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Irene Battell Larned, champion of music at Yale

Irene Battell Larned

Anyone familiar with Yale and its surroundings will have heard the name Battell, the family whose donations bolstered the college’s arts and humanities in the late 19th century. Perhaps the most familiar name from that family is Joseph Battell, for whom Battell Chapel is named. But the distinction of the most influential Battell, when it comes to Yale’s musical life, should perhaps go to Irene Battell Larned. As the instigator of (or inspiration behind) the first endowment for music at Yale College, Irene began the legacy of supporting music at Yale.

Much of what is known about Irene Battell Larned as a person comes from Memories of an Elect Lady, a book of letters and recollections compiled by her family and published upon her death. Irene was born on November 14, 1811, in Norfolk, Conn., where her family’s influence on the town’s musical culture is still felt today through the annual Yale Summer School of Music/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Her grandfather was the first minister of Norfolk, and Irene’s upbringing in the church gave her a musical outlet as she began to play the village church’s pipe organ at age 11. In Memories, Irene’s sister Urania recalled the joy that music brought the Battell family, writing, “Music became our pastime. At every gathering in-doors and out, party, sleighride or picnic, we sang.”

As a teenager, Irene began to use her musical skills to teach, reportedly spending hours each evening drilling villagers on choral parts for ordinary church services as well as for occasional concerts, which she organized. One contributor to Memories wrote, “She threw her whole soul into these concerts, imparting courage to the timid, correcting and assisting every one who had a part to perform, and always doing this kindly that every one felt it a privilege to be under her criticism.”

Irene moved to New Haven when she married Yale professor William Larned. In New Haven, she continued to encourage the spread of high-quality music-making. In the late 1840s, Irene helped found the New Haven County Musical Association and the Mendelssohn Society of New Haven, organizations through which the public were treated to performances of oratorios by Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. Irene performed the soprano solos in these works to great acclaim. One listener likened her to Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano of the day. Dr. Gustave Stoeckel, Yale’s first music professor, was a prominent contributor to Memories, in which he wrote about finding a champion in Irene upon arriving in New Haven from Germany in 1848. “By her assurance of help and support," Stoeckel wrote, "I gained confidence in myself and hope of success in my profession."

In 1862, Irene, feeling that music had been neglected as an area of study at Yale College, contributed generously to the musical fund she had encouraged her brother Joseph to establish in 1854. She also donated large sums for the acquisition of scholarly music books and for the care of the organ in Battell Chapel. After Irene died, on May 5, 1877, a funeral service was held in Battell Chapel. Stoeckel led a choir of Yale students and alumni who had come to appreciate Irene's gifts to and presence in Yale’s musical community.

At a time when exceptional classical music in America was still a fledgling pursuit and hardly a focus in the country’s universities, Irene Battell Larned’s passion for the discipline inspired many to recognize its importance and ensured a place for it in Yale’s future.

Read more about the Battell family's contributions to the School of Music in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of Music at Yale.

Soprano Adrienne Lotto '20MM is a student in the early music, oratorio, and chamber ensemble program at the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.