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Wanda Landowska

Perhaps the single most influential popularizer of the harpsichord in the twentieth century, Wanda Alexandra Landowska began playing piano at the age of four. She had lessons with Jan Klecynski, entered the Warsaw Conservatory where she studied piano with Aleksander Michalowski, and studied in Berlin with Moritz Moszkowski. In Berlin, she also studied composition, but admitted that she was put off by the textbook rules that bound the early stages of study in that craft.

She had a strong predilection for the music of Bach in her earliest piano recitals. She began to tour widely as a pianist and, increasingly, as a harpsichordist. In 1909, on a tour of Russia, she played for the elderly writer Count Lev Tolstoi, who took a keen interest in her views of classical music performance. Her husband, writer Henry Lew, assisted her in her intense study of musical style and interpretation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She focused on reviving the harpsichord as a living concert and recital instrument, becoming an ancestor of the "original instruments" and "authentic performance" movements of the twentieth century. In 1912, she commissioned the Pleyel piano manufacturing firm to construct the first of many harpsichords built to her specifications.

In 1913, after being invited by Kretzschmar to give a harpsichord seminar at the Berlin Hochschule fŁr Musik, she became trapped in Germany when World War I began. She and her husband were granted limited freedom as "civil prisoners on parole" for the duration as Russian subjects (Poland at the time was a province of Russia). After their release at the end of the war, her husband was killed in an automobile accident in Berlin. Soon after, she played the continuo part in a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Basel, the first time in that century that the harpsichord was used in the performance of the great work. Landowska had become convinced that only the harpsichord was truly appropriate to the Baroque and early Classical periods. She began teaching at the Basel Conservatory in 1919 and then returned to teach in Paris. She toured the United States for the first time in 1923, taking four Pleyel harpsichords with her. On this tour, she appeared with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, making her first acoustic recordings. (She had previously made piano rolls.)

She established L'Ecole de Musique Ancienne in St.-Leu-la-ForÍt, near Paris, in 1925. She appeared in concerts in Paris, sometimes still playing piano. She commissioned from Manuel de Falla a masterpiece of modern harpsichord literature, the Concerto for harpsichord and chamber ensemble, and then another one, Francis Poulenc's Concert champÍtre for harpsichord and orchestra.

When the Germans invaded France, Landowska fled her establishment, leaving behind many harpsichords and a library of 10,000 volumes. She reached Banyuls-sur-mer, in the Pyrenees, and managed to get passage to the United States in 1941. She gave a concert of harpsichord music in New York on February 2, 1942, and returned to teaching as her main occupation. She toured widely and was particularly noted for her performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations. She found a new home in Lakeville, CT, and recorded a highly acclaimed collection of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier at the age of 70. She lived a few weeks past her 80th birthday.

Her playing was vigorous, rhythmic, and colorful. She had a predilection for a very strong-voiced, richly colored instrument that is questioned today by some; it is opined that this was a reaction against the instrument's general reputation for being dry and colorless. She developed modern harpsichord technique, which permits a considerable degree of legato playing despite the instrument's nature as a producer of individually plucked notes.