While Ralph Kirkpatrick represented a less flamboyant, more severe style in harpsichord playing, his was not the only manner of playing to be heard in the United States in the 1930s. A more supple and colorful way of performing, somewhere between that of Kirkpatrick and Landowska, was represented by Yella Pessl. Born in 1906 in Vienna and christened Gabriela Elsa,1 Pessl grew up in a musical household where some of the leading musicians of the day gathered for weekly chamber music concerts. She was educated at the Academy of Music, where she studied several instruments, including organ and harpsichord. The person who most influenced her musical taste was Alexander Wunderer, who had founded the Wiener Bachgemeinde in 1913.
During her student days Pessl was engaged to play organ continuo for a Bach cantata conducted by Otto Klemperer. After several appearances in Austria and Germany she realized that she preferred the harpsichord to her other instruments. In 1931, when she completed her studies, she made her American harpsichord debut at a concert of the Schola Cantorum. She decided to make her home in the United States and soon found a place in its musical life. For several seasons she was featured in weekly radio broadcasts of “old” music.
In 1936 Time once again brought the harpsichord to popular attention:
Returning last week to Manhattan from a trip to her native Austria, harpsichordist Yella Pessl had good news for those music lovers who like to hear 17th and 18th Century works on the instruments for which they were written. On its way from Munich was a fine new harpsichord, made by Karl Maendler, famed for his work with archaic instruments, on which she will record some more Bach, Handel, Purcell, [and] old German Christmas songs for Columbia this week. Herr Maendler’s aim in constructing from old Viennese cherrywood this super-harpsichord was to eliminate the twangling and jangling of the instrument’s complicated internal machinery. [A footnote added, “No tinkling music box, the harpsichord has two keyboards, as many as seven stops, can produce more than 100 tonal ‘color’ combinations.”] With this carefully constructed 20th Century edition of the piano’s forerunner Miss Pessl hopes to evoke no unwanted vibrations to mar her recording and broadcasting.
Like Chicago’s Philip Manuel and Gavin Williamson [and] other skilled musical archeologists in the U.S. and Europe, Miss Pessl is a serious musician, hunts high and low for original scores of classics. To this end she imported last week 235 pounds of old music from Austria to Manhattan. . . . To combine her three interests of mountain climbing, skiing and music, this dark-eyed, energetic young woman carries a portable clavichord on her back on Austrian outings. This summer, benighted at a Tirolean inn, Yella Passl met Karl Maendler. When he heard who Miss Pessl was, Herr Maendler vowed he would build her a famous harpsichord, set to work immediately on his return to Munich. Another summer’s adventure occurred when she played at Salzburg for Chancellor Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg who pronounced Miss Pessl’s Haydn concerto entzückend [delightful, charming]. Last week Yella Pessl announced her present ambition to “shoot” New York’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia with her minicamera. 2
Pessl was chosen by Toscanini to appear three times with the NBC Symphony, and she was engaged to teach an interpretation course at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Her longer-term academic appointments were at Columbia University and Barnard College, where she taught from 1938 until her retirement in 1952.3
As a concert artist Pessl played frequently in New York for nearly two decades. A 1941 Town Hall program with Brazilian singer Elsie Houston
was a uniquely interesting event, for singly and together, they re-created the music of four countries, each in a different stage of cultural and social development and each with a different concept of music. They were able to do this because, different as they are, they are both fine executive musicians and musical scholars who have also the rare imaginative insight that can bring to life music that generally only exists by hearsay in musical memoirs.
The first musical era they re-created was France before the influence of Italian operatic styles changed the nature of its vocal music. One song, “L’Amour de Moi,” was particularly beautiful in its unforced simplicity, and Miss Pessl’s accompaniment was as sensitive and understanding as Miss Houston’s singing.
Then Miss Pessl alone brought her listeners forward to the eighteenth century with a Fantasy in C Major by Handel and a Toccata and Fugue in D Major by Bach. After the intermission, it was Miss Houston’s turn to appear alone. The house was completely darkened, and sitting on the floor in the weird light of one yellow spotlight and beating a drum, Miss Houston peopled the stage with Brazilian natives crying out incantations to their primitive gods.
