One of America's finest harpsichordists of all time, Sylvia Marlowe was, along with Wanda Landowska, largely responsible for bringing the harpsichord to the attention of American audiences. Not content with making it popular for the music of J.S. Bach and other baroque composers, she had supreme confidence in the harpsichord's capability to respond to the demands of contemporary music, encouraging its use in modern compositions by sponsoring new harpsichord works.
After studying the piano and organ at school and university, she continued her musical education at the Ecole Normale in Paris, studying the piano and organ, and composition with Nadia Boulanger. It was there that she first heard Landowska, whose harpsichord playing impressed her deeply, although she did not study with her until years later. On returning to the USA, Marlowe received a National Music Award to perform Bach's "48" Preludes & Fugues on the piano in a series of radio broadcasts. Gradually she gave up the piano in favor of the harpsichord. For some years following she specialized in broadcasting for the radio, presenting renaissance and baroque harpsichord and chamber works, as well as a wide range of contemporary music, including jazz.
In 1948, Sylvia Marlowe was appointed Professor of Harpsichord at the Mannes College of Music in New York. One of her many pupils was the well-known American harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, who first went to the Mannes College of Music in 1960 in order to study harpsichord under Sylvia Marlowe, this being made possible through the Harpsichord Music Society, Inc., which she herself had founded in 1957 to promote new works for the harpsichord and award scholarships for the advanced study of the harpsichord and its literature. Cooper was to remain a close friend of hers until her death in 1981, when she bequeathed all her collection of music, memorials, and copies of her many recordings made during her lifetime to his care. The present biography draws from material in his collection.
Also in 1948, she married Leonid Berman, the son of a Russian banker and himself a neo-romantic painter, who was already famous in Europe, and who brought to the marriage his own extensive friendship among Russian émigrés and European artists. Their marriage was a great success and they remained very close up to Berman's death in 1976, from which Sylvia never entirely recovered. They lived their married life in an apartment in New York's East Sixtieth Street, between Lexington and Park, in the heart of midtown, and within the shadow of Bloomingdale's. The high main room was furnished sparsely with two Victorian sofas, a few chairs, a low marble table and of course her grand Pleyel harpsichord. The walls were covered with her husband's paintings as well as those of other modern painters who gathered there. The paintings made it a very lively room, yet it was one with plenty of space – an excellent room for parties. Sylvia Marlowe gave excellent parties, as a friend observed: "Sylvia created her own salon, where a great mixture of bright people would gather, and some from the "smart" world, too, who would go just because it was interesting there. Every party was marked by lightness, hospitality, and gaiety. Every party was a success". Among the people who gathered there regularly were W. H. Auden, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, and composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Alan Hovhanes and Vittorio Rieti, all of whom wrote compositions for the harpsichord.
In 1955 Sylvia Marlowe was to become the first harpsichordist ever to make a concert tour of the Far East and Southeast Asia. And when she agreed to do so for the State Department's International Cultural Relations Program, many of her fiends and colleagues wondered if she knew what she might be getting into. At best, they pointed out, the harpsichord has a limited public, but to set out on an extensive concert tour for a mass audience totally unfamiliar with it (for the harpsichord was unknown in the Orient) was madness – commercially and artistically. Miss Marlowe, however, was not to be dissuaded. She had agreed to make the tour. She wanted to go. And she went.
It was not a simple departure. She took with her performing gowns of "miracle" fabrics that would not require the services of non-existent one-day cleaners and were at the same time suitable for the heat she would encounter and lightweight enough to help keep the weight of her luggage within bounds. Also included in her impedimenta were a large bag of detergent flakes guaranteed to lather in cold water; a medicine kit; rainy weather gear; her music scores; and various appropriate gifts to present to the many official representatives of Eastern Governments she would encounter in her capacity as a quasi-official representative of her own country. Her husband, Leonid Berman, enticed by the idea of working among fresh scenes he knew the Orient would provide, accompanied her. He was only slightly less burdened, what with easels, sketch pads, canvases, paints and brushes. Since there was not actually a single harpsichord in the East, Miss Marlowe took a handsome black and red lacquer instrument she had specially built for the journey – light enough for air travel, yet strong enough to withstand its rigors. It required a third member in the party – a harpsichord technician to repair any damages it might sustain through the area's humidity or the wear and tear of constant transportation, crating and uncrating. For him, Miss Marlowe also carried a full tool kit, extra strings, and a supply of glue unparalleled in its adhesiveness.
