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Wanda Landowska and the resurrection of the harpsichord

By November 27, 2018March 17th, 2023No Comments

Wanda Landowska was born on July 5, 1879 in Warsaw.  She was a Polish harpsichordist whose performances, teaching, recordings and writings played a large role in reviving the popularity of that instrument in the early 20th century. She was the first person to record J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) on the harpsichord (1931).

Wanda 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 Kleczynski and Michalowski. She also studied composition with Heinrich Urban in Berlin. After marrying the Polish folklorist Henry Lew in 1900 in Paris, she taught piano at the Schola Cantorum there (1900-1912).

In this posting, I am going to do something unusual.  I am going to give you long pieces; that is,  the Goldberg Variations (which you should compare with Glenn Gould’s versions) and the Preludes and Fugues, Book I.  I am giving these long selections, because they are very beautiful, anyone who is interested in classical music should know something about these pieces.  There will be a large selection of biographical material on Landowska after the youtube selections.  There is a documentary made of about Landowska called “An Uncommon Visionary”, and there is a clip from it included here.

Wanda Landowska:  An Uncommon Visionary

The Goldberg Vatriations

The Well-Tempered Clavier, book one

Perhaps more than any other single individual, keyboard performer Wanda Landowska (1879–1959) was responsible for the revival of the harpsichord—the instrument that was the piano’s most important ancestor.

Important composers of the Baroque era (c.1600–1750), such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel and François Couperin, wrote solo keyboard works, and keyboard parts in larger works, with the harpsichord in mind. Today, performances of Baroque music on “period” or historically appropriate instruments are at least as common as those using modern ones. Modern harpsichord performers owe Landowska a tremendous debt, for she single-handedly researched the instrument’s construction, commissioned new examples from builders, investigated performance styles, wrote polemical articles promoting the use of the harpsichord, and, most importantly, repopularized the instrument by performing on it over a five-decade concert career. Her influence extended even beyond her chosen instrument; essayist Allan Evans, in an essay appearing on the website of the Arbiter Records label, asserted that “one of the many debts of gratitude we owe to Wanda Landowska is for her having viewed music as a continuum rather than a progressing art ever perfecting itself.” She helped lead classical music audiences to realize that music of the past is often best appreciated on its own terms.

Family Converted to Catholicism

Born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 5, 1879, Landowska was the daughter of attorney Marian Landowski and linguist Eva Lautenberg. Her mother produced the first translations of American author Mark Twain’s novels into Polish. Landowska’s background was Jewish, but her family had converted to the Catholic faith. A child prodigy, Landowska gave her first piano recital at age four. Her parents signed her up for lessons with two high-level teachers at the Warsaw Conservatory (named Klenczynski and Michalowski) who were exponents of the style of Polish-born nineteenth century composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. But even as a young woman she liked the music of earlier eras when she heard it, which was rarely—although Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is now considered among the greatest composers in history, his music was mostly forgotten in the late 1800s. She also heard and reacted strongly to the harpsichord music of French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau when played on the piano. Her teachers realized that she had talent and unusual instincts, and they let her pursue her interests to some degree.
A small growth on one hand temporarily sidelined Landowska’s keyboard career but had the effect of broadening her musical horizons—her mother sent her to study composition with Heinrich Urban in Berlin, Germany, after she graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1896, and she began to find her place within the international musical community. Landowska remained for just a few years in Berlin, but while she was there, she met fellow Pole Henry Lew, a folklorist and writer, who supported her in her musical ambitions. They moved to Paris, France, in 1900 and got married there. Lew supported Landowska’s growing interest in the harpsichord, and that interest was stimulated still further when she began to cultivate contacts at Paris’s Schola Cantorum and became acquainted with the group of top music scholars who were active there. These included composer Vincent d’Indy and the great organist and Bach specialist Albert Schweitzer. She heard more Baroque-era music, by French composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Landowska’s next move was to launch intensive research into harpsichord design. Most of the models she had to work with were in museums, for it had been a century since harpsichords had been made in appreciable numbers. Complicating Landowska’s task was the fact that harpsichords differed in major ways from one another; unlike the nineteenth-century piano market, which was dominated by a few major manufacturers, harpsichords were made by individual builders and might be large or small, with anywhere from one to four sets of strings, one or two keyboards, and a variety of technical specifications. The few performers who had tried to play existing harpsichords in public concerts had been met with indifference or ridicule from audiences who found the instrument’s sound anemic or worse—its strings are plucked rather than hammered like those of a piano when a key is struck, and it is not capable of gradations between loud and soft dynamics (the word “pianoforte,” the piano’s original name, means “soft-loud” in Italian).
In 1903 Landowska devoted a segment of a piano recital to a performance on a small harpsichord built by the Pleyel piano firm, and as her body of research grew she began to work with the firm’s engineers on a larger instrument. She also began to prepare the ground for the harpsichord revolution with her writings; the influential article “Sur l’interpretation des oeuvres de clavecin de J.S. Bach,” (On the Interpretation of the Harpsichord Works of J.S. Bach), appeared in 1905, and in 1909 she and Lew co-authored a book, La musique ancienne (Early Music). Some of Landowska’s writings were combative as she strove to counter the widespread perception that the harpsichord was of purely antiquarian interest. In 1912 Landowska introduced a new two-keyboard Pleyel harpsichord at the Breslau Bach Festival in Germany, and her renown began to grow.

