ROSALYN TURECK: A Memoir


   I first met Rosalyn Tureck, the pianist and Bach specialist who died July 17, when I was sixteen.  Having nothing else to do that summer, I had registered for a lecture series she was giving at the Lincoln Center Library, paying with pennies from my grandmother's cookie jar. 
   It was an eye-opening experience.  Tureck was my first Grande Dame, a species which has vanished in this increasingly politically correct world.  Her abundant brown hair was swept up in a bun (which I would later see removed and tucked away in the closet.)  On stage she seemed large though in fact she was tiny.  Even when she wore high heels she walked on tiptoe.  (Once after I'd known her several years, she answered the door in a towel and tiptoed, barefoot, back to the shower.)  Her favorite lecture dress was of a grey that changed color in the light so that in it she resembled a baby hippo at sunrise.
   The audience consisted of college students, piano teachers thirsting for knowledge from the fountainhead, retirees and aesthetes who believed Bach should only be played on the harpsichord.  Tureck made short work of the last group, showing that Bach's music is abstract; he transcribed freely from one instrument to another, depending on what was on hand.
   There were lectures on ornamentation which Tureck transformed into an art in itself; the kinship between Bach and Chinese music; the distorting influence of the Romantic Era on Bach.  Yet Tureck was far from being a "purist."  "The purists believe that to reveal emotion in Bach is like a lady letting her slip show," she said..
   Much of her work consisted of undoing the stereotypical approaches people took to Bach.  I remember a master class in which a middle-aged piano teacher played the Prelude to the B Flat Partita, changing the ornament when the subject entered in the middle of the piece.
   "Why did you do that?" Tureck asked.
   "I don't know; instinct," the woman replied.
   "Instinct," Tureck repeated with the hollow laugh of one who has heard the response a thousand times.  "What you call ‘instinct' comes from a tradition of the nineteenth century that you've been hearing your whole life.  Bach doesn't change ornaments within a subject.  Tell me, did you do it for ‘variety?'"
   The quotation marks curled sarcastically around the word with what writers used to call ‘thinly veiled contempt.'
   "Yes."
   Tureck nodded.  Where to begin? Bach does not need us to spice up his work and it degrades him even to explain that.
    "Trust Bach," she said.  "He knew what he was doing."
   (Five years later when I was studying with her in Oxford, she played an ornament inconsistently.  I asked her why.
   "For asymmetry."
   I looked at her suspiciously.  "I thought you didn't approve of doing things for variety." 
   She laughed that knowing, seductive laugh that made her sound like Carmen beckoning from a doorway.'
   "I think it's a distinction with a difference.")
   One night as she was talking about ornamentation in Chinese music, a theme I'd heard her expound on before, my mind wandered: There was Mary E. in the previous night's master class who had played the E Minor Partita so ravishingly.  What wouldn't I give...
   Then I heard a phrase that woke me from my reverie:
   "...I've known this since my revelation when I was seventeen."
   What was that?
   "...a revelation I had while playing one of the fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier."
   For God's sake, tell us about your revelation.  To hell with everything else.
   At the end of the lecture she announced: "Thursday evening is our last for this session.  I will accept questions from the audience.  These should be written down and given to one of the ushers during intermission and I will devote the final hour to addressing a few of them."
   The next day I took out her recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, both books, and listened to the whole thing, searching for the fugue that had inspired her revelation.  Her playing of the Fugue in A Minor, Book One was determined as though to prove something.  I thought, "This is it."
   Thursday night, come intermission, I wrote out my question and gave it to the usher who was collecting scraps of paper from members of the audience.
   The final hour arrived.  She answered questions on ornamentation.  Then she said: "The last question is about me."  She looked at the slip of paper I'd handed in and read: "In your revelation when you were seventeen, what was revealed to you?"
   She smiled intimately as though we'd settled in front of the fire for a tete-a-tete.
   "It was a Wednesday in December, a few days after my 17th birthday.  I was playing the A Minor Fugue from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  And I realized how I must play Bach from now on.  I fainted.  When I woke up, I worked in this new way that had been shown to me, really.  That week, instead of bringing in my usual three Preludes and Fugues to Mme. Samaroff, I brought in only one.  I explained to Mme. Samaroff what had happened and how I was going to approach Bach from now on.  She said, ‘You'll never be able to do it.'"
   Tureck smiled for the moral, of course, was, "But as you see, the rest is history."  
   That was it.  Tantalizing stuff.  But she hadn't said what had been revealed to her.
   After the lecture I went back and stood on line in the ‘green room' to pay homage.  All concert halls have green rooms.  None of them are green.
   "Are you a pianist?" she asked.
   I mumbled something appropriately modest.
   She took my right hand and stretched apart the third and fourth fingers.
   "With hands like that, you shouldn't give up."
   It made my summer. The gypsy had spoken.  Like my mother, I had faith in experts.

   Five years later Tureck gave some lectures at Oxford where Isaiah Berlin had helped secure her a Fellowship and an honorary doctorate.  Because of Oxford's low-key approach to publicity, the first lecture was delivered to an audience of two.  One was me.  The other was a man who would have left except that he didn't want to be conspicuous.
   Ever the pro, Tureck went through the lecture with as much enthusiasm as though the house had been packed.  I've liked to tell myself that my rapt attention in part made up for the lack of
numbers.
   Knowing my admiration for Tureck, my Music History tutor arranged for me to have five lessons with her.
   She was a generous teacher who didn't count the clock but continued the lesson for two hours or whatever it took to say what she had to say.  She didn't count her payment either; the college was paying her a nominal sum.  (However a salesman at Steinway once told me, with an edge, ‘She certainly is a good businesswoman.')
   After the lessons we went to Evensong.  Although the service at Christ Church is more well-known and impressive, Tureck preferred the intimate setting of the chapel at Magdalen.  But she eschewed the standing and kneeling that were part of the service for believers.
   She also got a kick out of the Oxford Boat Races and a lunch she'd been invited to at an eighteenth-century house by the side of a stream.
   "So recherche," she said with something like longing.
   She was ahead of her time in every way.  The contents of her book shelves ranged from science - particularly topology in which she saw a kinship to Bach - to Joyce and Burgess who had experimented with fugue as a literary form, to The Joy of Sex (no doubt because Bach had twenty children.)  Her kitchen cabinets were stocked with organic food, an idea I believe she'd been introduced to by Yehudi Menuhin.
   Everything about her was grand, even her pettiness.  She didn't bother to be bitchy about ordinary people.  She saved her bitchiness for Glenn Gould and then she let it rip.  When he died at fifty of a cerebral hemorrhage she said, ‘Not surprising considering how tightly he played.'  Guiltily I thought she had a point although I also thought she might have exercised some hypocrisy and let his dust settle before saying so.
   The people she esteemed were composers and scientists.  They were the creative ones in whose presence she was humble.  (One of her two or three husbands was a scientist.  He died within a couple of years of their wedding.  "That marriage would have lasted," she said.  Another marriage had lasted a few days.)  Great as her talent was, she regretted it did not extend into the realm of composition although her approach to ornamentation and improvization in Bach came perilously close to composing. 
    What was inspiring about her was her absolute confidence.  Whether it was real or a defense I don't know or care.  (It was probably fragile.  Rumor has it that she had a nervous breakdown in her twenties, putting her head down on her arm during a concert - which she was giving - and going to sleep.)  It's what enabled her to make a career out of Bach which had never been done before and probably never will be again.  It's why she could play the Goldberg Variations on the piano which of course has only one keyboard rather than the harpsichord which has two: "No one had told me it was impossible."  She was fond of quoting the American astronauts: "Difficult things take a while; the impossible, a little longer."
   She spoke of playing in India for Indira Gandhi after which she'd been invited to dinner.  The hall was so vast, she said, that the two hundred guests looked like an intimate dinner party.  For dessert they were served cake with gold icing.
   Back at my dorm I consulted my Indian neighbor about this.
   "Gold!" she scoffed.  "Nobody eats gold.  Now silver, yes, we eat."
   One night George, a graduate student in Music History whom I was dating, and I invited her to dinner.
   George ordered fish which he had a hard time filleting.
   "Pass that over here," Tureck said.  "You have to know about anatomy for this."  She was being arch again, as she opened the fish to reveal its feathery bones.  "One day you'll be able to tell people about the night Tureck showed you how to dissect a fish."
  I thought, ‘How she must despise us, to think that we will look back on this as one of the high points of our lives.  So why is she spending the evening with us?'
   We talked about what a small world Oxford was.  I told the story of a letter I'd just received in spite of a comically bungled address (garbled name, wrong college.)
   "That's nothing," Tureck said.  "I used to get letters addressed to Rosalyn Tureck, London, England."
   She seemed to hover on the verge of delusions of grandeur.  (Once when I answered the phone in New York she said, ‘This is Madame.') She sounded not so much like a genius as like a charlatan until one remembered that the boasted accomplishments were real.  I reflected that if, in the hereafter, one met hundreds of people who said they were Napoleon, one of them might be telling the truth.
   "What is your thesis about?" she asked George.
   "German lieder of the post-Romantic era."
   "Mmm... How decadent," she said suggestively.  "And are you a composer yourself?"
   "I wouldn't call myself a composer though I've written a few songs.  To poetry of that period, as a matter of fact."
   "Hm!  You must play them for me some time.  Have they been performed?"
   "Yes.  A student at the Royal College performed them for her jury last year.  As her twentieth century piece."
   "Really!"
   The flattering two-way banter went on.  I grew angry not at being used as a catalyst for this marriage of two kindred spirits but at being ignored; jealous not for my ‘boyfriend' but for her.  I think she thought she knew my type so she didn't need to ask me anything.
   "We should order dessert," I said.  "They're closing in fifteen minutes and the waiter's giving us dirty looks."
   "Well!" Tureck said, looking with amused astonishment at the vigor of my annoyance.  (There's life in the little nebish yet.)  "Let's ask for the menu, then, shall we?"
   "About your revelation when you were seventeen," I said, my boldness feeding on the point I'd just scored.  "What was revealed to you?"
   She laughed and took a deep breath.  "Play the long notes long and the short notes short."
   By this time I knew her well enough to understand this gnomic, seemingly banal statement.  (When I told this story to a critic years later, he scoffed as at an instance of ‘in vino veritas.')
   What she meant was this: The score is only a potential thing.  The performer ‘realizes' the score in the sense of making it real.  Her job corresponds to that of the creator in that she must reveal what he has conceived.  She must not add, but simply make real. 

