Wanda Landowska

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Wanda Landowska in 1937

Wanda Aleksandra Landowska (5 July 1879 – 16 August 1959) was a Polish-French 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). She became a naturalized French citizen in 1938.[1]


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 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 (1900–12).

Landowska's favored instrument, the Pleyel Grand Modèle de Concert (1927) Berlin: Musikinstrumentenmuseum

She later taught harpsichord at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1912–19). 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."[2]

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.[3]

Leonid Pasternak. Concert of Wanda Landowska in Moscow (1907), a pastel from the Tretyakov Gallery.

She taught at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1925 to 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. During this time Landowska frequented the salon of open lesbian Natalie Clifford Barney, to both socialize and perform.[4] When the German Army invaded France, Landowska fled with her student domestic partner Denise Restout.[4] After leaving Saint-Leu in 1940, sojourning in Banyuls-sur-Mer, a commune in southern France, where her friend, sculptor Aristide Maillol was living, they sailed from Lisbon to the United States. Believing the Nazi threat to be temporary she had left with only 2 suitcases.[5] She arrived in New York on 7 December 1941, a day which coincided with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her home in Saint-Leu was looted, and her instruments and manuscripts stolen, so she arrived in the United States essentially with no assets.[4]

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.[6]

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.[6] Her partner, Denise Restout, was editor and translator of her writings on music, including Musique ancienne, and Landowska on Music, published posthumously in 1964.[4]

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


She died in Lakeville, Connecticut on 16 August 1959, aged 80.[7]

Camera Three program[edit]

A Camera Three series program, a dramatization of some writings of Landowska as read by actress Agnes Moorehead, entitled Reminiscences of Wanda Landowska aired 17 March 1963 on CBS.[8]

Reviews and opinions[edit]

  • "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."[9]
  • "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."[10]
A favourite 16th-century Landowska harpsichord from her collection, with painting on lid attributed to Verocchio, presently housed in the Hans Adler memorial musc collection.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "La croisade en faveur des " chaudrons qui carillonnent " Sur les traces de Wanda Landowska qui consacra toute sa vie à l'amélioration de la technique et de la sonorité du clavecin" (PDF). Auditorium-wanda-landowska.fr. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  2. ^ "Re: GG and Landowska's famous misquoted remark". Glenngould.org. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  3. ^ Bonnie Zimmerman. "Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures". p. 435. 
  4. ^ a b c d Smith, Patricia Juliana. "Landowska, Wanda (1879-1959)" (PDF). 
  5. ^ "'Bach' to the Future With Wanda Landowska". Forward.com. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  6. ^ a b "Early music harpsichordist Wanda Landowska plays Bach at New York City's Town Hall". Jwa.org. 21 February 1942. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  7. ^ Salter, Lionel. "Landowska, Wanda". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 25 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  8. ^ Reminiscences of Wanda Landowska at the Internet Movie Database
  9. ^ [1][dead link]
  10. ^ Sol Babitz. "The Landowska Approach". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 
  11. ^ "The Hans Adler Collection of Early Instruments: Wanda Landowska Harpsichord". Hansadlercollection.blogspot.ca. Retrieved 15 May 2016. 

External links[edit]