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The Battell Connection
The music program at Yale owes a great debt to a quartet of talented women from Norfolk, Connecticut.

For more than 100 years, musicians and concertgoers alike have made pilgrimages to an estate in the hills of northwestern Connecticut. The site, home to the Yale Summer School of Music and its Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, was a highly visible gift to the University from the late Ellen Battell Stoeckel. Less well known is the role that the Battell family, particularly its women, played in initiating and supporting music education at Yale.

The Battells of Norfolk were famous for their musical talents. Robbins Battell, Class of 1839, was an accomplished composer and performer, but after his father’s death in 1841, he had to direct most of his energies to the management of the family estates. However, his older sister, Irene, became an organist, choral conductor, and an acclaimed singer.

In 1843, Irene moved to New Haven as the bride of professor William A. Larned, Class of 1826. She brought a new level of music culture to the city, founding the New Haven County Musical Association in 1847. Not long thereafter, she met Gustave Stoeckel, a German immigrant and the first European-trained music teacher in New Haven. She established his reputation in the city and then embarked upon improving the quality of sacred music singing at Yale.

Irene persuaded her brother Joseph to fund, in 1854, an instructorship in sacred music at Yale for Stoeckel; in 1874, Joseph funded construction of Battell Chapel to serve also as Yale’s concert hall and to showcase Irene’s gift of its organ. In 1862 she gave $5,000 to start a library of scholarly music editions. Irene also bequeathed $5,000 to the music fund, as did her sister Urania; and in 1889, her sister Ellen gave $20,000 so the fund could endow a chair in music.

Stoeckel’s appointment as professor in 1890 marked the beginning of the Yale School of Music. After Irene’s death in 1877, Stoeckel said: “Her musical ability . could not but exercise the most beneficial influence upon the cultivation of music both in the city and college. Yale College through the endowment of Mrs. Larned, can proudly claim the privilege of having been the first of American colleges which took music under its fostering wings.”

Robbins Battell’s only child, also named Ellen, was born in 1851, and as her father became a close friend of Gustave Stoeckel, music became an ever-stronger influence in the family home, Whitehouse. Ellen Battell was married only a year when her husband Frederic P. Terry, Class of 1869, died in 1873. Widowed for many years, Ellen married Carl Stoeckel, Gustave’s son and her father’s secretary, in 1895. Four years later they held the first Norfolk Music Festival, an event that soon became nationally known. The Festivals were lavishly produced on the estate, with members of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera performing with the local Choral Union. Chartered trains carried the special guests and internationally acclaimed performers, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Enrico Caruso, and Alma Gluck. In 1913 Jean Sibelius accepted a commission from the Stoeckels for an orchestral work and made his only trip to America to conduct the premiere of The Oceanides in the 1,200-seat Music Shed.

In 1926 Mrs. Stoeckel informed President James Rowland Angell of her plan to donate her estate to Yale for a music school. Two years after her death in 1939, the School held its first summer session and in 1999 added an annual series of fall performances. Gustave Stoeckel’s eulogy for Irene in 1877 applies equally to her niece, Ellen: “She was anxious to diffuse the enjoyment and benefit which she derived from music as widely as possible. She did not dream of making her taste and attainments in this art a source of luxurious enjoyment to herself, or to a cultivated coterie with which it might be shared. Her aim was to elevate the general standard of judgment and performance in music, and to inspire the community with a better appreciation of what is truly excellent.”  the end


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