  I was told by a Russian pianist that Rachmaninoff had a friend who walked up and down the Volga River.  He knew nothing about music, and Rachmaninoff would play to him to see what he’d say.  Here again, you come back to overtones.  That’s only one of the many, many parameters of music, as you know.  There is the variety of loud, and soft, and changes of speed.  A million things affect the human nervous system aside from his emotions... and brain if he has one.  [Laughs]

BD:   [Picking up on the jest]  One would hope that people who come to concerts have brains.

Jencks:   Well, I don’t know.  I’m not too sure that it’s very important.  I don’t say the brain is not necessary, but it certainly doesn’t come first place in music.

BD:   What does come first place?

Jencks:   Real experience.  Your existence.  What you are.  What reality is.  Nobody knows what it is.  Everybody thinks it’s different.

BD:   What do you think reality is?

Jencks:   Being alive for twenty minutes.  I can’t say what it is.  It’s everything.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Jencks:   I
m neither optimistic nor pessimistic.  There’s no such thing as that.  As long as there are human brains, there’ll be music.  I couldn’t imagine being optimistic about mathematics.  In any human endeavor, it’s not something that could possibly be stopped.  The Fiji islanders had it, and they had it at Tierra del Fuego, each one slightly different.  [Pauses a moment]  I’m not afraid I’m not helping you as much as I’d like to.

BD:   No, no, no.  I’m trying to make sure that I understand what you’re saying.  This is very interesting to get the ideas of a working composer.

Jencks:   The ideas are so secondary, they really are.  When you go out to buy food, it isn’t what ideas you have in your mind.

BD:   Then what is primary for you?

Jencks:   The experience.  Your total experience.

BD:   But isn’t music part of one’s experience?

Jencks:   Yes, that’s right.

BD:   You’re a fine pianist, also.  Are you a better composer because you are also a fine pianist?

Jencks:   Yes, but I see no difference, because I’ve done work on the piano for so long.  That’s why I started right away with that instrument.  I know a lot of composers that have difficulty in getting their works done, but at least they know what it ought to sound like through the piano.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

Jencks:   Oh, no.  Anybody who’d pay attention to what I put on paper would say they’re interested, and put themselves into it.  That’s their business.  I once took a year off in order to play it right in New York, but it didn’t come to anything.  It didn’t work out, and I never tried it again.  I didn’t want to take that much time away from composing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you write exclusively piano music?

Jencks:   I write occasionally for piano and cello, or maybe smaller groups, but usually that doesn’t quite interest me so much.

BD:   Have you written anything for the voice?

Jencks:   Yes, two songs.

BD:   What are the joys and sorrows of writing for the voice?

Jencks:   It depends on what’s in the poem that produced it.  That’s all.  The joys or the hopes come when you start off, and then, when you get it done, you’re irritated with it.

BD:   Are you irritated with much of your music?

Jencks:   Of course.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

Jencks:   Yes.  We wouldn’t go on doing it if you weren’t.  You recognize that it has something, but it never has what you hope.  Nothing does.  That’s just par for the course in every situation.  I’m not complaining about that.  It’s just elementary fact.

BD:   Is there any piece of yours that comes close to employing all of the hopes and dreams?

Jencks:   No.  I don
t think in those terms because I’m too close to them.  They have legitimacy because they had to be what they were at the time.  Im thinking in terms of Shaw at this moment just because I’ve been reading him.  He’s so funny, and he said that one artist has no right to criticize another artist, even if it is the same artist of a previous period.  He said that when he was re-publishing something from when he was younger.  Certain painters think they have a terrible picture, and ten years later they look at it thinking it’s one of the best things they did.  You can’t trust yourself in criticism this way about what you think is wonderful at that time.  Obviously, while you’re working on something, you have hopes that it will be maybe the best, and it is while you’re working on it.  But after it’s done, who’s to judge whether it’s better than another piece?

BD:   [Turning the question around]  Well, who is the ultimate judge of whether a piece is the best?

Jencks:   There is no ultimate judge as far as I’m concerned.

BD:   Then what are some of the attributes that help to make a great piece of music great?

