Monday, November 26, 2012

Wanda Landowska: Bach's Toccata

Wanda Landowska performs J.S. Bach's "Toccata" in D major, BWV 912; this is from a recording of September 28, 1936.

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 was affectionately 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. If Landowska hadn't escaped at the last minute, the world would never have known her wonderful performances.
    I am reminded of Roald Hoffmann, whom I knew in college. If he hadn't been hidden in an attic by his Ukrainian neighbors during World War II, he never would have made the contributions to science that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    1. It's lucky for the world that Hoffmann was saved from death; perhaps this experience made him what he was, or at least contributed to it.


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