Arrested During War

One mark of Landowska’s new influence was that she was hired in 1913 to teach harpsichord at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, among Germany’s top university music programs. Having come from France, she and her husband were arrested after World War I broke out in 1914 and spent much of the war as paroled civil prisoners—they were not criminally charged, but most of their possessions were confiscated. After the end of the war, Landowska participated in a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, playing the continuo part (a chordal accompaniment) on the harpsichord for the first time in decades, and perhaps since Bach’s death. In 1919 Lew became an early auto-accident fatality, and Landowska left Germany, giving a series of recitals in Switzerland and Spain and then returning to Paris to take a teaching post at the Ecole Normale de Musique.

In Paris in the 1920s, Landowska often attended and performed at a salon—an intellectual-social gathering—that was later reported to have had a lesbian orientation. The nature of her marriage to Lew has been variously described, but he was clearly supportive of her musical endeavors. Landowska had numerous private students in Paris, and one of them, Denise Restout, later became her editor, general assistant, and life companion.

In the 1920s and 1930s Landowska reached the peak of her fame. Several major composers wrote new harpsichord compositions for her, including Francis Poulenc, who was quoted by Evans as saying that “the way in which she has resuscitated and re-created the harpsichord is a sort of miracle.” Landowska toured the United States for the first time in 1923, sailing from Europe with four harpsichords and making 78 rpm recordings for the Victor label.
The crowning achievement of Landowska’s life in France was the construction of her own three-story house in the Paris suburb of St.-Leu. Finished in 1925, it included a garden and a small detached concert hall that became a routine stop for Parisians and visitors interested in new musical developments. Younger keyboard players interested in the harpsichord flocked to Landowska’s studio, and her own concerts were packed. In 1933 she performed Bach’s massive Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord for the first time in the twentieth century.

Fled Nazis

As German soldiers approached Paris in the summer of 1940, Landowska, due to her Jewish background, found herself in grave danger. She and Restout fled south, hitchhiking out of the city—Restout bribed a passing driver, and they slipped out of Paris at four o’clock in the morning, taking only a few cases of books and manuscripts with them. The house in St.-Leu, with its collection of antique instruments and its large library, was ransacked by the Nazis. Landowska and Restout were refugees in the south of France for about a year and a half, staying with friends and watching their funds dwindle as they moved from place to place. Finally they made their way to the Portuguese coast and sailed for the U.S.

Landowska and Restout were admitted to New York through Ellis Island, where they had to wait among transported Japanese-American internees despite a sheaf of recommendation letters gathered from American acquaintances. Of their $1,300 in remaining money they had to post $1,000 as a bond.
But things improved when Landowska was able to return to performing. Her first U.S. concert was an impromptu recital she gave on a piano she found pushed against a wall on Ellis Island, but by February of 1942 she was performing at the Town Hall auditorium and basking in rave reviews from Virgil Thomson and other leading American critics of the day. Word of Landowska’s innovations in Baroque music performance had reached the U.S., and even jazz bandleader Artie Shaw had experimented with the unique tone color of the harpsichord on occasion. The Victor label, now called RCA Victor, released more Landowska recordings, and by 1947 she was able to afford to move to a country home near Lakeville, Connecticut. Another resident of the area was French mystery novelist Georges Simenon.
Perhaps the greatest of Landowska’s American recordings was a complete rendering of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 48 short but intricate harpsichord pieces intended to demonstrate the complete set of musical keys made possible by the tempered tuning system that had just recently been introduced in Bach’s time. In 1975, the recording was added to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hall of fame. Later recordings of that work and others went beyond Landowska’s in sheer authenticity; heard today, her performances seem more concerned with the spirit of a piece of music than with its exact notated score, and she sometimes added ornaments that would later be regarded as questionable. Her big Pleyel harpsichord was likewise superseded by later research, and, noted Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe in his review of the video Landowska: Uncommon Visionary, “the finger-lifting technique and distorted hand positions required to play it go against most of what is known about healthy muscular uses of the hand … and it is not surprising to hear her last record producer, RCA’s John Pfeifer, remark that the sessions for her late recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier proved very difficult.”

Dyer nevertheless asserted that earlier Landowska recordings heard in the video had “an authority, rhythmic spring, virtuoso elan, and emotional immediacy that has not been surpassed by any of her successors.” Landowska was interviewed for an installment of the NBC television series Wisdom in 1953, and she continued to write and perform, never giving up the piano entirely, until her death in Lakeville, on August 16, 1959. Her home was preserved as the Landowska Center; her recordings continued to form cornerstones of many a classical music library; and her influence was magnified into the plethora of harpsichord recordings that had appeared by the twentieth century’s end and continued undiminished into the twenty-first.

From “” entry on Wanda Landowska