From the age of four, when she began to learn to play the piano, she showed a marked preference, amounting to a passion, for the baroque masters. Her early teachers, recognizing her genius, sent her to study with the renowned Chopin interpreter, Michalowski at the Warsaw Conservatory. There the only Bach works on the curriculum were transcriptions by Liszt and other romantics, but Landowska always insisted on playing some Bach in addition to the set pieces.
She went to Berlin in 1895 to study counterpoint and composition. Much drawn to vocal music at the time, she composed many lieder.
In 1900 she eloped with Henry Lew to Paris. Besides being an actor and a journalist, he was an eminent ethnologist, specializing in Hebrew folklore, and they collaborated on a book. Musique ancienne (1909).
From 1909 she devoted herself to the revival of the harpsichord. She was virtually alone in the belief that the modern piano is unsuited to the music of Bach and his contemporaries. Her husband helped her in her research and in her campaign to “reconstitute a harpsichord approaching as closely as possible those of the middle 18th century.” She also had the backing of friends such as Albert Schweitzer, Paul Dukas, and Gabriel Faure, although they were distressed that such a gifted pianist considered abandoning the piano for what they considered to be an old “tin-pan” instrument. It was not until 1912 that she was actually able to present the first of her fine Pleyel models, built to her specifications, at the Bach Festival in Breslau.
She first played the harpsichord in public in1903. In 1913 she was appointed to head a harpsichord class at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik. She was also twice invited to stay with the Tolstoys at Yasnaya Polnaya, where she played the harpsichord to the great writer. Being a lover of old music, he became an ardent supporter of her cause.
The Lews were confined to Germany as aliens throughout World War I (1914-1918), though Landowska was permitted to continue teaching. Her husband was killed in a car accident soon after the war. Landowska left for Switzerland, then settled in Paris, resuming her concert tours and teaching.
She toured America for the first time and made her first recordings in 1923. She made extensive tours of Europe. Asia, Africa, and both Americas. In 1925 she founded her School for Ancient Music at the picturesque Saint-Leu-Ia-Forêt near Paris, and had a concert hall built in the garden. Pupils and music lovers flocked there from its inception until the outbreak of World War II. It was not until 1933 that she felt ready to give her first complete performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She confided to her audience that she had been practicing them for forty-five years.
When the Germans marched on Paris in 1940, Landowska had to abandon her school, with its library and its museum housing her unique collection of musical instruments, which was subsequently looted by the invading army. She took refuge at Banyuls-sur-Mer in the eastern Pyrenees, and after a concert tour of Switzerland, she sailed for the United States in 1941, arriving there on December 7, 1941. For a time she lived in New York, and then settled permanently in Lakeville, Connecticut, where she continued to teach, compose, make recordings, and write prolifically on music.
• A successful miniature is better than a bad fresco. But the one needs to be studied at close range, the other looked at from a distance.
• A true artist always compares what he does with what he intended to do.
Member faculty Schola Cantorum, Paris, 1900-1913.
Quotes from others about the person
“Exceptional instruments demand exceptional performers; and in the end they always obtain them.
Married Henry Lew, 1900.