Monday, October 10, 2011

Wanda Landowska: Bach Concerto No 3 For Harpsichord

Wanda Landowska [1879-1959] performs an excerpt from Bach's Concerto No. 3 for Harpsichord, BWV 1054, at her home in Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1953.

Landowska was the first person to record Bach's Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord, in November 1933, and helped revive the popularity of the keyboard instrument. She was considered the greatest harpsichordist of the first half of the twentieth century.

This is apparently the only known film footage of Ms. Landowska playing. My thanks to Prof George Jochnowitz for recently informing me about Wanda Landowska and her beautiful musical talents. (More footage, including interviews, can be found on the DVD release, Landowska: Uncommon Visionary) She is without a doubt a fascinating woman and performer.

Wanda Landowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 5, 1879, to Jewish parents, Marian and Eva Landowska (nee Lautenberg), who had converted to Catholicism.  Her father was a lawyer; and her mother was a linguist, translating Mark Twain into Polish. She started to play piano at age 4, and studied at the Warsaw Conservatory under Jan Kleczynski and Aleksander Michalowski.

She moved to Paris around 1900, and eventually established a school, École de Musique Ancienne, in 1925. Within a couple of years, her home in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, a few miles north of Paris, became a center for the performance and study of old music, and called The Temple of Music. Then things took a turn for the worse:
When Germany invaded France, Landowska, a naturalized French citizen of Jewish origin, escaped with her assistant and companion Denise Restout, leaving Saint-Leu in 1940, sojourning in southern France, and finally sailing from Lisbon to the USA. She arrived in New York on December 7, 1941. The house in Saint-Leu was looted, and her instruments and manuscripts stolen, so she arrived in the USA essentially without assets. 
They had arrived in New York City on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. You can imagine the pandemonium at Ellis Island. She and her companion arrived with $1,300, of which $500 each went to secure their release, in the form of a surety bond. That left them with $300 to start a new life.

Landowska, for her part, acted like so many immigrants and refugees from Europe and started to rebuild her life. She did so by doing what she knew best, by playing beautiful music. Wanda Landowska played until her death on August 16, 1959. She was 80. Even so, her memory and music lived on, due in great part to the efforts of Denise Restout, herself a music teacher, who kept the flame burning until her own death in 2004.


  1. I didn't know that Landowska's parents had converted to Catholicism. Thank you for providing this information.
    Would you know whether her recording of Mozart's 26th piano concerto exists in this day and age? I fell in love with it when I was about 10, before LP records existed.

  2. Hi Prof Jochnowitz:

    Thank you for your comment and for bringing to my attention a wonderful musician. Yes, there is a recording of her performing Mozart Piano Concerto no. 26. Here is the link to YouTube:

  3. Thanks for the link, Perry. That's the first time in 60 years or so (whenever it was that we began listening to LP records and not 78 RPMs) that I heard Landowska play this. It was thrilling. My wife, Carol, thanks you as well.

  4. Prof Jochnowitz:

    It was indeed my pleasure.

  5. Thanks for using the time and effort to write something so interesting.

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