The lights were turned up and Miss Pessl returned to play six Scarlatti sonatas which lifted the audience out of primitive jungles to the serene and light-filled spaces of absolute music. Then together they brought the recital to a close with a group of Spanish folk songs . . . in which the harpsichord was like a guitar. . . .4
In a review of a Bach Circle concert in 1942, at which Pessl performed Bach’s transcription for harpsichord of a Vivaldi concerto, Olin Downes wrote: “When Miss Pessl played Bach’s arrangement she included the ornaments ... in the Italian style. It was a pleasure to hear the interpretation of an artist not so hide-bound by dubious traditions that she was afraid to indulge in reasonable elasticity of tempo and to singing the phrases on the wiry instrument in a lyrical manner.”5 Later that year Pessl became director of the Bach Circle, succeeding Robert Hufstader, who joined the Army. For the following season the group announced two concerts at Town Hall and three members’ concerts to be given at a private residence and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pessl was not a shy academic. Perhaps by the mid-1940s it was necessary to make memorable comments to keep up with the competition of the always-trenchant Landowska. At any rate the younger import once said to a program annotator for CBS, “I stayed up all night playing Couperin. It was almost as good as making love. Almost, I said!”6
In 1945 Downes was still reviewing Bach Circle concerts at Town Hall and commenting favorably on Pessl’s playing of Couperin:
The harpsichord pieces played by Miss Pessl were far more persuasive [than a Couperin motet on the same program]. This was as much Couperin’s instrument as the piano was Chopin’s. . . .
The four pieces which make the 27th Suite or Ordre are each different and each distinguished, in one or another mood. “Les Pavots” has a delicacy of statement and quality of atmosphere fully justifying the program note designating it as “a masterpiece of French impressionism in eighteenth century imagery” and forerunner of Debussy and Ravel.
Miss Pessl played this music with admirable taste, technical precision, with a treatment of phrases and ornaments which was never academic and always lyrical.7
However, Downes noted that the harpsichord in a Bach concerto “slightly overbalanced the few strings.” This remark was particularly astonishing, for Pessl’s harpsichord was one of the excessivly heavy German instruments built by Maen-dler-Schramm in Munich, a fact that was proudly stated on her record labels. These harpsichords were built to withstand total war. In fact, a subsequent owner of the firm described the metal frame as a Panzerplatte [armor plate].8 Wolfgang Zuckermann described a nearly hopeless house call to repair Pessl’s harpsichord:
After working for hours on Yella Pessl’s instrument, I finally was able to get some sound out of it and proudly played a few chords demonstrating this fact. Miss Pessl, perhaps startled out of her wits to hear the instrument playing, ran in from another room and exclaimed: “Mr. Zuckermann, you are breaking my instrument.” I had trouble collecting the $5 fee which was all I thought she would willingly surrender.9
In 1946 the Times noted that “Miss Pessl’s playing has become well and favorably known hereabouts, and it is enough to say that it was quite at its best last night, in the smoothness of its technique, its refinement, its reserve and taste, and its sound musicianship.”10 After February 1947 Pessl is not mentioned again in the New York newspapers. There was a widely circulated story that she had become ill from eating poisonous mushrooms, but the truth was less sensational. She spent the years 1948–1950 doing research on Italian music in the Vatican Library. Upon her return to the United States she settled in Massachusetts, where she pursued a reduced schedule of teaching and playing.
“If we do not ordinarily think of the harpsichord as an instrument of modern music that is not the fault of Sylvia Marlowe.”11 More than any other member of her generation in the United States, Marlowe (1908-1981) worked to increase the significant contributions of major composers to the literature of her chosen instrument.
Sylvia Sapira (Marlowe’s real name) was born in Brooklyn. Family complications forced her to discontinue piano and organ lessons at age sixteen. After two years without formal musical studies, she applied for a scholarship to the Juilliard School, but decided instead to accept an opportunity to spend four years studying piano, organ, and composition with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. During that time she heard Landowska play in the Salle Pleyel; it was the first time Marlowe ever heard a harpsichord.12 Back in New York, having won a competition sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs, Marlowe presented twenty-two fifteen-minute piano recitals over the CBS radio network between November 1932 and May 1933. In these programs she played both volumes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
In 1936 Marlowe decided to turn her attention to the harpsichord. Initially, having no instrument, she had to rent practice time on a Pleyel for fifty cents an hour.
I determined . . . that I wanted to own . . . a harpsichord. . . . But the problem then, was where to get [an instrument]. . . . One day I heard of a lady who had a harpsichord for sale. It was a very fancy, very large, white Pleyel. It had gold trimmings and the price was $1,000. Of course this was some time ago when $1,000 was more like $5,000 today. At that time I didn’t have $1,000 I could afford to use for a harpsichord, so I borrowed it from Virgil Thomson. I remember Virgil saying, “Well, if you don’t pay up, I can always have the harpsichord since I have always wanted a harpsichord anyhow.”13
As a harpsichordist Marlowe was self-taught, although Landowska’s influence was there. “I worked with this Pleyel daily and loved it. I listened to Landowska recordings, read everything I could find and worked, worked, worked.”14
In May 1939 Marlowe played the Bach “48” again in four concerts at Town Hall, this time on the harpsichord—probably the first American presentation of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier on an instrument for which the Preludes and Fugues had been intended. These concerts also included works by Couperin, Scarlatti, and Handel.
