Wanda Landowska hypostatized her reputation as the world’s greatest living harpsichordist with actions to match: she sold out concert halls even at the inverted apex of the Great Depression; she played private recitals for novelist Leo Tolstoy; she commanded exorbitant prices for live appearances, in which she dressed the stage with her personal chair, a rug and a lamp—the lights would dim and she would materialize—you rarely saw her simply walk on stage. Her technique involved a claw-like crow’s foot hand position and a relentless attack of the notes. Her style also matched her instrument, a particular kind of custom harpsichord with a 16-foot stop (to play a set of strings an octave below the normal pitch).

Whether or not you like her music (give it a try, it’s great), you should know about what she did that stunned the world.

1940

In 1940, she began to record a new set of Scarlatti sonatas in Paris. The Nazis invaded, but she did not move. Even as the bombs fell and the anti-aircraft artillery fire boomed through the streets, she did not break from her song. In an astonishing show of grit, you can hear the war break out in the background at 2:00 into this track.

Listen to her play. She does not cower or demure. Not only does she refuse to flinch, she hits her notes delicately as the guns crack and then follows the line with a defiant punch towards resistance.

She did eventually leave, she escaped to New York, to arrive on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

What will you do when the bombs fall?

Maybe Wanda was crazy and should have run away like her studio technicians did when the guns blazed. But she didn’t. And since she didn’t, seven decades later we can glimpse her raw portrait of courage.

Courage comes from love—love of your art, your family, your past, and your dreams of the future. If you want courage, find love.

And then do something about it. Raise your family with all the compassion, intelligence and creativity you can summon. Build a business that actually helps the world. Create art worth risking a bombing. Or just start.

Start to make better work today than you did yesterday. Start with harder questions and different answers. Start without thinking you already know the answer before you begin. Start full of doubt but always knowing you’ll find the answer no matter how long it takes.

Start with love, move to courage, end with art.


Colophon

Image: the background was made with Stamen’s watercolor map program. The foreground image is from wiki-commons mixed with bombing footage from WWII.

The type in the illustration is Cubano.