Sound Fountain




Sylvia Marlowe (1908-1981)


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Like the violin, also the harpsichord is a very individualistic instrument, yet in a different way. If the violin can be named 'the instrument of the soul', the harpsichord is in some way 'the instrument of seclusion'. The language is generally regarded as being more or less archaic, coming from a different age. And the nature of the instrument is determined by practically unchangeable features - so it seems - which set the framework for a different world in which the player can retract, can isolate and thus can transport the audience or the individual listener to.


In principle this frame does not really change when going from the German Johann Sebastian Bach to the American Virgil Thomson, from the Spanish idiom of Manuel de Falla to that of the Italian Domenico Scarlatti.
Much of the sense of the music depends on the character and grandeur of the instrument and its possibilities, but also on the personality of the executioner. In this case Sylvia Marlowe.

Sylvia Marlowe's personality is quite unique in the way she looks at the world, the way she regards her profession and the place the instrument has in this context. Hers is a powerful approach, with strength, decisiveness and precision. Those are the attributes of her artistry. Her pursuit in rendering the score in a faithful, yet individualistic manner is what made her stand out in the world of harpsichordists with such big names as Wanda Landowska, Rosalyn Tureck, Isolde Ahlgrimm, Ruggero Gerlin, Isabelle Nef, Helmut Walcha, Robert Veyron-Lacroix, Fritz Neumeyer, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Eduard Müller and Fernando Valenti, to name those who were the outstanding players of the nineteen fifties, the time when Marlowe made her recordings for Remington, and also for American Decca, Haydn Society (6x LP with Haydn Piano Sonatas) and Capitol (6 Bach Concertos, Falla Concerto, Sonatas of Frescobaldi and Scarlatti).

Sylvia Marlowe in the mid nineteen fifties.
Picture originally published on the back of Capitol P8361 with Bach's Six Clavier Concerti after Vivaldi, enlarged (enhanced by R.A.B.)

The liner notes on Remington R-199-136 say:

Sylvia Marlowe was born in New York City, began to study the piano at the age of nine and at eighteen was offered both a scholarship to the Juilliard School and the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. Choosing the latter, she worked for four years with Nadia Boulanger, and after hearing a recital played by Wanda Landowska, her interest turned to the harpsichord.
Since that time Miss Marlowe has toured Europe, toured the States; offered, for the first time on the air, the complete Well Tempered Clavier; played modern works by de Falla, Poulenc, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Berger, Vittorio Rieti, Alexei Haieff, Alan Hovhaness, and John Lessard; given recitals in Town Hall and Carnegie Hall; appeared with symphony orchestras from coast to coast; discovered old works and commissioned new ones; performed for ten years in her own "Coffee Concert" over the National Broadcasting System. This is confessedly, only a partial list. But it indicates one thing: Miss Marlowe is a specialist. And clearly that specialty is the music of all time.

And from the cover of the 1960 English Brunswick release "Six Americans" with works of modern composers (SXA 4537, originally American Decca 710021) I quote this addition:

Her solo recitals have been supplemented by concerts with her own chamber ensemble, the Harpsichord Quartet.
With the consciousness of the true artist, Miss Marlowe has taken pains to inform herself of the correct and complex performance traditions of the music she plays. (...) Miss Marlowe is music director of the Harpsichord Music Society, an organization whose activities include the commissioning of new works for the harpsichord, the establishment of scholarships for advanced study of the harpsichord, and the bringing together of players and musicologists for discussion of performance practice of older music.

She taught at the Mannes School (College) of Music were so many outstanding performers and pedagogues shaped the generations to come, and where also Laszlo Halasz was teaching. He obviously talked several teachers into making one or two recordings for Don Gabor's Remington.

Miss Marlowe formed "The Harpsichord Quartet" together with Claude Monteux (Flute), Harry Shulman (Oboe), Bernard Greenhouse (Cello).
At forty she married painter
Leonid Berman (1896-1976) who was her elder by some twelve years.

"The Harpsichord Quartet" with Claude Monteux (Flute), Harry Shulman (Oboe), Bernard Greenhouse (Cello).
Remington R-199-202
(released in 1956)
Sylvia Marlowe plays François Couperin: 26ème ordre
Cellist Bernard Greenhouse was a member of the Harpsichord Quartet. He also played with Sylvia Marlowe the Three Sonatas for Harpsichord and Viola da Gamba which can be found on Decca DL 10036.
Some of Sylvia Marlowe's Decca recordings were released in Europe on the Deutsche Grammophon label, a licensee of American Decca. At right LPM 18 688 with Cembalo Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach - BWV 1061, 1064, 1065 - with Daniel Saidenberg conducting the Barock Chamber Orchestra.

Sylvia Marlowe's style of playing is already apparent in her early recordings from the shellac era when she recorded for Decca, Musicraft and The Gramophone Shop.

78 RPM

Bach: Italian Concert
Vivaldi: Concerto Grosso (arr. Bach)
Decca DAU4

Couperin: Les fastes de la grande et ancienne Menestrandise, Tic-toc-choc.
Rameau: Gavotte variée, La poule.
Musicraft MC-84

Purcell: 8 Suites for Harpsichord - complete recording.
Recorded exclusively for the Gramophone Shop
Album GSC-2 (5 x 12")

Scarlatti: 9 sonatas - L-23 (Cortege), 205, 232, 257 (Les adieux), 461, 433, 479, 413 (Pastorale), and 463.
3x 12" Musicraft MC-72

Not all her recordings received high praise, but Irving Kolodin (in The New Guide to Recorded Music; 1950) did specifically admire the quality of Sylvia Marlowe's playing in the Gramophone Shop set with Henry Purcell's Eight Suites, mentioned above.

The two Remington recordings of Sylvia Marlowe:

R-199-136 (released in July 1953; in France Concerteum CR 207)
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas (Longo 206, 14, 257, 232, 433, 474, 345)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata
François Couperin: Les folies françaises - sometimes written as "françoises" (also called Les Dominos), which - as Jay Harrison writes in the liner notes - is a series of miniatures each representing a different human passion clothed, as it were, under a different and symbolically colored domino or mask. And as Jay Harrison writes on the cover, the "theme proper, upon which the entire composition is based, is titled La Virginite sous le Domino couleur d'invisible. This is followed, in succession, by a cast of characters."
Each and every Domino is announced on this record in French which adds to the atmosphere of the short pieces which are performed very well.

R-199-202 (released in 1956)
Sylvia Marlowe plays François Couperin: 26ème ordre
La convalescente
La Sophie
La Pantomime
Les fastes de la grande et ancient Menestrandise

Sylvia Marlowe, New York, 26 Sept. 1908 - 11 December, 1981.

Rudolf A. Bruil. Page first published November 10th, 2005 - This page will be updated.

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