The American harpsichordist, Sylvia Marlowe (real name: Sapira), studied the piano and organ at school and university. She continued her musical education at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, studying the piano and organ, and composition with Nadia Boulanger. It was there that she first heard Wanda Landowska, whose harpsichord playing impressed her deeply, although she did not study with her until years later.
On returning to the USA, Sylvia 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 favour of the harpsichord. For some years following she specialised in broadcasting for the radio, presenting renaissance and Baroque harpsichord and chamber works, as well as a wide range of contemporary music, including jazz. Although her primary devotion was to the Baroque style of composition, she adventurously espoused the cause of popular American music. She was a member of the pop group called Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street and even performed in night-clubs, ostentatiously proclaiming her belief in music as an art of flux.
In 19481 (or 19532), Sylvia Marlowe was appointed Professor of Harpsichord at the Mannes College of Music in New York. One of her many pupils there was the well-known American harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper (from 1960 to 1963), who first was to remain a close friend of hers until her death. In 1957 she founded the Harpsichord Music Society, Inc. to promote new works for the harpsichord and award scholarships for the advanced study of the harpsichord and its literature. This society commissioned works by Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, Vittorio Rieti, Henri Sauguet, and others.
In 1948, Sylvia Marlowe 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. Among the people who visited them regularly at their apartment in New York' 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 she was to become the first harpsichordist ever to make a concert tour of the Far East and Southeast, a tour she did for the State Department's International Cultural Relations Program.
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. The harpsichord was for her, also liberated, modern, and urban, and although she loved her summers in the quiet of the country, like George Frideric 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 colours.
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 centre 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.
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, François Couperin, and Rameau, Purcell's Eight Suites, and a rare collection called "The Evolution of Piano Music". After 78rpm gave way to LP's, 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.