Jencks:   That’s an unknown.  Nobody knows that.  You can give a whole lot of examples after the fact, and you can say why you like a particular thing, but goodness...  The first time I heard Webern, I went through the ceiling, just the way I did when I heard Toscanini.  What made me do that?  At that time, I didn’t know what was going on, and later on I didn’t feel that strongly.  I felt strongly about something else.  You can’t control these things.  You have your favorites.  I happen to be crazy at the moment about a piece by Tchaikovsky.  Well, I know damn well that’s not such a great piece, but I don’t care.  I can’t help thinking at the moment that it
s tops, and it isn’t.  You probably want me to say why I know it isn’t, but I can’t tell you that.  The poet John Berryman was at Princeton...

berryman John Allyn McAlpin Berryman (born John Allyn Smith, Jr.; October 25, 1914 – January 7, 1972) was an American poet and scholar, born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and is considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry.

Berryman's great poetic breakthrough occurred with 77 Dream Songs (1964). It won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and solidified Berryman's standing as one of the most important poets of the post-World War II generation. Soon thereafter, the press began to give Berryman a great deal of attention, as did arts organizations and even the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B. Johnson (though Berryman declined because he was in Ireland at the time).

Berryman was raised in Oklahoma until the age of ten, when his father, John Smith, a banker, and his mother, Martha (also known as Peggy), a schoolteacher, moved to Florida. In 1926, in Clearwater, Florida, when Berryman was 11 years old, his father shot and killed himself. Berryman was haunted by his father's death for the rest of his life, and wrote about his struggle to come to terms with it in much of his poetry.

Berryman taught or lectured at a number of universities, including the University of Iowa (at the Writer's Workshop), Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Minnesota, where he spent most of his career, except for his sabbatical year in 1962–3, when he taught at Brown University.

According to the editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, he lived turbulently. He abused alcohol and struggled with depression, and on the morning of January 7, 1972, he killed himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis onto the west bank of the Mississippi River.

He was an interesting man, and at that time I happened to be interested in Haydn.  So, I went down and saw him, and I said, “How can you explain that I like Haydn?  I know he’s not as good as Mozart, but I happen to feel that it means more to me now.”  He jumped out of his chair and he said, “This man wants to know what the truth is!”  [Both laugh]  I don’t know what the truth is in regard to that.  Each person has done what he did, and they have their own necessities.  When you need them
and you never can tell when that isthen that’s what you need at that time.  You can give a thousand reasons when you’re in that event why that’s necessary for you, but it’s not permanent.  The same thing is true for everyone.  Things go in and out of style.  Dowland, for instance, who is certainly one of the greatest composers who ever lived wasn’t anything for a long time, but he was tremendous for a certain period.  But you can’t say any of these things except after the fact about that particular thing or a particular moment.

BD:   Is the music of Jencks great?

Jencks:   No.  Well, I don’t like to say that.  That’s for somebody else to say.  I don’t think of it in those terms at all.  Is an automobile accident great?  It doesn’t feel very good for the people who are in it.

BD:   It’s interesting that you would relate it to an automobile accident, rather than a lovely drive in the country.

Jencks:   [Laughs]  Well, more things are like automobile accidents these days.  After Auschwitz, nobody has a very good time.

BD:   [Concerned]  You mean because of that we are condemned to a life of misery?

Jencks:   It’s not new.  Dostoevsky was aware of this, and so was everybody then.  That doesn’t mean you don
t have the opposite feelings, too.  You do.  As a matter of fact, there’s a saying that you can’t separate those two.  That’s one of the strangest things about musicthat the strongest emotions of negation are often most prominent.  I did play stuff for a while that I wrote, and I remember playing the Second Sonata.  It was during the Second World War, when everybody was very hopeful, because you have this terrible illusion that if you could only win the war, everything will be dandy.  So, I was full of hope of the most nonsensical kind, but everybody had that feeling.  I thought this sonata expressed that hope, and it has a lot of energy in it.  I could show where it is hopeful.  The melody rises, and all sorts of things happen.  Somebody came up to me and said, “Oh, that’s such a wonderful piece.  It’s so full of frustration.”  So, the same sounds that produced hope for me sounded like frustration to somebody else, but there is no question that they reacted to the energy, to the relationship of the tones.  It meant something.  It wasn’t just a bunch of notes that were at random.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve revised a number of your works...