She confesses she had misgivings – about what kind of halls she would have to play in or what kind of reception audiences might accord the harpsichord and its literature. She need not have worried. The halls proved, at the very least, adequate, and occasionally they were excellent. It was not uncommon for her to play for 1,500 students at an afternoon recital and 2,000 or more other music-lovers at her regular evening concerts. The audiences not only listened intently, but after each concert came to examine the harpsichord and ask endless questions. "Their questions weren't only musical, either," she had observed. "Indonesians, for instance, were interested in how Americans lived, how we regard our composers, and how American artists in general are treated in our society."
Mannes College President Charles Kaufman described Marlowe's personality as "peppery" and "not altogether content" with the repertory, herself, or anything else. The lack of contentment was a fiery force driving her from one project to the next, always erasing the past. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., she blended "twentieth-century urgency with eighteenth-century elegance". The lady who loved society, spoke French, was the "sparkling center of her salon on East 60th Street," and wished only to be allowed to pursue her beautiful work, was also a dynamic pioneer of twentieth-century repertory for the harpsichord and by choice a liberated, modern, urban woman.
The harpsichord was for her, also liberated, modern, and urban, and although she loved her summers in the quiet of the country, like Handel, she regarded summers as preparations for winters. She was concerned with giving a "contemporary identity to the harpsichord which has for a long time been associated with the music of the past." She always craved a lively, beautiful harpsichord sound and a wide, sensuous palette of colors.
Kenneth Cooper wrote: "As her student I was impressed by her seriousness, her passionate devotion to genuine musical experience, her unflagging honesty and lack of tact. She said, marvelous as often as she said terrible. Her approach to the music she chose to play was governed largely by those traditional values (rhythm, melody, contrast) that I see now she used in an elemental way, without mitigation. From one day to the next, the tempo, dynamic, or articulation rarely changed. A black-or-white decision was made: staccato or legato, fast or slow, free or rhythmically steady. She asserted her ideas more impatiently, naturally, when my way was not clear or failed to convince or hadn't been sufficiently prepared. Often I went home with two interpretations: one I knew was imperfect, and one I knew I couldn't quite do. They often melded, indicating that she knew what I needed. She took special pains to deepen my experience with Couperin and Rameau, seeing that I was already immersed in the music of Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. But she always looked out for pieces that strengthened my strengths, too - improvisation, for example.
"What transpired in later years seemed to me even more remarkable. She maintained contact, even when we were both busy for long stretches, and always called when she was working on a new record or concert project asking for the same sort of honest criticism she so often gave to me. Nerve-racking as they were - high-strung hardly describes Marlowe's means of getting through the day - the times we had playing duets of Couperin and Bach were instructive and exciting. Her former student Doris Ornstein had the same reaction too, that Marlowe 'treated a student like a colleague and not like a lower form of life'. While rehearsing our recital of Two-Harpsichord Music in 1971, I brought her the Six Bach Trio Sonatas for two claviers and pedal: she approached them with some trepidation. ('Would this be a transcription?') Months later, discovering what wonderful harpsichord duets they make, she wanted to record them all."
Sylvia Marlowe's recording career, which stretched almost four decades, had special meaning to her, because she loved working in the recording studio and performed there at her best. Her recorded legacy represents her work well and includes some of the finest of all harpsichord discs. Among them are her authoritative performances of some of the works she commissioned. Just after the war, she began by recording almost five dozen 78-rpm sides, including Scarlatti, Couperin, and Rameau, Purcell's Eight Suites, and a rare collection called "The Evolution of Piano Music". After 78rpm gave way to LPs, she made altogether some 34 recordings, many of them for the major record companies, including Columbia, MGM, The Haydn Society, Westminster, Capitol and particularly, Decca, her recorded repertoire reflecting, like her concert programs, a lively mix of baroque and contemporary.