Born in 1879, Polish musician Wanda Landowska is responsible more than anyone for the revival of the harpsichord as an instrument. The keyboard instrument – with plucked rather than hammered strings meaning that the volume can’t be controlled as on a piano – had fallen out of fashion when Landowska brought it back at the turn of the 20th century.
She had been a prodigy as a teenager, studying piano at the Warsaw Conservatory, then later studying composition in Berlin. In 1900 she married fellow Pole Henry Lew and the two moved to Paris, where she was to spend much of her time until the war. She was fascinated by musicology and early music, and bought old harpsichords and had harpsichords made for her, making a sensation with her playing.
She taught first at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then in 1912 moved to Berlin to found a class in harpsichord playing at the Hochschule für Musik. In 1920, after her husband had died she moved back to Paris and in time founded her own school, the École de Musique Ancienne, performing frequently on the harpsichord to much acclaim. She was part of Natalie Barney’s coterie, and was rumored to compete with composer, pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger for the affections of female piano students. Spanish composer Manuel De Falla wrote the Concerto for Harpsichord and El Retablo de Maese Pedro for her; French composer Francis Poulenc wrote his Concert Champêtre for her as well.
In the 1930s Landowska met Denis Restout, a pupil who later became her companion and moved with her to the south of France, Portugal and eventually the U.S. after WWII broke out. There, despite losing everything in France, she re-established herself as musicologist, teacher and performer.
Landowska was not without her controversies: Many considered the harpsichords she made too much like pianos and not like the original harpsichords, although she disputed this. Her playing has also been criticized for being over mechanical.
She died in 1959 in New York.