This Day in Jewish History

1879: The Woman to Whom Bach's Ghost Is Grateful Is Born

Child prodigy Wanda Landowska not only reminded people of that "Bach" composer: she also reminded us of harpsichords.

Wanda Landowska in 1937, seen in profile, playing a piano, with short hair, playing at a concert in Lwow -  then Poland, now Ukraine.
Wikimedia Commons

July 5, 1879, is the birthdate of Wanda Landowska, the Polish-born musician who almost single-handedly brought about the revival of the harpsichord as a concert-hall instrument. In so doing, she also helped spark a rebirth of interest in a composer who had been largely forgotten - Johann Sebastian Bach.

Wanda Louise Landowska was born in Warsaw. Her father, Marian Landowska, was a lawyer, and her mother, the former Ewa Lautenberg, was a linguist who was the first to translate Mark Twain into Polish.

Though of Jewish heritage, Wanda’s parents were converts to Roman Catholicism.

Wanda was playing the piano by age 4. After studying at the Warsaw Conservatory through her teenage years, Wanda traveled to Berlin, where she studied composition.

Although her piano instruction focused on the music of Chopin, her teachers respected and even encouraged her fascination with music from an earlier era.

A taste for the obsolete

That was unusual, because, by the late 1800s, the music of Bach – and Handel and Couperin -- was little played, and when it was, pieces composed for the harpsichord had long been transposed for performance on the piano. Landowska would change that.

In 1900, in Berlin, Landowska met Henry Lew, a Polish-born folklorist and writer. They married and traveled to Paris, where she began teaching at the Schola Cantorum, a newly founded music school. Lew also helped Landowska in the writing of her first book, “Musique Ancienne,” published in 1909.

During her years in Paris, where Landowska stayed until 1912, she began serious research on the harpsichord. She traveled around Europe, in search of old harpsichords, and also collaborated with the piano maker Pleyel on building replica models.

Back in Berlin in 1912, she and Lew were arrested at the start of World War I and treated as paroled civil prisoners. This didn’t prevent Landowska, however, from working at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik, where she taught harpsichord. 

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), B&W, Polish harpsichordist and pianist, seen in profile, with short dark hair, wearing a dark dress.
Wikimedia Commons

Unusual marriage, to say the least

Landowska and Lew had a novel relationship: Not interested in having sexual relations with her husband, Wanda hired a housemaid who doubled as Henry’s mistress. The ménage-a-trois was successful enough that even after Henry’s death, in a car accident in 1919, Wanda continued to employ the maid.

Despite early ridicule from some musicians, and attempts to discourage her research, Landowska was well-regarded enough to undertake a U.S. tour in 1923, accompanied at each stop by four harpsichords.

By 1925, Landowska was back in Paris, and would remain there until the German occupation, in 1940, forced her to travel south. Eventually, in late 1941, she fled Europe for the United States – before which, at her home in Saint-Leu-le-Foret, outside Paris, she established a center and school for ancient music. She also was a regular visitor at the all-female salon hosted by Natalie Cliff Barney.

There, Landowska met Denise Restout, who became her student, assistant and companion, remaining with Landowska until the older woman’s death.

Flight from France

Landowska left France with only two suitcases. Fifty crates holding her instruments, books and other possessions were left behind, confiscated by the Nazis, and have never been seen again.

The couple arrived at Ellis Island on December 7, 1941, where they remained in detention until posting bond, which took most of their resources. Soon, however, Landowska got herself established, renting a large piece of property in Lakeville, Connecticut, where she set up not only her home, but a school and rehearsal center.

By 1942, Landowska was performing at New York’s Town Hall, giving the first 20th-century performance of the “Goldberg Variations” on a harpsichord, the instrument for which Bach wrote it.

Over a five-decade performance career, Wanda Landowska re-established and popularized the harpsichord as a concert instrument, and studied and documented every aspect of it. Her final public performance was in 1954, the year after she invited a camera from NBC into her home, and performed Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” a clip of which remains the only extant film of her work.

Landowska died at Lakeville, on August 16, 1959, at the age of 80.

Wanda Landowska plays Bach (1953) YouTube