Jencks:   No, I don
t call those revisions.  Those are a different version.  That’s entirely different.  I’m glad you brought that up because the other version has just as much legitimacy as the original, whereas a revision wouldn’t.

BD:   At what point do you know that you have finished tinkering with a piece, or tinkering with a version?

Jencks:   That’s a very clear point.  I can’t say what caused it, but I know exactly when it occurs.  There’s nothing more you can do.  It’s that simple.

BD:   You get to a point and there is no other place to go?

Jencks:   Absolutely, particularly for a version.  I would say that’s actually true of the original, though.  There’s no problem there as far as I’m concerned.

BD:   What causes you then to go and make a new version?

Jencks:   To get back to the experience.  There are many experiences in a piece that set it off.  By the time you’ve written it, they’re finished, but your life goes on.  Some things relate to those experiences, and they shift the things around.  As you know, the minute you shift one thing, everything else shifts.  It’s a very complex relationship of the new experiences you’ve had, and the effect of these on similar experiences to what produced the thing.  Something obsesses you in person right at that time, and you write a piece that uses a whole lot of things that are connected to that.  Then, when it’s finished, you don’t just turn it off like a spigot.  It leads to other experiences which even might deny those, or at least tremendously modify them.  Or they’ll just relate it to them, but they’re quite new.  So, instead of writing a new piece
unless it does that to youit produces another version, which in its way, is just as powerful as the original.

BD:   Why is it a version and not a new piece?

Jencks:   I can’t say.  There’s some experiences that don’t connect enough with what was in the other one.  Or, there’s not enough material in the piece to absorb what has occurred to you later.  It’s a complicated thing.  It’s very difficult.  I can’t say what does that.  It all depends on what you feel like doing.


BD:   When you’re writing, do you work on one piece at a time, or do you have a couple of things going?

Jencks:   That varies.  Sometimes it has to do with the mechanical difficulties.  When I was on Cape Cod this summer, I mailed pieces and photo-copies which didn’t get to me.  I hate that, because then you start something else.  I had put the marks on the photo-copies, so that forced me to be doing two or three pieces at a time, and I don’t like that.  Sometimes I even don’t get back to the first piece, much to my disgust.  It’s a horrible feeling to have written something and not to mark it up the way I know it ought to be.  As I write a piece, all I do is to write the notes.  But while I’m writing them, I have very clearly in my mind both what produced them, and what all the markings would be.  I even put down a sort of notation of these things on the paper.  Then, if that piece doesn’t get back to me in time, it’s very difficult to redo it.  So, I sometimes have gotten too interested in a new thing, and I may never do the older one.

BD:   Why do the other markings not go in at the same time that the notes go in?

Jencks:   I know that chances are I’ll be doing another version, so I don’t want to stick in the original markings.  I want to have it free.  I suppose that’s my way of allowing freedom, just the same as if you’re doing a concert.  You cannot play a piece alike twice.  You may try to, but you don’t.  In composition, I want to leave space so that I can feel things.  I know damn well I can put the original markings in, because I know what they are, but I don
t want to put them in just for the mechanical difficulty of photographing it and having to read the copy at all.  It’s just the shorthand way of doing it.

BD:   So each time you come to a new version, you’ll have your original, uncluttered notes to work with?

Jencks:   Absolutely.

BD:   Would there ever be a chance that you would want to give the uncluttered notes to the performer, and let them put their interpretation into it that way?

