Wanda Alexandra Landowska (5 July 1879 - 16 August 1959) was a Polish (naturalized French citizen in 1938) harpsichordist whose performances, teaching, recordings and writings 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 (1933).
Landowska was born in Warsaw, where 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 also studied composition under Heinrich Urban in Berlin, and had lessons in Paris with Moritz Moszkowski. After marrying the Polish folklorist 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). 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. 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. 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. De Falla later wrote a harpsichord concerto for her, and Francis Poulenc composed his Concert champêtre for her.
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.
When the German Army invaded France, Landowska, who was Jewish, fled with her assistant and domestic partner Denise Restout, leaving Saint-Leu in 1940, sojourning in Banyuls-sur-Mer, a commune in southern France, near Spain and on the coast of Mediterranean Sea, where her friend the sculptor Aristide Maillol was living, and finally sailing from Lisbon to the United States. Believing the Nazi threat to be temporary she had left with only 2 suitcases. She arrived in New York on 7 December 1941, a day which coincided with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The house in Saint-Leu was looted, and her instruments and manuscripts stolen, so she arrived in the United States essentially without assets.
Her 1942 performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" at New York's Town Hall was the first occasion in the 20th century where the piece was played on the harpsichord, the instrument for which it had been written.
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. Her companion, Denise Restout, was editor and translator of her writings on music, including Musique ancienne, and Landowska on Music, published posthumously in 1964. She died in Lakeville on 16 August 1959.
Camera Three program:
A Camera Three series program entitled Reminiscences of Wanda Landowska aired 17 March 1963 on CBS. It was a dramatization of some writings of Landowska as read by Agnes Moorehead.
Reviews and opinions:
"Almost needless to say, the playing is full of vigorous gestures and individual ideas. She was no respecter of text and there are little repeats here and there which are no more indicated than they are necessary. Yet such matters seem something of an irrelevance, since they only reflect an attitude of the time adopted by a celebrated pioneer of the harpsichord revival in the twentieth century. No, what charms me in Landowska's recital is her affecting poetic insight into Scarlatti's music; she is not just rediscovering the proper conjunction of composer and instrument, she believes in it and feels it intensely.",
"She always played the music "as written" with the result that a series of fast notes did not sound like "bundles of them" (North 1700) but like a sewing machine. Thanks to her wide influence this blight can be heard in her pupils to this day." (by Sol Babitz)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license