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Wanda Landowska – The Goldberg Variations (1933), BWV 988

By February 15, 2018March 16th, 2023No Comments

Goldberg Variations link.

Bach was a genius of the highest order, and Landowska worshipped him.  If one were really narrow-minded, one could say that there was only 1 harpsichordist in the world, and that was Landowska.  Of course, this isn’t true, but she was a phenomenon.  Besides being a harpsichordist, she was a virtuoso pianist.  I believe that this recording from 1933 was made in her home.  There is a later recording from 1945, which is magnificent, but different.

Wanda Landowska

Wanda Aleksandra Landowska (July 5, 1879 – August 16, 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.

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, she and studied at the Warsaw Conservatory.

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.”

She taught at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1925-28. 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 fled with her student and domestic partner Denise Restout.   Believing the Nazi threat to be temporary she had left with only two suitcases. She arrived in New York on December 7, 1941, the date of 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.

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.

I want to emphasize here that Landowska single-handedly resurrected the harpsichord.  The harpsichords that she had made by Pleyel were souped up versions of the older harpsichords found in museums.  There is a DVD about Landowska’s life that was made several years ago.  It is excellent if you are interested at all in Landowska.  It is called “An Uncommon Visionary:  Wanda Landowska”.