Remembering Irma Rogell
“Walks with Wanda,” the only English-language essay in Martin Elste’s lavishly illustrated volume Die Dame mit dem Cembalo [The Lady with the Harpsichord] published by Schott in 2010, consists of five pages—Chapter Four—from an otherwise-unpublished memoir by harpsichordist Irma Rogell, in which she reminisces about her four summers of lessons with Landowska, beginning in 1955 and ending with the pioneering harpsichordist’s death in 1959. The following year, at age 40, Ms. Rogell made her well-received solo recital debut at Boston’s Jordan Hall and during the next five decades she continued to pursue a solid career of recitals, recordings, and teaching. On February 9, 2013 Irma Rogell died in Newton, Connecticut, at the age of 94.
Alerted to the news of her passing by the ever-vigilant harpsichord enthusiast Robert Tifft, I read Irma Rogell’s obituary, which, strangely enough, did not mention the harpsichord at all. At first a little uncertain that the subject of the notice was indeed “our” Irma Rogell, I checked several tributes written for the funeral home’s guest book; words from Teri Noel Towe and Peter Watchorn, both distinguished members of the harpsichord community, confirmed a relationship with our instrument, and led to correspondence with these gentlemen.
In notes to her recordings it was customarily noted that Rogell had remained faithful to Landowska’s preferred Pleyel concert harpsichord; her own Pleyel instrument built by the Parisian firm was acquired in 1958. However Peter Watchorn’s tribute to Rogell noted that “. . . shortly after arriving in [the USA] to join the staff of the Frank Hubbard Harpsichord Workshop in Waltham, MA . . . one of my first jobs was to work on a new instrument for Irma, and we came to know each other well over the next 25 years.” To my request for clarification about Rogell’s harpsichord(s), Peter responded: “We built a Hass copy for her in 1989—with seven pedals (like the Pleyel). She also had one of Eric Herz’s big Model F instruments—the one with 16-foot. She also had her Pleyel. I’m not sure how long she kept the Hass—she couldn’t tune, so it didn’t see all that much use, I think” [E-mail communication 25 February 2013].
In an interview with alumna Rogell for the Harvard Magazine (May-June 2005), Emer Vaughn mentioned that “she is writing a memoir of her studies with Landowska . . . ,” the source, obviously, for the excerpt published in Dr. Elste’s book. Trying to ascertain just how much more of this memoir might exist led to correspondence with Teri Towe, Christine Gevert, and Martin Elste, who kindly searched his Landowska files and responded with an additional chapter not included in his published book.
The first paragraphs from Rogell’s “Chapter Three” immediately show her to be a captivating writer:
“What is she like?” The question came unexpectedly that first time and I heard myself say spontaneously, “She is just like your grandmother—that is, of course, if your grandmother also happened to be Empress of the World.”
That first imperious “madame” with which she had greeted me at our first meeting was the last such greeting. Always thereafter I was “little one.” She surrounded me with love, exactly, in fact, as my beloved great-grandmother had done. Which is why she was “Mamusia,” the Polish word for little mother, which is what she preferred to be called.
I hope this short excerpt will whet the appetite for further reading in the published chapter from Irma Rogell’s memoir. On her walks with Landowska many topics familiar to Landowska aficionados were covered. One puzzling bit of history—the story of Landowska’s husband Henri Lew and his sudden demise after being hit by an automobile—is set in Paris rather than the usually cited city of Berlin. The correct venue, Berlin, is listed in Martin Elste’s comprehensive chronology of Landowska’s life, so it must be that memory—whether Landowska’s, as she related an oft-told anecdote, or Rogell’s, as she remembered a conversation from fifty years earlier—simply transposed the site in which the event actually happened.
By all means, do not allow the lack of a reading knowledge of German to deter you from acquiring Die Dame mit dem Cembalo. The pictorial feast assembled for this 240-page, coffee-table-sized book includes 306 images, many not seen previously in print. These include record labels and album covers, two pages of finger exercises from a notebook belonging to St-Leu student Lily Karger, a Bach Invention score with Landowska’s fingerings, numerous witty caricatures, and, as an exceptional labor of love from Dr. Elste, his own recent photographs of the current state of places Landowska called home in Paris, Berlin, St-Leu-la-Forêt, New York, and Lakeville, as well as her final resting place in the cemetery of Taverny (France), where her urn is placed next to that of her brother Paul Landowski.
Of Landowska’s “last student,” Irma Rogell, Emer Vaughan chose these words to end his 2005 Harvard Magazine profile “A Musical Education”:
Now, after years of touring, recording . . . and teaching, Rogell again plays mainly for her own enjoyment . . . 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.”
To hear an example of Rogell’s keyboard artistry, access her performance of the Sarabande from Handel’s Suite in D Minor, HWV 437, as recorded on the 33-1/3 rpm disc La Tomba di Scarlatti (1982), the fourth item in the section illustrating the sounds of the Pleyel harpsichord on Robert Tifft’s website devoted to Janos Sebestyen and other 20th-century harpsichordists of note: http://jsebestyen.org/harpsichord/audio.html#Pleyel.
If any reader has further information about Irma Rogell and her unpublished memoir, please share it with the Harpsichord Editor at [email protected] or write to Dr. Larry Palmer, Division of Music, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas 75275.