Wanda Landowska is called a great musician but seldom a great historian. Yet, in essence, that was what she was. Born in 1879 in Warsaw, her parents were educated and well to do. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was the first person to translate the works of Mark Twain into Polish. Though they were ethnic Jews, Landowska's parents and grandparents had converted to Christianity.
Young Wanda was a musical prodigy who began playing piano at age four. She began studying at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, and at 17 went to Berlin for further schooling. There, the young lady won several competitions, developed an interest in 17th and 18th century music, and met young Polish folklorist Henryk Lew. Lew encouraged her interest in vintage music and instruments and convinced her to go to Paris with him. They moved there in 1900 and married, but they both took female lovers since Landowska was a lesbian.
Landowska began teaching piano in Paris at the Schola Cantorum where she met the finest French musicians. Her research into old music led her to the harpsichord. Many compositions for the instrument had been written in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the piano was seen as its superior successor after its invention around 1700,so the great works written for harpsichord began to be played exclusively on piano. Harpsichords were scrapped or put in museums.
Madame Landowska wanted to perform the old music on the instrument for which it was written. She began visiting museums and studying the harpsichords she found in them. She read old books and manuscripts that explained the keyboard techniques of masters such as Bach and Couperin. Landowska acquired several harpsichords over the years and had new ones built. One of her favorite antiques had painted on it a scene of King Stanisław Poniatowski of Poland presenting the instrument to Catherine the Great of Prussia.
In 1903 she gave her first harpsichord performance. Her style and the sound fascinated audiences, and fame and tours of Europe soon followed. She had succeeded in reintroducing the harpsichord into the music world.
After her husband died, Landowska moved to St. Leu near Paris, where she founded the School for Ancient Music in 1925. It became a center for the performance of old music.
Landowska was a regular at Natalie Clifford Barney's salon in Paris. Barney was an ex-patriate American who held regular soirees at her salon for the most famous literary figures in France. Landowska often performed at these gatherings, which were organized to promote the works of women writers. Also, Landowska first visited America in 1923 and gave many concerts here in the ensuing nine years. Beside her music, her dress and stage decorations were exquisite. Some people simply loved to hear her speak French in her beautiful voice, with just a hint of a Polish accent.
In 1933, Landowska met Denise Restout, who became her companion for the rest of her life. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Landowska knew her life was in danger because she was a Jew. She and Restout fled to southern France with only two suitcases and two boxes. Their St. Leu house was looted and a large collection of harpsichords and music manuscripts were lost.
The two women made their way to Portugal and the U.S. They arrived in New York on Dec. 7, 1941 with only $1300. With the help of musician friends in this country, and on her own strength of character and dignity, Landowska was able to establish herself in New York. She began performing, teaching and recording. Audiences embraced her once again.
In time, she and Restout bought a house in Lakeville, Ct. After the war, one item from the house in France was returned to her. It was a painting of the Madonna and Child, and she proudly displayed it in her new home. Later, her harpsichords and manuscripts were recovered from a Bavarian mine. Landowska continued her work till shortly before her death in 1959 in Lakeville.
Her legacy is that of a great musical historian who revived harpsichord music. She opened the world's eyes to the value of the performance of music as it was originally intended to be played. Whenever you hear music of any genre being played in its original form on period instruments, whether it is a country song on Hank Williams' old guitar or a Bach cantata on harpsichord, remember Madame Landowska. She was the first.
This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal.