Born on December 14, 1914, in Chicago, IL; died on July 17, 2003, in Bronx, NY. Education: Studied piano with Sophia Brilliant-Liven, 1925-29, and with Jan Chiapusso, 1929-31; studied harpsichord with Gavin Williamson, 1931-32; studied theremin, an electronic instrument, 1931-32; studied piano with Olga Samaroff at Juilliard School of Music, 1931-35; graduated from Julliard, 1935.

While classical pianist Rosalyn Tureck has often called "The High Priestess of Bach," the title, richly earned through her lifetime devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, may be somewhat misleading. To the public, a musician whose career is dedicated to eighteenth-century Baroque music may conjure up images of an arcane obsession with the music of the past, or a lack of interest in modern music. In Tureck's case, however, a more accurate image would be that of a Renaissance woman, a free and restless spirit, a great virtuoso and musical scholar whose passion for Bach implied a profound knowledge of, and interest in, a whole range of music in its astonishing richness.

Tureck was trained as a pianist in the great Russian piano tradition. Her teacher Olga Samaroff was a student of the legendary Anton Rubinstein, and she played much of the traditional classical piano repertoire. She also gave pioneering performances of twentieth-century American music. Tureck, just like her younger colleague Glenn Gould, always wondered about the possibilities of her instrument, never taking it for granted and constantly investigating the mysterious synergy between player and instrument. Thus Tureck not only mastered the harpsichord but also explored modern media, learning to play the theremin, an electronic instrument invented in the early 1920s by the Russian engineer Leo Theremin. The player does not touch the theremin but produces tones from a distance by activating the instrument's motion-sensitive antennas.

Bach as Alpha and Omega

While training to become a world-class pianist, Tureck absorbed the Romantic repertoire, developing a technique that would enable her to meet the extraordinary technical challenges of nineteenth- and twentieth-century piano music. However, early in her career, Tureck decided that, for her, Bach was the Alpha and Omega of music. With this decision, Tureck challenged an unwritten rule of piano career-building--namely, that one does not become famous by playing Bach. Bach is indeed great, the received wisdom went at the time, but his pieces lack the formidable technical obstacles that only extreme virtuosity can overcome. At the time, pianists became famous by playing the challenging Romantic works of Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov.

Tureck tried to look beyond sheer technical skills, however, and to find the essence of the music she performed. Since Bach's keyboard music is not obscured by purely technical features, she became interested in its pure formal structures and in its flow of energies. Tureck came to see Bach as not only a key composer of the Baroque era of the early 18th century but as an essential creator in the entire history of Western classical music. In Bach's finely wrought, multifaceted, impeccably constructed, intellectually enriching, and profoundly inspired music Tureck saw the foundation of the entire Western musical tradition that followed.

At a time when many musicians strove to attain stylistic purity by performing Baroque music on "period" instruments built in Bach's day, Tureck openly rebelled, insisting that Bach's keyboard music played on a modern piano is no less authentic than Bach played on a harpsichord like those for which it was originally written. In fact Tureck was taking a cue from Bach himself, who composed his Art of the Fugue as pure music, without any clear indication that it was written for any particular instrument or instruments.

Became Internationally Known

In her 1936 debut with an orchestra, in New York, Tureck played the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. Continuing her career as a concert pianist, Tureck initiated in 1937 a series of recitals of Bach's music, supplementing her performances with educational activities. Bach, according to Tureck, could not be taken for granted; in other words, each new performance of a familiar work was an opportunity to gain new insights into the mysterious essence of Bach's music. After her European debut, in 1947, she performed worldwide, bringing her profound understanding of Bach to wide audiences.

