Though Wanda Landowska had an incredible influence on today’s perception of performance practice and early music, perhaps nothing was more admirable than her intense love and dedication to the art of music itself. She excelled in every aspect of her career whether as virtuoso, musicologist, or teacher. In her own words: “I think of myself; sometimes I feel that music invades me to the point of that total oblivion when will and intention do not exist anymore. It is because music has penetrated so deeply into me that it alone directs my movements and my inflections.”
Born on July 5th, 1879 in Warsaw Poland, Wanda Landowska began her study of the keyboard at age four. Her love for early music began when she heard one of Lizst’s students perform Le Tambourin by Rameau and was struck by its simplicity and resemblance of popular dance. Landowska’s talent was quickly recognized as she began to study with Jan Kleczynski (who often exclaimed, “This child is a genius!”), and then Alexander Michalowski, both specialists of Chopin. In 1895, Wanda was sent to Berlin to study counterpoint with Heinrich Urban (teacher of Paderewski and Josef Hofman); unfortunately, she found the work to be tedious and the rules to be suffocating-- “What did I learn? Nothing, really nothing.”
It was in Berlin that she met her husband, Henry Lew—a journalist, actor, and ethnologist specializing in Hebrew Folklore. The couple eloped to Paris in 1900 to a musical landscape ideal for Landowska, filled with reactionaries to the romantic period of the past century. Musicology—in particular, the study of early music—was just beginning to take hold as people rejected the dramatic and emotional music of romanticism. 21-year-old Wanda was quickly absorbed into the developing practice and threw herself into the study of treatises, manuscripts, and collections of ancient instruments. She came to the realization that early music should be played on early instruments—an idea that the prevailing school of musical thought had become quite detached from.
Throughout the 19th century, the harpsichord had almost entirely been replaced by the piano save for a few antiques in museums. Landowska consulted with Gustave Lyon, director of Pleyel (a piano manufacturer in Paris), and his chief engineer to create an instrument to fit her needs; in her own words, “to reconstitute a harpsichord approaching as closely as possible those of the middle eighteenth century when they had reached the height of their glory for richness of registers and beauty of sonority.” This process would take 12 years—in the meantime, Wanda sought to reclaim a more truthful interpretation of early music including rhythmic distinctions, tempi, touch, and registration. She wrote several articles detailing her findings culminating in the publication of her book, Musique Ancienne, in 1909.
Finally, in 1912, the harpsichord was completed. Wanda began touring around Europe, constantly performing at Bach festivals and musicological conferences. Her career as a touring artist was short-lived as World War I soon broke out. They were kept as civilian prisoners on parole, but Wanda was still allowed to teach harpsichord at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (a field of study that she had just created) and give occasional concerts. After the war, Wanda and Henry intended to return to France but Henry was tragically killed in a car accident shortly before their departure.
Wanda moved back to Paris alone to attempt to rebuild her life. Though she had lost her husband of 19 years, this time was one of the most musically productive of her life. She continued to write, tour, teach, lecture, and perform all over Europe and the United States, often for influential people of the time including Tolstoy, Fauré, De Falla, and Poulenc. She also taught at the Curtis Institute of Music from 1925 until 1928. Wanda’s revival of the harpsichord inspired many composers to write pieces for the instrument-- the most famous of which were the Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, and Violoncello by Manuel de Falla, as well as the Concert Champêtre by Francis Poulenc. Of her, Manuel de Falla said: “My encounter with Landowska was a capital event in my career. I have for her as much artistic respect as human tenderness. I am proud of her friendship, and I shall never be able to say how much I owe her. . . What is so prodigious about Landowska is that she makes the music of the past actual and alive.”
Landowska eventually settled and bought a house in Saint-Leu-La-Forêt, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. She filled it with ancient instruments, mementos of her travels, precious manuscripts and documents she had collected throughout her lifetime, two modern pianos, and two Pleyel harpsichords. It was there she founded her own Ecole de Musique Ancienne, where students traveled from all over Europe to study. Landowska was revered by her pupils as she had an incredible sense of “le mot juste” to give the music meaning and bring it alive. When World War II began, Wanda was forced to flee Saint-Leu due to her Jewish heritage. She had instructed her student (and eventual domestic partner and biographer) Denise Restout to pack her priceless manuscripts of Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach’s Concerti, but instead, Denise brought notes from Wanda’s masterclasses as she found them to be much more valuable.
They spent more than a year in Southern France until Landowska received news that the Nazis had looted Saint-Leu-La-Forêt; from there, the two traveled to the United States, reaching New York on Pearl Harbor Day in 1941. She became quite famous in the United States and was constantly giving concerts, teaching, and recording. To celebrate her 70th birthday, Landowska decided to take on the huge task of recording the entire Well Tempered Clavier—five years later, it was completed as well as a detailed analysis of the entire work. Wanda Landowska died on August 16th, 1959 in Lakeville, Connecticut--but her impact on classical music and the revival of historically informed performance practice only continues to grow.
Landowska, W., & Restout, D. (1981). Landowska on music. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.