December 14 marks the centenary of the American pianist Rosalyn Tureck. The legacy of Tureck, who died in 2003, is being commemorated with CD releases and a recital dedicated to her at New York’s 92nd Street Y by her student, guitarist Sharon Isbin. Critic Harold Schonberg called Tureck the “high priestess” of Johann Sebastian Bach performance. Tureck was naturally an exalted interpreter, a form of kohenet of Bach. Her grandfather was a cantor from Kiev who on High Holy Days toured in a coach drawn by eight white horses, according to family legend.
Born in Chicago, Tureck was encouraged by her parents to study the piano as part of a more ambitious intellectual program. At age ten, Tureck was taken by her piano instructor Sophia Brilliant-Liven to a Chicago concert by Léon Theremin, the Russian inventor who devised the theremin, a pioneering electronic musical instrument performed by Clara Rockmore (born Clara Reisenberg to a Lithuanian Jewish family). The newfangled instrument fascinated Tureck. Later describing the sound of the theremin as “much more abstract than what you hear on most keyboard electronic instruments,” Tureck was also drawn to its eerily mystical air. At the Juilliard School of Music, which she entered at age sixteen, Tureck won a scholarship to study electronic instruments with Theremin, and her debut at Carnegie Hall the following year would be on the theremin, not the piano.
This early interest in research and invention would remain a distinctive part of Tureck’s approach to music. Few pianists grappled with the theory, form, and structure of Bach’s musical ideas in performance the way Tureck did. Sometimes this could result in unusually deliberate, emphatic phrasing, as if the pianist were trying to drive certain notes through listeners’ skulls directly into their brains. More often, a lively conviction radiated from the renditions of Tureck.
Much later, Tureck would tell an interviewer, Alan Ampolsk, that she was drawn to friendships with scientists, most of them Jewish emigres fleeting Fascist Europe who found refuge in the New York academic world. In her early twenties, after a recital at Columbia University’s McMillan Theater, Tureck was invited to the home of the Austrian Jewish biophysicist Selig Hecht (1892–1947), a Columbia professor. At Hecht’s weekly dinner parties, Tureck met and schmoozed with scientists such as the Galician-born Nobel Prizewinning physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898–1988) who, apart from sharing insights with Tureck about nuclear magnetic resonance, also taught her to play the musical comb.
Among Tureck’s circle was another Nobel laureate, Otto Loewi (1873–1961) a German Jewish pharmacologist known as the Father of Neuroscience; also Ernest Nagel (1901-1985), a philosopher of science of Slovak Jewish origin. At social gatherings, Tureck would lecture informally about the science involved in piano playing, such as how sound is made by the instrument, and would later entrance such high-level thinkers as philosopher Isaiah Berlin, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the founder of fractal geometry.
Mandelbrot’s fractals would so intrigue Tureck that she drafted a letter to the editor, destined to remain unpublished, in response to a 1990 article by Taiwanese mathematicians on the fractal geometry of music which was published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.” Tureck sternly noted: “This is not to say that the possibility of analysis of music in terms of Mandelbrot’s theories is impossible. However, so far the giant strides and subjective assumptions of this paper are utterly invalid… This has nothing to do with Johann Sebastian Bach’s processes of thought and composition whatever, and the imposition of the authors’ is astounding.”