JULY 5: Wanda Landowska (1879-1959)


Musician extraordinaire and savior of the harpsichord, Wanda
Landowska, was born on this day in 1879. As the first person to ever record Bach’s
“Goldberg Variations” on the
harpsichord, Wanda secured her place in music history!

Wanda Landowska as photographed circa the 1950s (x). 

Wanda Aleksandra Landowska was born to a middle-class Jewish
family on July 5, 1979 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was a respected lawyer and
her mother was a linguist who was famous for translating the work of Mark Twain
into Polish. She started studying piano when she was only 3 years old and it
was soon obvious that she was a prodigy. She attended the Warsaw Conservatory
as she grew older, but left for Berlin to study composition when she was 15. It
was in Berlin where she met and became friends with a fellow student named Henry
Low, who was in Berlin to study Polish folklore. The two were married in 1900
and Henry whisked her off to Paris that same year. While Wanda genuinely cared
for Henry, she soon discovered that she did not enjoy the traditional romantic
or sexual aspects of their marriage; together, Henry and Wanda made an arrangement with
the maid in their new Paris household, who would act as Henry’s mistress until
his death in 1919.

A young Wanda smiles as she is photographed playing the harpsichord in her Paris home, 1933 (x). 

With her husband satisfied, Wanda was free to spend her time
in Paris as she pleased – studying the harpsichord and hanging out at Natalie
Clifford Barney’s famous lesbian salon. Although the harpsichord was considered
an outdated instrument unfit for the 20th century, Wanda was
passionate about it and insisted on its use in modern compositions. She
frequently performed for the women at Natalie’s salon, but it wasn’t until a 1903 concert where she played the harpsichord publicly for the first time that she was able to change the public’s perception of the
instrument. As her fame grew, Wanda opened up her own music institution, the
École de Musique Ancienne, right outside of Paris. She was known as one
of the most prestigious music teachers of the era and it was through the school that Wanda would meet the woman who would
become her life partner, Denise Restout.

LIFE Magazine photographed Wanda and Denise at their home in 1949; the right shows Wanda (center) with Denise (right) and a friend; the left shows Wanda holding one of her beloved pet cats (x). 

Denise was a student at Wanda’s school, but once she
graduated she began helping her partner with the operation of the school
and also encouraging her to write more music on the side. Sadly, with the outbreak
of World War II, the École de Musique Ancienne was shut down and Wanda and
Denise were forced to immigrate to New York City. In New York, Wanda began
teaching private music lessons and her star quickly rose to its former glory
once she played Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at New York’s Town Hall in
1942 – it was the first time the iconic piece was performed on the harpsichord.
Wanda and Denise eventually left the city and settled down in Lakeville,
Connecticut in 1949, although this did not stop Wanda from doing what she loved
and she toured the country performing harpsichord pieces until her death. After
Wanda passed away on August 16, 1959, Denise would dedicate her life to
preserving her love’s artistic legacy and published two posthumous collections of
Wanda’s music, Musique Ancienne and Landowska on Music.