Jencks:   No, because they don’t have adequate meaning.  Too much water is going over the dam, or whatever the saying is.  Bach just wrote the notes, and then Mozart put it in louds and softs.  Later, others put in more expression marks, and after that they put metronome marks.  My music is pretty far away from electronics, and yet in one way it’s very close to it because the very subtle differences in metronome marks are just the kind of thing you could do on a mechanical electronic thing that the human being could hardly do, and yet they come from the opposite ends of the pole.  In their own way, the metronome marks are signposts, but you cannot just change them from note to note.  They’re something that a human being has to feel the difference, like in the old days when you go to a different key.  Every note would be entirely different, and that would be crazy.  No human being could possibly play a piece where it would be marked for each note, and what their relationships were, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.  If a note rises up a third, it’s different from when it rises up a second.  If it is in a distant key, that has to be reflected.  I wouldn’t bore either myself, or you, or anybody else with airing this, but it is like that very good principle of those dissonances that are used in not only modern music, but in all music.  This is one of the reasons that I don’t leave the music unmarked, because in modern Western civilization, things have gotten so that what’s small has become very important.  The same thing is going on inside of a Bach Fugue that Bach was conscious of.  We can’t be conscious of it, but it’s there, and we make a very vague attempt to suggest things by putting crude metronome marks every once in a while, and louds and softs, which obviously you couldn’t possibly show exactly what you want.  If you work with somebody face to face, I could see their expression and they could see mine.  We communicate a hell of a lot more than we can over the phone as we
re doing now for this interview.  That’s what happens in the Bach, but its not just happenstance.  It happens because a man’s instinct is so attuned to these subtleties.  I remember seeing a movie of a robot that tried to carry a glass of water across the room, and it couldn’t do it.  The water was filled up a little bit over the top, where capillary attraction was holding it.  A human being can do that.  You dont know how youre doing it, but you adjust so delicately to a tremendous number of parameters that no machine will ever reach.  That’s why the brain is not so important.

BD:   Let me follow up by asking how much leeway do you allow for interpretation?

Jencks:   Oh, infinite.  Anything I did mathematically, or any of these ideas on Bach is one hundred million light years away from actual music.  Bach wasn’t aware of what he was doing when he wrote those things.  He could write a Fugue in those days the same as our conversation just goes on.  We don’t realize every time our voices raise or lower, but in the Twentieth Century, we have recording machines that capture those little ups and downs, and somebody can study them.  They could probably psychoanalyze everything you say and everything I say.  
It wouldn’t get very far, but they could do it.

BD:   Can music get over psychoanalyzed?

Jencks:   Yes.  You bet.  It’s terrible.  I hate that stuff.  That’s why I wouldn’t touch electronic stuff.  I have a friend who shows me things that are all very interesting.  I’m curious about it.  It shows how the envelope of sound works, and all these things.  It’s modern.  
It’s a good education, like going to a conservatory.  You learn all these things that don’t do you any good, but you couldn’t get anywhere if you didn’t know them.

BD:   [Wistfully]  They don’t do you any good, but they’re absolutely indispensable.

Jencks:   That’s right... like manners.  People behave decently to each other, but that doesn’t mean that they agree.  If they didn’t have some manners, they’d all be shooting each other.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You started to do some concertizing, and then you stopped and went just to composing.

Jencks:   That’s right.

BD:   Have you done any teaching at all?

Jencks:   Oh, yes.  I taught at the Diller-Quaile School, but that was not much.  I have taught individuals, but I’ve never done much teaching, though I enjoy it tremendously.  I liked working with Marcia Mikulak.  She had a grant for a couple of years to work with me, and I enjoyed doing that.  I’ve worked with other musicians, giving concerts with violinists and string quartets.

BD:   Most composers don’t make a full living on just the music they write.  They either take a playing job or a teaching job.

Jencks:   Well, I have an independent income.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

BD:   That makes you free from that kind of restriction.  You don’t have to go out and waste time earning money.

Jencks:   Yes, but I wouldn’t say it would be a waste.  I think it’d be wonderful to do.  Everything you do like that is marvelous.  It can become a drudgery I guess, but I
ve never had it be that for me.  I’ve always enjoyed tremendously working musically with anyone.  It’s a great pleasure.  It’s terrific.  In fact, I think of nothing that’s more pleasurable except composing.

What is next on the calendar for you?  I assume that you are still composing.

Jencks:   Oh, yes.  You bet.
  I’m so involved with a whole lot of ideas and things, that I’m in a terrible state of transition.  But this is always true.  I don’t mean it too much, because that’s a continuous state.  Things are always happening.

BD:   It’s really not transition then.  It’s more forward progress.

Jencks:   Oh, I don’t think of any such thing as progress.

BD:   [Genuinely shocked]  Oh, really???  No progress at all???

Jencks:   No.  Do you?

BD:   I always thought that the journey of life was a forward motion.

