Music, Surgery, and Wanda Landowska: how ganglion cysts changed the path of her career


Have you heard about Wanda Landowska? I wanted to honor Wanda Landowska on International Women’s Day, but that day got away from me.  Then I remembered that it’s Women’s History Month all of March!!  So let me tell you a little bit about Wanda Landowska…

She is the woman who singlehandedly revived the harpsichord as a performing instrument in the early 20th century.  The harpsichord had died out as a performing intrument in the 1700’s when the piano was invented. The piano was so much easier to maintain and it was easier to create emotion on the piano, which romantic repertoire required.  Not only that, but in the late 1700’s the harpsichord had become associated with the aristocracy. During the French Revolution people burned harpsichords for firewood and as a sign of their rebellion.

Wanda Landowska was Polish and while growing up in Poland, had never seen a harpsichord.  When she went off to college in Berlin in the late 1890’s, she saw her first harpsichord and knew that the harpsichord was the instrument that Bach had created his music for!

If you’ve been a subscriber for awhile, you’re probably aware that my main focus these days is music with surgery. But 30 years ago my primary focus was on Wanda Landowska and the Revival of the harpsichord.

How that transition came about has been told and recorded by me many times, so I’ll just jump to the chase.

When Wanda Landowska was a young adult, she was primarily a pianist and practiced long hours every day on typical Romantic era repertoire, such as Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms.  If you’re a pianist or a performing musician you know that this music is often filled with fortissimo chords and octaves and if you don’t have relatively large hands,  As a result, she began developing ganglion cysts in her wrists.

The cysts not only caused her great pain, but made it almost impossible to play the Romantic piano repertoire that she wanted to play.  After developing these cysts, she had to give her dream and actually changed her major to theory and composition.  Then she went to the famous Musical Instrument Museum.  That’s where she saw the beautiful harpsichords with their innerlids painted with beautiful designs and sometimes scenes from nature.  She knew at that moment that she would have a harpsichord and would re-introduce it to the world.  And that’s what she did.

When I first came across this information, it led me to a body of information about the musical problems of performing musicians.  Which led me to thinking about musical solutions to medical issues…like surgery.

What a journey these past 32 years have been!  If you’re not familiar with Wanda Landowska and would like to hear her play the harpsichord that she revived, go here:

In this wonderful video clip, Wanda herself tells the story of first seeing a harpsichord and knowing that she must play it.  You will also hear and see her playing it.

Of course she never mentions having the problem with ganglion cysts in her wrists, but I came across this information when I was researching her in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, for my dissertation on her.

I hope you’ll enjoy this!


P.S. Because of Wanda Landowsk, I also play the harpsichord!