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Death of early music pioneer Wanda Landowska

August 16, 1959
Wanda Landowska
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Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959) was a celebrated harpsichord player and author. At a time when many musicians believed that a performer should simply reproduce the notes on the page as closely as possible, Landowska wrote that the performer should, instead, add her own style, combining intuition and knowledge to produce an "ecstasy of music."

This is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos.


Born in Warsaw in 1879, Wanda Landowska studied piano at the Warsaw Conservatory, from which she graduated at age 14. In 1900, she moved to Paris, where she taught piano and performed. In both cities, she devoted herself to learning the harpsichord, an instrument which had all but disappeared from the active classical repertoire. Though Bach, Handel, and others had composed myriad harpsichord pieces, by 1900 virtually no one played the instrument and works written for it were generally transposed for piano. But Landowska was determined to play these works on the original instrument, despite discouragement from musicologists and fellow musicians.

In 1912, Landowska commissioned a harpsichord to be built for her own use; she later transported the instrument all over Europe for her numerous performances. She began to teach harpsichord in Paris; after a stint in Berlin, she opened her own school outside Paris in 1919. Already renowned as a teacher and performer, she had her U.S. debut in 1923, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After her first New York recital the following year, she found a large following in the U.S. and played often to packed houses. In 1941, forced to leave Nazi-occupied France, Landowska settled permanently in the U.S.

The following year, she made history with a performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" at New York's Town Hall. It was the first time the piece had been played on the harpsichord in the twentieth century; it is now a staple of the repertoire. A Landowska student later remembered that hearing that first performance was "like being in front of one of the greatest wonders of nature." Landowska made a similar splash in 1948 with a performance of Bach's complete "Well-Tempered Clavier." Her mastery of the harpsichord inspired not only listeners and students, but also composers, several of whom wrote new harpsichord works especially for her.

In addition to playing and teaching, Landowska also wrote about music. A 1909 book, written with her husband and first published in French, addressed "music of the past." During her years in the U.S., she published frequent essays and book reviews. After her death, some of this material, along with previously unpublished essays, was published as Landowska on Music (1964). In the volume's essays, Landowska wrote about the interpretation of Bach and other music. She also made a passionate case for the role of the individual performer as an interpreter. At a time when many musicians believed that a performer should simply reproduce the notes on the page as closely as possible, Landowska wrote that the performer should, instead, add her own style, combining intuition and knowledge to produce an "ecstasy of music."

Landowska was frequently honored for her work. She received citations from the Charles Cros Academy in France and from the U.S. National Federation of Music Clubs, both recognizing her recordings. France admitted her to the Legion of Honor in 1925, and awarded her the Grand Prix of the Paris Exposition in 1937. Landowska gave her last public performance in 1954. She died in Connecticut on August 16, 1959.

See also: This Week in History for February 21, 1942 "Early music harpsichordist Wanda Landowska plays Bach at New York City's Town Hall"; "If Wanda Landowska Were Alive Today", Jewesses with Attitude.

Sources:New York Times, August 17, 1959; August 23, 1959; December 20, 1964; June 19, 1983; July 10, 1999.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Death of early music pioneer Wanda Landowska." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/16/1959/wanda-landowska>.