A comment Marlowe made in her studio in Westport, Connecticut, that she considered the harpsichord a “vehicle for modern music, even swing”15 suggested another career for both artist and instrument:
I was making a record someplace. It was my first recording for which I got paid nothing. It was called “From Bach to Boogie Woogie.” . . . Somebody in the studio called a friend of his who was head of the Rainbow Room, which is a night club on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. I had at that time never even been in a night club. He came to the studio to listen to me and offer me a job at an enormous salary. I was terrified! I had never done this before. I played on a revolving stage with glamorous spotlights and the whole bit. I would play a few classical things then some boogie and other popular numbers. I learned a lot from the job.16
Marlowe’s venture into the world of popular music paid rich dividends. The excellent publicity brought her guest spots on many radio programs, including “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” where she appeared with many of the jazz greats. She also played in the series “Lavender and New Lace” and “New Portraits of Old Masters.” Eventually she was given her own radio program on the NBC network, a weekly spot that aired for ten years. With an impressive total of more than 1,500 radio concerts, Marlowe’s playing brought the sounds of the harpsichord to vast numbers of new listeners.17
Marlowe’s nightclub experiences served as inspiration for David Keith’s mystery Blue Harpsichord, a novel dedicated to Marlowe (“Amico Schapiro pro muscipula gratias.”) The hero, Terence Kelly, a young Latin professor, meets the Marlowelike character “on one of the rare evenings he hadn’t spent with Madeleine . . . [at] an enjoyable occasion at which a pretty young American harpsichordist named Myra Drysdale played everything from Bach to Basin Street on her tinkly instrument. . . .”18 All sorts of artistic intrigues are introduced. The book’s flavor may be savored in this invented news report:
The dramatic critic of the Times was awfully kind: “The high spot in the revue for this commentator was the playing of a glorified Brazilian samba on an outraged but wonderfully responsive harpsichord, by the invaluable Myra Drysdale. Hitherto praise of Miss Drysdale has been the prerogative, in the columns of this newspaper, of those concerned with the goings-on in night-clubs and concert halls: the present writer wishes to express his thanks to whoever is responsible for at last bringing Miss Drysdale under his jurisdiction. . . . Being so completely entranced by Miss Drysdale’s performance, to the point of half-expecting the harpsichord itself to start dancing a samba, so marvellously intense and evocative were the changing rhythms and tempi that Miss Drysdale induced it to utter, we perhaps paid less attention than we ordinarily might have to the young couple . . . who actually did the dancing.” 19
On more traditional turf, Marlowe was given a warm critical reception in 1946:
Sylvia Marlowe, harpsichordist, gave her first local recital [sic] last night in Town Hall. The youthful artist’s seriousness of purpose was reflected in her program, consisting of masterworks of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Scarlatti. Loving care was expended on the interpretations of these classics in performances especially commendable for their imagination and charm.
