A Musical Education

Harpsichordist Irma Rogell ’39 made her stage debut, in Boston’s Jordan Hall, at the age of 40. Her background, as the last pupil of Wanda Landowska, the Polish-French harpsichordist credited with reviving popular interest in that instrument, spoke for itself. But Rogell’s career resulted from personal inclination, not conscious intent. “I never daydreamed about becoming a concert pianist,” she says. “I just wanted to study music all my life and play it because I loved it.” She begged for piano lessons long before she received them as a present for her eighth birthday (her parents thought she needed to know fractions first). She studied music at Radcliffe and began lessons with pianist Lillian Page that continued through her graduation, her marriage, and her husband’s military service overseas.

Meanwhile Landowska, a fierce critic of the Nazis, had fled Paris for New York. Page had studied with her and took Rogell to a master class Landowska offered, the first harpsichord performance Rogell had attended.

Irma Rogell with her mentor, Wanda Landowska.
Courtesy of Irma Rogell

Landowska played the Bach-Vivaldi “Concerto in D-Major,” which Rogell was studying. “We come to the second movement, and the first four measures are made up of roll chords in each hand,” Rogell remembers. “The way she spaced those chords, touching the top note when the bottom one is already rolling—it set up a resonance in the room that was extraordinary. [It] was surrounding me, and I had what would be called a mystical experience: it seemed to me that the walls were undulating.”

By the end of the evening Rogell had been invited to study with Landowska—an opportunity she put on hold while she and her husband started a family. For a decade, Rogell played only for them, learning many traditional lullabies she would later record. Then, in her early thirties, severe hand pain restricted her practice to 15 minutes a day. Doctors advised her to stop playing, but Rogell instead sought out Landowska, whose hands had once been injured in an automobile accident. Doctors had said the young student would never play the harpsichord again, but she devised her own finger exercises, regained strength in her hands, and achieved a brilliant career.

“[Landowska] took my hands,” Rogell recalls, “and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your hands…You aren’t using them properly.” For the next five summers, Rogell studied with Landowska full time. The finger exercises enabled her to play for an entire day and well into the evening. “It was a dream come true,” she says. “It was then that I worked hard enough to get whatever technique I have.”

It was also when she switched to the harpsichord, to take full advantage of Landowska’s teaching, and because many of her favorite pieces by Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti sounded best on the instrument they had been written for, with its clarity and the “coloring” effects of its stops. Rather than give up the piano, she took Landowska’s advice: “Each instrument helps the other one; the two belong side by side.”

She made her debut a year after Landowska’s death, with her husband’s encouragement, asking for minimum publicity because she meant to give only one performance. When she was so well-received, concert manager Dimitar Zachareff suggested that she consider a career. That experience of playing in public eventually persuaded her to create for others the same magic she experienced when she first heard Landowska. “An audience listens and breathes with you, and you feel that. You feel that audience becoming yours,” she says. “It became more thrilling to play. The music was growing, becoming something more than it had been before.”

Now, after years of touring, recording (Songs of Celebration and Iberia were recently remastered as CDs; see www.irmarogell.com), and teaching, Rogell again plays mainly for her own enjoyment. She is writing a memoir of her studies with Landowska. And she listens to her old tapes (“Hard work!”) for new recording projects, “because I’d like to share my belief that the harpsichord can be a very expressive instrument, which is at the core of what I learned from Landowska.”

  ~Emer Vaughn

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