Landowska, Wanda (1877–1959)

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Landowska, Wanda (1877–1959)

Polish virtuoso, known as the "High Priestess of the Harpsichord," who became an authority on the music of the 17th and 18th centuries and was responsible for the revival of the harpsichord. Name variations: Alexandra Landowska. Pronunciation: VAHN-da Lan-DOFF-skah. Born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 5, 1877; died in Lakeville, Connecticut, on August 16, 1959; daughter of Marjan Landowski (a lawyer and amateur musician) and Eve Landowska (a linguist); married Henry Lew (a folklorist), in 1900 (died in automobile accident, 1919); children: none; naturalized French citizen.

Began to play piano (1883); studied at Warsaw Conservatory of Music under Alexander Michalowski and Moritz Moszkowski; sent to Berlin to study composition and counterpoint with Heinrich Urban (1895); eloped to Paris with Henry Lew (1900); first played harpsichord publicly (1903); toured Russia (1909); performed for Count Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polnaya (1909); co-authored book with Henry Lew (1909); presented first Pleyel harpsichord publicly (1912); appointed head of harpsichord class, Berlin (1913); interned in Germany (1914–18); toured United States (1923); made first recording (1923); founded École de Musique Ancienne (1925); commissioned Manuel de Falla to compose a chamber concerto for harpsichord (1926); commissioned Francis Poulenc to compose the Concert Champêtre for Harpsichord (1929); gave first public performance of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (1933); awarded the Grand Prix of the Paris Exposition (1937); fled Paris (1940); lived in the south of France for 18 months; toured Switzerland; arrived New York City (December 7, 1941); lived in New York for six years; moved to Lakeville, Connecticut (1947); devoted herself to teaching, writing and recording.


Hebrew Poem for Orchestra; Serenade for Strings; Rhapsodie Orientale for Piano; Choir for Female Voices and Orchestra; Polish Folksongs for Solo Voice and Choir and Orchestra; The Hop; Polish Folksongs for Harpsichord solo; Bourrées d'Auvergne for Harpsichord solo; Liberation Fanfare (arranged for band by Edwin Franco Goldman, 1943).


J.S. Bach. English Suite in G Minor (Victor, 1923); J.S. Bach. Goldberg Variations (HMV, 1933); The Treasury of Harpsichord Music (RCA, 1946); Landowska Plays for Paderewski (RCA, 1951); The Arts of the Harpsichord (RCA, 1957).

Selected publications:

(with husband) La Musique ancienne (1909).

A virtuoso or musicologist? A teacher or composer? Wanda Landowska was all of these things and more. She was also an interpreter of music in the broadest sense.

She was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1877, the daughter of Marjan Landowski, a lawyer and amateur musician, and Eve Landowska , a linguist. Music came early to her life. Landowska began to play the piano at the age of four and proved herself to be an exceptional musician for such a tender age. Jan Kleczynski, an early teacher and author of The Works of Chopin and Their Proper Interpretation, enthused upon hearing her play for the first time "this child is a genius."

Wanda Landowska's talent was quickly recognized, and she was enrolled in the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. There she studied under Alexander Michalowski, the renowned interpreter of Chopin. Landowska characterized him as both a demanding and inspiring teacher: "He was a marvellous master. He played constantly for his pupils, thus adding great value to his teaching. I often had the feeling that he was playing especially for me because he felt my musicality. I understood him."

The repertoire which Landowska studied at the Warsaw Conservatory was comprised mainly of romantic composers, including Franz Lizst, Carl Tausig and Hans von Bülow. From an early age, however, she developed a passion for the baroque masters and insisted on playing Bach along with the rest of her curriculum. That passion was evident when, at her first public concert, Wanda Landowska played Bach's English Suite in E Minor.

In 1895, Landowska went to Berlin to study counterpoint and composition with Heinrich Urban, who also taught such notables as Paderewski, Rudolph Ganz, and Joseph Hofmann. During her time in the German capital, Landowska developed a passion for vocal music. She knew by heart the part of Zerlina from Don Giovanni and also heard Bach's Christmas Oratorio for the first time. However, she found instruction in Germany rigid and problematic. She wrote of her Berlin period:

What did I learn? Nothing, really nothing. I was refractory to rules and laws. As soon as they were imposed on me, I stiffened, terrified. My music was covered with exercises in which I had no interest at all. Counterpoint? Yes, but through the direct channel of Bach. I sang the voices separately with a limitless joy. I punctuated them, and they became lively; they sprang forth. Was my teacher inadequate? Or was I a bad pupil?