   After I graduated Oxford, Tureck invited me to go apartment hunting with her in London.
   First we stopped at the bank.  She fumbled with her checkbook, gave up in frustration and said with a dismissive wave: "You do this."
   I was surprised to find someone who knew less about coping in the world than I did.
   Atop the London bus we rode out to St. Johns' Wood, marvelling over the G Flat chord in the Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor.  A G Flat chord in that key is, in Bach's time as in any other, virtually unheard of.  (The apartment, she decided, was ‘too quiet.')     

   I left Oxford at the same time as Tureck and moved to the same neighborhood in New York where we occasionally got together.  She was looking for an assistant, a  lady-in-waiting, really, and asked me if I'd like the job.
   The job, I knew, was that of factotum: Secretary, maid, slave, shrink...
   I was busy, I said.
   But I had a small repertoire of dishes I could cook and I wanted to make one for her: A cheese omelette.  The secret lay in adding milk to the eggs before whipping them up.  Pesto was good too, mixed in with the eggs.
   One night, a week before a concert Tureck was to give in Carnegie Hall, I went over to make her such an omelette for dinner.  She again brought up the subject of my working for her.  I didn't say anything.  But in retrospect it's clear that she took my silence to mean that at least for that one night, I was working for her. 
   "Actually, I don't feel in the mood for eggs tonight," she said as I got down to work.  "Steak, I think, very lean.  Go down to the butcher on Sixty-seventh, this side of the street.  Not the one on Sixty-sixth."  Her voice grew imperious.
   "And don't be longer than twenty minutes!"  And she slammed the door.
   I thought about calling it quits on the whole evening.  But I didn't want to back out on a commitment.
   After dinner she asked again if I knew anyone who wanted to be her assistant.
   "Someone with intelligence, sensitivity..."
   "You mean to be a secretary?"
   "Not just that."  She waxed lyrical.  "It's a job that requires subtlety, ingenuity."
   I mentally added, "and the patience of a saint."
   "You mean like a maid?"
   "Yes," she conceded.  She looked at me suggestively.
   "Sorry, I don't know anybody."
   "Perhaps one of your parents' friends," she said disdainfully.
   Then I did a despicable thing.  "Well, Peter Sellers is dead," I said with a bitchery equal to hers.  Or so I thought.
   "He wouldn't have been suitable anyway," she replied, waving aside the sarcastic suggestion.  She was exercising either quickthinking wit or insanity.
   ‘Go get my checkbook from the desk in the living-room." (She was sitting up in bed.)
   "I didn't do this for money."
   She became coy.
   "Well then, would you take a ticket to the concert?"
   "I'd love one."
   "Call my secretary tomorrow and have her put aside ONE ticket.  What do I owe you for the meat?"
   "Four seventy-two."
   She ripped out a check and signed it.  "Here," she said, handing me the blank check.  "Fill in the amount."
   When I got the ticket for the concert I saw the price: Ffifteen dollars, exactly what I would have earned had I accepted the standard rate of a maid for the three hours I'd been there.