In 1960, Tureck started performing as a harpsichordist, again striking out in original directions. While some critics described her harpsichord style as pianistic, others found that her highly individual playing revealed new dimensions of keyboard music. The individualistic nature of Tureck's playing, which sometimes placed heavy demands on hearers, prompted some critics and observers to compare her unfavorably with the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose recordings of Bach's music, particularly the two versions of the enigmatic Goldberg Variations, received immense popular acclaim. Yet Tureck had her defenders as well. Describing Gould's playing as simplistically direct, critic Alain Lompech, writing in Le Monde, observed that Tureck's "more complex," less transparent and less accessible performance created "an image of Bach that is at once archaic, timeless and sensitive without being expressionistic, analytical without being motoric."

Sought Essence of Bach's Works

Indeed, as a performer who, just like any listener, initially had her own feelings about what particular works were like, Tureck struggled to reveal the inner, unchanging, objective essence of a Bach piece, the inner time that, paradoxically, makes Bach's music timeless. Experiencing a Tureck performance may prompt the listener to wonder about her slow-paced phrasings and meticulous, even excessively thoughtful ways of playing the music. But many hearers found that Tureck's performances brought them back to Bach's music with new questions and insights. After beginning to play the harpsichord, Tureck turned to other keyboard instruments including the harpsichord's quieter cousin the clavichord, and she even played electronic instruments. Tureck's experiments with various instruments only confirmed her insight, gained at the beginning of her career, that Bach's music could not be reduced to a particular medium, that a perfectly constructed fugue, played on any instrument, simply revealed its creator's genius.

In order to understand that genius, Tureck believed, the performing artist also had to be a scholar. Throughout her career, Tureck maintained a remarkable artistic and intellectual balance: neither facet of her work was ever subordinated to the other. She tirelessly shared her knowledge, publishing numerous articles and a three-volume Introduction to the Performance of Bach, and lecturing at many distinguished educational institutions including the Juilliard School of Music, Princeton, Oxford, and Yale. She also shared her consummate artistry by regularly giving master classes for young musicians. In addition, Tureck channeled her boundless enthusiasm in a variety of ways, organizing research activities and even founding major organizations, such as the International Bach Society, in 1968, and the Tureck Bach Research Foundation, in 1981, whose activities include academic conferences and scholarly publications. From 1997 until her death in 2003, Tureck was affiliated with Oxford University's Institute for Advanced Musical Studies.

Tureck's legacy, like her life, is rich, multifaceted, and inspiring. Her recordings, particularly of such Bach works as the encyclopedic Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations, remain a repository of musical wisdom and intelligence, and her students continue her mission of exploring the infinite universe of Bach's music. Interestingly, one of her most famous students is not a keyboard player at all. When the American classical guitarist Sharon Isbin decided to tackle the monumental task of playing Bach's music in guitar versions, she did not, as would be expected, seek advice from a more experienced guitarist. Instead, she went to Tureck and studied with her for several years. As Isbin's recordings show, Tureck's thinking about Bach lived on after her death in the world of classical music. Isbin's playing completely confirmed Tureck's, and Bach's, view that a musical work of art sprang from sources deeper than its instrumental medium.

by Zoran Minderovic

Rosalyn Tureck's Career

Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, faculty member, 1935-72; Mannes School, faculty member, 1940-44; Juilliard School of Music, faculty member, 1943-55; Columbia University, faculty member, 1953-55; University of California (San Diego), faculty member, 1966-72; Oxford University, Visiting Fellow, 1975 and 1978; University of Maryland, lecturer, 1981-85; Yale University, lecturer, 1991-93; University of California, Regents' Lecturer, 1995; held annual Master Classes at Oxford University, 1995-2002; Institute for Advanced Musical Studies (Oxford), member, 1997-2003.

Rosalyn Tureck's Awards

Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit, government of the Federal Republic of Germany, 1979; Musician of the Year award, Music Teachers National Association, 1987; included in the Philips label Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century CD series, 1999; received honorary doctorates from numerous universities, including Oxford.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Just saw/heard her on Classic Arts Showcase..Goldberg Variations 1,5,11,16,22,26,and 29 recorded in 1960. Her fingering was fascinating as well as expression. I'm sorry that I was never able to see her perform.