The Polish harpsichordist who redefined her instrument’s contemporary repertoire passes at 77.

Polish harpsichord player Elisabeth Chojnacka (born Elżbieta) has died in Paris at the age of 77. Known for collaborating with contemporary composers like Ligeti, Gorecki, Xanakis and Nyman, she leaves the harpsichord repertoire richer by around 100 works.

Chojnacka was born ten days after the outbreak of World War II – on September 10, 1939 – in Warsaw where she went on to study, graduating from the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy in 1962. Despite restrictions of movement across the Iron Curtain, she received permission to travel to Paris where she studied with the Belgian harpsichordist and composer Aimée van de Wiele, herself a pupil of  Polish-French harpischordist Wanda Landowska.

In 1968, Chojnacka won first place in the Viotti Competition in Vercelli, after which she settled permanently in Paris and started out on a successful international career. Like Landowska – for whom Poulenc wrote his Concert Champêtre – and Van de Wiele before her, Chojnacka recognised the importance of building a contemporary repertoire for the harpsichord, but unlike her teachers she formed relationships with a group of composers, many of whom passed through Paris in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and who at the time were considered very much the avant garde.

Key collaborators included György Ligeti (his Passacaglia Ungherese, Hungarian RockContinuum and the Ricercare – Omaggio a Frescobaldi), Henryk Gorecki (his Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, Op. 40) and Iannis Xenakis (a long term partnership working with the Xenakis Ensemble that produced Komboï and Oophaa, both for Chojnacka and percussionist Sylvio Gualda, as well as Khoai for solo harpsichord).

With Gualda, she formed a duo and went on to commission works for both instruments from other composers. Chojnacka also premiered works for harpsichord, both as a soloist and with leading contemporary music ensembles (frequently involving electronics) from more than 80 composers, many of whom dedicated works to her, including Michael Nyman (his Harpsichord Concerto), Maurice Ohana, Franco Donatoni, Cristóbal Halffter and Ástor Piazzolla. She also played 20th-century repertoire by Poulenc, Betsy Jolas, Joseph Horovitz, de Falla, Roberto Sierra and even Scott Joplin!

Despite her focus on new music, she also played early music in concert, although she has a distinct preference for performing with the harpsichord slightly amplified.

A noted pedagogue, she taught at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg from 1995. In 2003 she won the Grand Prix du Disque for Modern Music for her recording of works by Maurice Ohana.

Elisabeth Chojnacka died on May 28, 2017.