“The Steinway is and will ever be on the top.”
“Nobody could make a career in Bach.” Those were the words Steinway Immortal Rosalyn Tureck remembered hearing after she had played an all–Bach closing recital in the 1934 Naumburg Competition. Following this comment from the jury, they selected another winner. But over the course of her long musical career, the “High Priestess of Bach” proved the jury — and many other skeptics — to be wildly incorrect in their assertion. What was unique about Tureck was her ability to make herself comfortable in many musical circles, her ability to master a wide gamut of classical literature, her interests in the arts and sciences, and the breadth of her perspective on music position her in a distinctive category rarely matched by other musicians.
Tureck took the “traditional” approach to becoming a classical musician. Yet, however traditional her approach, the outcome was anything but conventional. She began her first lessons in her hometown of Chicago with Russian pianist Sophia Brilliant-Liven, a former pupil of Steinway Immortal Anton Rubinstein. Being connected with a renowned Russian emigrégave the young Tureck the opportunity to meet and experience a number of Russian composers and musicians firsthand as they passed through Chicago and stayed with her teacher. When Tureck was ten years old, one such meeting took place with Léon Théremin, a Russian inventor most famous for his eponymous instrument, the Theremin. Already infatuated with the sciences, Tureck remembered this meeting, and in c. 1930 she applied for a scholarship to study under Théremin’s tutelage for one year. Her work under Théremin culminated in her New York debut at Carnegie Hall (under Théremin’s auspice and with several other performers) on April 1, 1932, where she performed a Bach concerto on the Theremin.
At fifteen years old, Tureck began working with Dutch pianist Jan Chiapusso. A former student of Theodor Leschetizsky, he was a strong influence on Tureck and her appreciation for a wide assortment of music. Though Dutch, Chiapusso was born and raised in Indonesia and exposed Tureck to the sounds of exotic instruments and ensembles such as the gamelan. Her interests in studying and performing world music later in life — especially from Asia and Africa — are well-documented and developed decades before contemporary interest in world music. Additionally, Chiapusso was an early music aficionado himself, especially interested in the music of Bach. This interest influenced Tureck, so much so that when she auditioned for the Juilliard School, she offered to play a number (some sources say “all”) of theWell-Tempered Clavierfrom memory, a rarity on multiple levels in 1930.
Rosalyn Tureck was placed in Olga Samaroff’s studio at Juilliard. Samaroff was supportive of Tureck’s desire to study Bach, even though many others were not. After graduating in 1935, she presented an all–Bach recital series in New York’s Town Hall in 1937. This six-week concert series included the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, the French & English Suites, the Partitas, the Italian Concerto, some miscellaneous pieces, and her signature work by Bach, the Goldberg Variations. It was this series that led her to receive the inaugural award for the most distinguished performance of the season. After this concert series, Tureck began to be respected as a Bach authority throughout the world. Though few other keyboardists in the mid-20th century desired such a niche, Steinway Immortal Glenn Gould, who gained more popularity, later claimed that Tureck was the “only pianist whom he admired.”
Just as tradition projected, Tureck toured the U.S. between 1937–47, and she toured extensively throughout the rest of the world after that. But it was at this intersection of her professional career that “tradition” took a much different turn. In addition to her lifelong performance career at the piano, she performed on the harpsichord and clavichord as well as early electronic instruments such as the Moog Synthesizer. (For twenty years, she collaborated with scientist/seismologist Hugo Benioff to develop an early electric piano.) As expected, performing Bach on alternate instruments quickly garnered critical review; however, many fervently supported her as well. In an October 19, 1954 Timesentry, a London critic noted that “She demolishes our cherished purism and proves the piano a better instrument than a harpsichord, and better for Bach; even down to the ornaments which the eighteenth-century used...”
Tureck was a renowned teacher of Bach’s keyboard music. Especially interested in ornamentation, she lectured extensively on this topic, among many others. She held teaching positions at a number of prestigious institutions, including Juilliard, Oxford (St. Hilda’s & Wolfson colleges), Princeton, Yale, and many others. It was during this prime of Tureck’s career that she became known as much of a scholar as a performer. She published a wide scope of articles both in music and the sciences in addition to editing several editions of Bach’s keyboard music. Her magnum opus is a three-volume work, An Introduction to the Performance of Bach, which explores everything from the details of ornamentation to the large structures in Bach’s works.
Throughout the past century historically-informed performance has become a vogue phrase in academic circles whose focus is the proper way to perform and interpret early music. In many ways one might consider Tureck such a performer; however, one might just as easily consider her a musicologist. She could also be categorized as an ethnomusicologist, for she argued greatly that one must understand Bach in his context — not in our modern context. Yet, ironically, she shunned restrictions on the propriety of instruments in Bach’s works, playing his pieces on a wide variety of Baroque, modern, and electronic instruments. She wrote in 1999 that Bach’s music was “essentially abstract” since it was independent of specific sonorities. “Performing on period instruments does not prevent the intrusion of anachronisms. The medium is not the message. Great musical art is infinitely more complex.”
She founded and directed several organizations in the U.S. and Europe, often promoting juxtaposing ideas such as early music and contemporary composers. In 1949, she establishedComposers of Today, which worked to bring together composers and performers in hopes of furthering contemporary music. Tureck herself performed a number of works by living composers, including: Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Luigi Dallapiccola, David Diamond (his first sonata was composed for her); Arnold Schoenberg (whom she studied with); and William Schuman & William Walton, both composers who had works premiered by Tureck.
After moving to London in the mid-1950s, she began to focus her energy solely on Bach and his music. In the late 1950s she formed the Tureck Bach Players, one of the most popular early music ensembles in existence at the time. One of the most important organizations started by Tureck was the International Bach Society (1966), a forum setting to exchange ideas between musicologists and performers. Upon returning to the States, she opened another educational organization, the Tureck Bach Institute. Today, the Tureck Bach Research Institute continues based out of her hometown of Riverdale, NY, and serves to promote Bach scholarship and performance.
Rosalyn Tureck led a fulfilling life, accomplishing a vast amount that has often gone unnoticed amidst contemporary pianists. Her discography of at least fifty audio and video recordings stands equal with just about any twentieth-century pianist. Five honorary doctorates attest to her devotion to academic scholarship. Advocating for women in leadership roles remains evident in her title of “first woman to conduct” the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a subscription concert (1958) as well as the London Philharmonia Orchestra (1958); in both concerts, she conducted from the keyboard while performing Bach concerti. And one cannot overlook the biennial Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists, a competition started not by Tureck, but one of her former pupils, Gold Vainberg Tatz, in recognition of her work as a Bach scholar and performer. Throughout her life, Rosalyn Tureck followed tradition, but tradition rarely followed Tureck. She tended to alter its outcome in some unexpected way, almost always for the betterment of music not merely her career. Perhaps this is why her attraction to Bach — considered today the most traditional of composers — will remain such a charming connection. —Jason Terry