In 1900, Wanda Landowska eloped to Paris with Henry Lew, a journalist, actor, and renowned ethnologist of Hebrew folklore. She shared his interest in folklore and, as a child, had spent summers in the Polish countryside, where she heard and sang folk songs and danced mazurkas and polonaises with the peasants. With Lew's help, Landowska energetically threw herself into a study of every aspect of 17th- and 18th-century music and its interpretation. The couple collaborated on a book, La Musique ancienne, in 1909.

Paris at the turn of the century embodied a spirit of rebellion against the romanticism of the 19th century. In 1902, Debussy's avant-garde Pelléas et Mélisande was first performed. A few years later, Les Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev swept the capital and enthralled the artistic community. As for the music of the past, not only was it relatively obscure, but it was often poorly understood. The attempt of the pianist Louis Diemer to revive 17th- and 18th-century harpsichord music met with failure. Not only was his choice of composers poor, but the harpsichord on which he performed was deficient.

During the same period, a new field of study, musicology, was gaining a firm foothold on French soil. In 1894, Henry Expert published the first volume of works by French masters of the Renaissance. Other works followed by such authors as Alexandre Guilmant, Michel Brenet and Maurice Emmanuel. However, as Wanda Landowska noted, "hardly anyone but the musicologists read these remarkable works. Modestly, the authors went their way, preparing the ground."

By the age of 21, Wanda Landowska was emerging as a celebrated virtuoso and composer. Her compositions included Rhapsodie Orientale, as well as numerous lieder. She became a well-known social figure and associated with the elite of the Paris artistic community:

I had the rare privilege of living in the midst of these eminent scholars and musicians who honoured me with their friendship. I often had the opportunity to discuss musical matters with them. Progressing in my studies, I came to the realization that the keyboard works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ought to be played on the

instrument for which they had been composed, the harpsichord.

Thus Landowska decided to devote herself to playing 17th- and 18th-century works on the harpsichord. Many of her friends did not share her enthusiasm and attempted to dissuade her from abandoning the piano in favor of this socalled "tin-pan" instrument. Others, however, like medical missionary and Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer, were more encouraging. In his book Bach, Le Musicien-Poète, Schweitzer wrote that "anyone who has heard Wanda Landowska play The Italian Concerto on harpsichord finds it hard to understand how it could ever again be played on a modern piano."

You play Bach your way and I'll play him his way.

—Wanda Landowska

Like Schweitzer, Landowska was fascinated with baroque instruments. She launched a personal campaign to reconstruct the contemporary harpsichord on the pattern of those she had seen in the Musikhistorischen Museum in Cologne. She discussed the construction of such an instrument with Gustave Lyon, the director of France's well-known Pleyel piano company, and Pleyel's chief engineer, M. Lamy. The completion of the Pleyel harpsichord took several years, and it was not until 1912 that she was able to play it at a Bach festival in Breslau. During the interval, Landowska presented works on an inferior instrument, giving her first public performance in 1903. She undertook concert tours of Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia and prepared the ground for the reintroduction of the harpsichord to its rightful place in the musical world. During her 1909 tour of Russia, she visited Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polnaya, and he supported her crusade for the revival of 17th- and 18th-century harpsichord music.

In 1913, when she and Henry Lew returned to Berlin, Landowska was appointed head of the harpsichord class at the Hochschule Für Musik, a post specifically created for her. However, the First World War intervened. As Russian subjects, both Landowska and her husband were confined to Germany for the duration of the war as enemy aliens. At war's end, the couple prepared to return to France. On the eve of their departure, however, Henry Lew was killed in an automobile accident. Years later, she said of her husband:

[H]e was an enlightened dogmatist, although he lacked psychological acumen where isolated human beings were concerned; he despised the magnifying glass and the subjective sense of observation of the biologist. But the ebbs and flows of the crowds, great movements of collective stupidity, inspired impulses of the public, and their sheeplike reactions in following enthusiastically any order given by a dictator or by publicity—all these had in him an admirable observer and sarcastic critic.

The newly widowed Landowska returned to Paris and devoted herself to concert tours and teaching. She held master classes in Basel, Switzerland, and at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. She lectured at the Sorbonne in 1921, on the occasion of the International Congress on the history of art. She also began to write on the topics of musicology and musical criticism.