Miss Marlowe’s work was cleancut and technically secure. The slips in the Bach “Fantasia in C minor” and the Handel “Chaconne in G” could be discounted, being obviously due to nervousness. The Bach, like all else presented, had rhythmic vitality, transparency and a nice sense of proportion. In it Miss Marlowe displayed her unfailing taste by a restrained use of color effects. But in the Handel “Chaconne” full advantage was taken of the opportunities for highly contrasted tinting in the many variations of the theme. . . .20
In 1948, the year of her appointment to the faculty of Mannes College, Marlowe’s New York recital featured twelve sonatas of Scarlatti and Bach’s Italian Concerto. Some memory slips created problems for her, especially in the Bach, but the Scarlatti was deemed “excellent,” and Bach’s French Suite in G was “deftly and poetically projected with vivid and meaningful contrasts of registration.”21
On a tour of the orient in 1956 Marlowe traveled with suitcase; a two-manual Challis harpsichord with plexiglass pinblock, plastic jacks, and aluminum frame; a clavichord; her husband; and a technician. In three months she gave twenty concerts in such exotic locales as Surabaja, Tokyo, Bandung, and Singapore. It was the first harpsichord playing ever heard in most of these places. Marlowe reported that her audiences “really listened to her programs of works by Bach, Scarlatti, Couperin, and contemporary composers Harold Shapero and Vittorio Rieti,” especially since they were accustomed to long programs in this part of the world.22
Contemporary composition involving the harpsichord was a dominant theme in Marlowe’s programs. The formation of the Harpsichord Quartet in 1952 gave her a steady collaboration with Claude Monteux, flutist; Harry Shulman, oboist; and Bernard Greenhouse, cellist. Their collective search for new repertoire resulted in some of the more significant works of the century. The Harpsichord Quartet commissioned Alan Hovhaness’ Quartet, opus 97 (1951); Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952); and Ben Weber’s Serenade, opus 39, (1953). Carter’s work, which won the Walter W. Naumburg Musical Foundation Award in 1956, has emerged as one of the most respected and most performed of his works. Specific registrations for a large Challis harpsichord are provided in the score. The composer wished
to stress as much as possible the vast and wonderful array of tone-colors available on the modern harpsichord. . . . This aim of using the wide variety of the harpsichord involved many tone-colors which can only be produced very softly and therefore conditioned very drastically the type and range of musical expression, all the details of shape, phrasing, rhythm, texture, as well as the large form.23
Such awareness of the instrument’s capabilities guaranteed the effectiveness of Carter’s composition, which exploited all the instruments in challenging but musically rewarding ways. That the use of the harpsichord was congenial to Carter’s creative sensibility was proven a few years later by his second use of the instrument in a major score, the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras, premiered in 1961 with Ralph Kirkpatrick playing the extremely challenging solo harpsichord part.
Other commissions by Marlowe and The Harpsichord Music Society, which she founded in 1957, included solo and ensemble works by Paul Des Marais, Arthur Berger, Alexei Haieff, John Lessard, Harold Shapero, Henri Sauguet, and Carlos Surinach. Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra by John Lessard received a less-than-ecstatic response:
Any kind of unidiomatic writing and technical problems of any degree of difficulty are perfectly justified if they result in logical forms or satisfying flow or well-wrought sound, but the Concerto made Miss Marlowe sound as is she were only a bad pianist instead of a good harpsichordist. . . . The slow movements seemed labored, the fast ones uninspired. 24
At the same concert an earlier solo work by Harold Shapero fared better:
The tightly-wrought, logical and highly idiomatic Shapero Sonata restored our faith in Miss Marlowe’s skill and in the inventiveness of modern composers for her instrument. It . . . was not just a performance to be admired, but an event which took one into a new world. 25
The works of the expatriate Italian-American composer Vittorio Rieti figured prominently in Marlowe’s repertoire. Among her commissions were Rieti’s Partita for Flute, Oboe, String Quartet and Harpsichord Obbligato (1945), the three-movement solo Sonata all’ antica (1946), and Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra (1955).26 Ned Rorem also responded to a Marlowe commission. His chamber work Lovers (1964) was conceived as a “satellite” piece to the opera Miss Julie. A narrative in ten scenes with wonderfully suggestive titles—”Bridge of the Arts,” “Before,” “During,” “After”—this lengthy composition for oboe, cello, percussion, and harpsichord featured a bravura movement, “The Bridge of Sighs,” for the solo keyboard instrument.
In addition to works composed specifically for harpsichord by past or present composers, Marlowe was not averse to playing other keyboard music on her instrument, such as piano works of Stravinsky, Colin McPhee, Anton Webern, and Virgil Thomson. She recorded Thomson’s Sonata Four and one of his Portraits, “Cantabile: Nicolas de Chatelain,” for Decca and frequently played these works in recital. When queried about other compositions for harpsichord, Thomson replied, “I have never written for harpsichord. The Sonata that Marlowe has recorded is just a keyboard piece. ... So are the Piano Portraits.”27
By far the largest concentration of this cross-over repertoire was heard at a 1972 Carnegie Recital Hall program:
Harpsichordists Turn the Tables
Ever since its invention shortly after 1700, the piano has been stealing music originally composed for its smaller voiced ancestors, the harpsichord especially. Now, the tables are turning. Not content with reclaiming their own music, harpsichord players are busily appropriating piano music for their plucked instrument. Who knows where this may end? A Society to Save the Pianoforte may have to be formed to protect the great black beast from the increasingly bold predator.