   One night after my son Alex (not his real name) was born, I met Tureck when she was with a feminist writer, Marilyn French.  Afterwards I read French's book in which a character says that all men are rapists at heart.  The character is killed. 
   I disagreed with the assessment of men but it stuck with me.  I wrote to French asking, among other things, if she had a son.  Yes, she answered and reproached me for a common mistake among readers: That of assuming that a character is a spokesperson for the writer.  The character's view was untenable, French said, which was why she had died.
   When I saw Tureck again, we spoke of French's book.  I mentioned the character who believed that all men have the instinct for rape.
   "Do you believe that?" Tureck asked.
   "I can't afford to, can I?" I said, alluding to my son.
   "No," she smiled.

   The last time I saw her, I brought Alex, then two, to her apartment which was stuffed with rare old instruments and artifacts from grateful fans all over the world.  To keep Alex occupied, on the way over I bought a piece of poundcake from the deli.  He crumbled it happily for half an hour.  But crumbs and ants were a small price to pay to keep the instruments in tact.  Tureck thought he was adorable.  She then returned to Oxford for the next thirteen years or so.
   Last year my friend Miriam showed me an article in which Tureck had been quoted.  A cantor at her temple had been accused of molesting a young boy and Tureck, as a well-known congregant, was asked her opinion.  ("It's terrible if true," she said.)
   It took a while before I acted on the information that she was in town.  I was working with a coalition of scientists, parents and Lower Manhattan residents,  trying to get the EPA to do a proper cleanup around Ground Zero.  Alex, now seventeen, had been a student at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks north of the World Trade Center.  Life was fraught so that I could never think about anything else til Friday evening which is not a great time to be calling a temple for contact info.  But eventually I got her number.
   A housekeeper answered the phone.  Tureck was playing the piano as robustly as ever in the background.
   She was living in Riverdale with a view of endless sky.  A friend, a conductor who'd been her student when he was twelve, had recommended the place.  He and his wife lived nearby. 
   "I came home to end my days," Tureck said, with more equanimity than I would have expected her to show in the face of death.  I now wonder how much she knew about the imminence of that end.
   She was writing her autobiography which would have thirty chapters.  ("One for each variation," I said, referring to the Goldberg Variations.  "Very good," she said.)
   I told her about the work we were doing at Ground Zero.  She was intrigued.  But as the country was about to go to war with Iraq, her more pressing questions were about that.  Were there petitions to squelch the idea as she'd like to sign and maybe make some phonecalls.
   Yes, lots, I said, and sent them to her.  I also sent her Clinton's fax number and other contact info.  And I sent her a poem I'd written about 9/11 which was on the Museum of the City of New York website.  I wondered what she'd make of the quatrain:

   WTC, those letters,
   Now a code for grief and fear....
   When I was studying music they
   Stood for the Well-Tempered Clavier.

   She said that in the Spring I should come up and visit.
   Spring came - along with the Iraq war - and went, as the war did not.  The battle of Ground Zero also continued with no end in sight..  When I saw that Tureck had died I kicked myself for not calling to see if she wanted to make good on the invitation.  Then I reflected that burying myself in work is what she would have done.  But I regret letting the time slip by.
   As I read her obituary I thought, "She was one of a kind," but no, she wasn't.  For what kind would that be?  She taught me important lessons about many things besides Bach.  They constitute the revelation that began when I was sixteen.