In the fall of 1923, Wanda Landowska sailed for the United States, arriving "like a lion tamer," she wrote, "dragging along four large Pleyel harpsichords." On November 20, she made her North American debut as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. She played three concertos: two by Handel and Bach on the harpsichord and one by Mozart on the piano. She followed this with a tour of the United States and Canada, and made her first recording for Victor records. Over the next few years, Landowska undertook numerous tours of Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. She went out of her way to commission several works for harpsichord. "She even inspired dyed-in-the-wool modernists to compose for her," commented Pitts Sanborn in Out-look. In 1926, she commissioned Manuel de Falla to compose a chamber concerto for harpsichord and, in 1929, Francis Poulenc wrote the Concert Champêtre for her.

With such a busy touring schedule, Landowska decided to purchase a home in Saint-Leu-La-Forêt, a few miles outside Paris. In 1925, she founded the École de Musique Ancienne, which attracted students from all over the world. She built a concert hall on the grounds of the school in 1927, and each Sunday afternoon gave concerts which were attended by the artistic community of Paris. A mecca for music lovers, it became a "French Bayreuth."

Landowska had been sporadically studying The Goldberg Variations for most of her life. In 1933, she performed them in their entirety at Saint-Leu-La-Forêt. Wrote a Paris reviewer: "When Wanda Landowska reconstructs with her infallible hands and her lucid soul, the edifice that is The Goldberg Variations, this moment of ancient music becomes a temple open to all mankind." Now that the battle for the revival of the harpsichord had clearly been won, Landowska devoted herself increasingly to writing on the subject of musicology. Many of her articles were published in the scholarly journal La Revue Musicale.

When German troops marched on Paris in 1940, Landowska abandoned her beloved school at Saint-Leu-La-Forêt. Though she was now a naturalized French citizen, her Jewish ancestry undoubtedly influenced her decision to leave. When her school's library was looted by Nazi soldiers, thousands of volumes on music were lost, as well as a precious collection of ancient instruments. After spending 18 months in Banyuls-Sur-Mer in the eastern Pyrenees, and on a concert tour in Switzerland, Wanda Landowska sailed for the United States. She reached New York City on December 7, 1941—the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In February 1942, she gave her first performance in Town Hall in New York City. She played The Goldberg Variations and received a standing ovation, as well as critical and popular acclaim. "No matter what she plays," wrote Virgil Thomson, "it is one of the richest and grandest experiences available to lovers of tonal art. … A performance so complete, so wholly interpreted … is rarely to be encountered." After living in New York City for several years, Wanda Landowska relocated to Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1947. Two years later, the Grolier Society asked her to write a short history of the revival of the harpsichord.

To celebrate her 70th birthday, Landowska undertook the ambitious project of recording Bach's entire Well-Tempered Clavier. As with The Goldberg Variations, she engaged in a detailed study of the composition, which lasted for the next five years. "It is simply a story of my experiences in music as a worker in music, a worker who jots down her impressions, prelude after prelude, fugue after fugue." The last years of Wanda Landowska's life were devoted to teaching, writing and recording. She lived peacefully in Lakeville, attracting students from all over the world, as well as many admirers. A charming woman with a sense of humor, she liked to talk of her years in Saint-Leu-La-Forêt, which she considered the happiest in her life.

For her musical achievements, Wanda Landowska was decorated by both the Polish and the French governments. Her pupils, including Lucille Wallace , formed the next generation of harpsichord virtuosos. The influence of Wanda Landowska was felt throughout the musical world, which she inspired not only with her performances, but with her writing and recording.

Wanda Landowska devoted herself to the revival and development of the modern harpsichord. Her impact was heavily felt in the area of technique, where she laid particular emphasis on proper fingering. Her playing was characterized by vigor and flamboyance; her character, by simplicity and forthrightness. As an advocate of baroque music and period instruments, she shares credit for the revival and popularity of baroque orchestras. However, in the end, as she herself noted, "Since the beginning of my campaign in favor of the music of the past, I have always compelled myself to focus light on the fact that this so-called 'old music' is a living force, sometimes more modern than modern music itself. Long years of battles were necessary to overcome the profound, and deeply rooted, prejudices against an art which was considered desiccated, naivë and incapable of moving the emotions. The same prejudices prevailed for old instruments. … [T]here's no such thing as an cient music—simply music, that of today, yesterday and forever."


Gavoty, Bernard. Wanda Landowska. Geneva: R. Kister, 1957.

Landowska, Wanda. Landowska on Music. Ed. by Denise Restout. NY: Stein and Day, 1964.

Rothe, Anne, ed. Current Biography, 1945. H.W. Wilson, 1946.

Wigoder, Geoffrey, ed. Dictionary of Jewish Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

related media:

"Landowska: Uncommon Visionary," produced and directed by Barbara Attie for Attie Goldwater Pontius Productions, first aired on PBS in July 1999.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Landowska, Wanda (1877–1959)

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