Instruments and I

by Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

It may have come as a shock to some to see that I performed the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in the opening recital of my series this season at Carnegie Hall. It was nothing new to me, for it had been a "warhorse" of mine between the ages of 14 and 16.

Admittedly, that was a long time ago and I have not played any transcriptions since the age of 16. In the field of Bach, my entire concentration for the rest of my life has been on the original music of Johann Sebastian. But apropros of Busoni, the studies and activities which represent my lifelong interest go far beyond the music of a single composer — even one who is perhaps the greatest produced in Western culture. It was due to my catholic interests in music that I gradually channelized my work with all other composers, past and contemporary, to focus on the one who in my opinion encompassed them all. My choice of Johann Sebastian Bach was the result of having spent years studying and concertizing extensively in programs which embraced three centuries of music. For about 12 years following my debut, I had two parallel careers — one in the broad canvas from pre-Bach through avant-garde contemporary music, and the other, in the deepening specialization of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I made my "mature" debut at the age of 20 (my childhood debut at the age of nine) as a result of winning what was, at that time, the greatest piano competition in the world, the combined Schubert Memorial and National Federation of Music Clubs Contests. The Schubert Memorial Award provided my orchestral debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, my debut concerto was the Brahms B-flat. The National Federation Award was a solo recital. My programs included a work of Bach, the Handel-Brahms Variations & Fugue, six Chopin Etudes and the G minor Ballade, Triana by Albeniz, Ravel's Ondine, a Debussy Prelude, and Stravinsky's Danse Kastchei, from the Firebird Suite, arranged by Agosti. For the following 14 or 15 years, my solo repertoire ranged through conventional and unconventional piano repertoire, and my concerto repertoire ranged from Mozart through Beethoven and Brahms to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. A few years after my debut, I performed the world premieres of piano concertos by William Schuman, Vittorio Giannini, and Wallingford Riegger. My first all-Bach series took place two years after my debut, when I was 22, six weekly concerts in six weeks. The programs contained all the 48 Preludes & Fugues, Goldberg Variations, Partitas, Suites, and miscellaneous works. It was this series which won for me the first Town Hall Award for the most distinguished performances of the year and which made mine a double career — The Bach "specialization" and the music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

But I am getting ahead of my story, for when I was 17 I had made my first appearance in New York City at Carnegie Hall, playing an electronic instrument — the Theremin. At the age of 10 I had heard a concert of electronic instruments made by Leon Theremin: I met him that night backstage and still remember the profound impression of his instruments. Six years later, I applied for and won a scholarship to study with him during my first year in New York as a Juilliard student. He was not connected with Juilliard and my studies with him were quite apart from my associations and studies at the School. I learned to play two different Theremin instruments under his tutelage. It is virtually unknown that I made my New York debut at Carnegie Hall playing, at age 17, a Theremin instrument.

My interest in contemporary music led me to create a society "Composers of Today" for the performance of second performances and major works by living composers. The emphasis was on American composers but European composers also were featured. I presented four concerts every spring, planning and selecting programs which included Milton Babbitt, Ives, Schoenberg, Leon Kirchner, Stefan Wolpe, the first tape music concert in the U.S., etc., etc. The Society functioned for four consecutive years, from 1948-1952, ended only by my expanded international career which caused me to change my residence from New York to London.

About 15 years ago, I presented an electronic concert with Moog's first synthesizer at one of the events of the International Bach Society which I created in 1966. On that particular occasion, I performed the F minor Sinfonia on the clavichord, harpsichord, piano, and the Moog. My interest and involvements with electronic instruments was never lost. I had been for 20 years a regular consultant to Dr. Hugo Benloff, the inventor and developer of the electronic piano, which was financed and produced by Baldwin.

My activities with electronic instruments and contemporary music did not preclude my lifelong involvement with period instruments. I began the study of the organ, harpsichord, and clavichord at age 14 and was playing all-Bach recitals at ages 15 and 16 before I ever entered Juilliard. And I may as well corroborate here the legend still extant at Juilliard that at my entrance examination the jury was asked "Which Bach Prelude & Fugue would you like to hear?" Juilliard students frequently line up in the queue backstage to ask me whether this is true or false. It is true. At 16, my entrance examination program contained besides these works from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Beethoven Sonata Op. 2 No. 3, Chopin Ballade in G minor, and La Campanella by Paganini-Liszt. My films contain performances which embrace this repertoire on clavichord, harpsichord, piano, organ, and the Moog.

Conducting activities began in 1956. The first engagement was four concerts with the Collegium Musicum of Copenhagen, the second comprised three concerts with the Philharmonia in London, the third, four appearances directing the New York Philharmonic in their regular series at Carnegie Hall. Since then I have had my own chamber orchestra, the Tureck Bach Players, for 12 years in England and more recently in the United States and have worked with many orchestras throughout the world.

The sum of this varied experience is a view that Bach himself embraced, as evidenced in Bach's own music contained in the programs of the current Carnegie Hall series — instruments are fascinating, but music comes first. The hundreds of instances of his varied settings of the same music for instruments and combinations of polar differences constitute a statement through his own composing practices that performance media remain the media, and are not to be confused with the message — that is, the music itself.

The medium is not the message — It is a vehicle, a secondary factor, which conveys the message, and we as artists must not be misled by involvement with an instrument; we must retain our focus on the primary matter — the work of art itself — the music.

  • These concerts were recorded and the tapes form a section of my recorded archives at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. They are available there for listening and study.