Jencks:   Oh, no.  When I was young, Richard Strauss of all people was thought to be the Schoenberg of the world, and nobody could understand him.  He was a great composer, and there was great progress, so they said Strauss is so much better than Mozart.  I asked Landowska about it, and she said,
“You can’t outdo your grandmother in tenderness.  

landowska Wanda Aleksandra Landowska (5 July 1879 – 16 August 1959) was a Polish harpsichordist and pianist whose performances, teaching, writings and especially her many recordings played a large role in reviving the popularity of the harpsichord in the early 20th century. She was the first person to record Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord in 1933. She became a naturalized French citizen in 1938.

Landowska was born in Warsaw to Jewish parents. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother a linguist who translated Mark Twain into Polish. She began playing piano at the age of four, and studied at the Warsaw Conservatory with the senior Jan Kleczyński and Aleksander Michałowski. She was considered a child prodigy. She studied composition and counterpoint under Heinrich Urban in Berlin, and had lessons in Paris with Moritz Moszkowski. She began her performing career in Paris, where her recitals in that city and other European cities garnered praise from critics. She was interested in the music of J. S. Bach, whose works for harpsichord were included in her recitals by 1903, earning praise from Albert Schweitzer.

She decided to devote her career to the harpsichord rather than the piano, against the wishes of her friends, who thought she had a promising future as a pianist. In 1908–09, she toured Russia with a Pleyel harpsichord, similar to the 1889 model that the firm displayed at the Paris Exposition. After eloping with and marrying Polish folklorist and ethnomusicologist Henry Lew in 1900 in Paris, she taught piano at the Schola Cantorum there (1900–1912).

She later taught harpsichord at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1912–1919). When World War I started in 1914, she was interned on the grounds that she was a foreign national. She had her American debut in 1923, touring major cities with four Pleyel Grand Modele de Concert harpsichords, which were huge seven-and-a-half foot long instruments with foot pedal-controlled registers. These were large, heavily built harpsichords with a 16-foot stop (a set of strings an octave below normal pitch) and owed much to piano construction.

Deeply interested in musicology, and particularly in the works of Bach, Couperin and Rameau, she toured the museums of Europe looking at original keyboard instruments; she acquired old instruments and had new ones made at her request by Pleyel and Company. Responding to criticism by fellow Bach specialist Pablo Casals, she once said: "You play Bach your way, and I'll play him 'his' way."

A number of important new works were written for her: Manuel de Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show) marked the return of the harpsichord to the modern orchestra. Falla later wrote a harpsichord concerto for her, and Francis Poulenc composed his Concert champêtre for her. She taught at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1925 until 1928. She established the École de Musique Ancienne at Paris in 1925: from 1927, her home in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt became a center for the performance and study of old music.

After World War II, she settled in Lakeville, Connecticut in 1949, and re-established herself as a performer and teacher in the United States, touring extensively. Her last public performance was in 1954.

Landowska recorded extensively for the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor and The Gramophone Company/EMI.

No, there’s no progress in anything that counts.  Of course, there’s progress in technique, and there’s change.  My God, there’s change.  We used machine guns for a while, and now we use atom bombs, but I’d hardly call it progress.  Would you?

BD:   It may not be good progress, but I think I would still give it that label.

Jencks:   That’s another thing about an interview.  Words are something that I don’t understand.  I think they’re impossible.  Like the mind, words are worse than mathematics.  There’s mechanical progress, but as far as the things that count, Socrates probably saw this as clearly as anybody since.  I don’t think Bach or Mozart has been improved on.  Do you?

BD:   Not necessarily.  They haven’t been improved on, but now we have gone a step further and do something else perhaps equally well.

Jencks:   I would question that, but we’ve certainly changed.  Anyway, I’m completely at a loss as far as standards, because they shift so violently.  A Russian pianist I knew had a friend who studied the editions of Beethoven.  He found that in peace times, all the sforzandos were emphasized, whereas in war time, they didn’t pay attention to that.  You need certain things at certain periods of history, and that’s not progress.  That’s just change.  Terrific forces like tidal waves.  One tidal wave is not a progress on another tidal wave.

BD:   I do appreciate your taking the time to chat with me this afternoon.

Jencks:   Oh, I’ve enjoyed it.  I only wish I could have been with you, and seen you.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 10, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.