Nevertheless, until the reversal goes too far, one can enjoy it. At Carnegie Recital Hall . . . Sylvia Marlowe and Kenneth Cooper played a program for one and two harpsichords that stole imaginatively from the piano repertory. Stravinsky’s “Eight Easy Pieces” made the biggest hit with the sold-out house, the duo’s two-manual instruments providing wonderfully deep resources of wit and sonority. Not at all surprisingly, when “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear” [Satie] also made sense in a drily humorous two-harpsichord version. And several Bartok selections from “Ten Easy Pieces” and “Mikrokosmos,” played with a watchmaker’s precision and an ingratiating bounce by Mr. Cooper alone, sounded entirely idiomatic even while producing startling effects that could not be realized on a piano. Miss Marlowe offered a bit of solo Stravinsky, too, in the form of his Scherzo (1902), which had the right color and tone though not the rakishly assured performance required for this deceptively simple music.
The borrowings were not only poetically just, but musically apt. There is, after all, a strong streak of rebellion against the piano’s romantic character in Stravinsky and Bartok, who often seem to regard the piano as an outsize harpsichord, generally treating it as a percussive, neutral-toned instrument whose latent emotionalism is rather vulgar. . . .28
Thomson’s friendship with Marlowe spanned her entire career. In 1948, when she announced her forthcoming marriage to the artist Leonid Berman, Thomson said,
“The harpsichord is a very jealous instrument. I don’t see how you are going to manage to have a husband and a harpsichord.” Fortunately I have a very nice husband, but the truth is that the harpsichord is a very demanding instrument and to pursue a career as a harpsichordist, you must be able to divorce yourself from a great many things in life that you might otherwise find very agreeable. . . . 29
The circumstances surrounding Marlowe’s first performances of the Goldberg Variations gave evidence of her priorities:
Now this is a true story. . . . Last spring I was going to go to Europe with my husband. All of a sudden I decided I wanted to stay home and work on this. In order to learn it, one must have days like empty canvases. One must have peace and quiet. The Goldbergs aren’t something you can sandwich in between other things.30
Thomson, again, on Marlowe: “[She is] not quite [in] complete control of her own powerful temperament. That temperament is mercurial, and her exhilarating mind forms one with it. When she gets bored by a piece, as she sometimes does right in the middle of it, all her brilliance and surety leaves her; and the execution falls, for all its taste and learning, straight to earth.”31 Marlowe’s former student Kenneth Cooper suggested that it was not so much a question of temperament as a life-long problem of acute stage fright. Whatever the cause, reviews tended to be less complimentary and more critical as Marlowe neared the end of her long performing career. Technical standards were higher and critics expected more from players as the harpsichord became less of a rare breed and more of a mainstream instrument. Harold Schonberg remarked about a Rieti birthday concert in January 1973: “The performances . . . were invariably musical and expert. Miss Marlowe may have had a few momentary lapses—she always does—but her knowledge of the style is beyond dispute, and when she got fired up she offered some brilliant playing.”32
A further deterioration of Marlowe’s abilities was noted by John Rockwell, who reviewed her last public performance of the Goldberg Variations:
But at this stage of her career, Miss Marlowe simply can’t play the music well enough to give real pleasure. In some of the simpler variations, or even for bars on end in the flashier ones, she would play along smoothly enough. But then a run would go awry or she would break down for a brief but agonizing moment, peer intently at the music and forge on. And one couldn’t help but wonder if some of the slowish tempos had been chosen to accommodate her.33
Marlowe’s legacy, and her finest performances, are largely to be found on her almost five dozen sides of 78-rpm records and her thirty-nine long-playing discs.34 The repertoire ranges from Douglas Moore’s The Old Grey Mare and part of Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat on a children’s record, Said the Piano to the Harpsichord, to major portions of the oeuvres of Couperin, Purcell, and Bach (including two recordings of the Goldberg Variations), and, as one would expect, a generous sampling of the new works Marlowe commissioned. Her years of teaching live on through her students who have achieved professional careers, among them Kenneth Cooper and Gerald Ranck of New York, Doris Ornstein of Cleveland, Shirley Matthews of Maine and Baltimore, and Hendrik Broekman, now of Hubbard Harpsichords.
Nearly twenty years before her death Marlowe wrote,
In short, the harpsichord world, until recently inhabited by a small group of intense scholars, aesthetes, performers and snobs, has now been taken over by the broad music public. Tired of the constant repetition of the nineteenth-century master-works, this public looks back to early music for the discovery of buried works of genius and forward to the creation of the new repertoire. The harpsichord, no longer considered an archaic ancester of the piano, has taken its rightful place as a great contemporary instrument beautiful to see and hear, and with the richest literature of them all. The end of the twentieth century may well be remembered as another “Age of the Harpsichord.”35
Sylvia Marlowe had quite a lot to do with ensuring that the Age of the Harpsichord happened.