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A memoir by JENNA ORKIN of


I first met Rosalyn Tureck, the pianist and Bach specialist who died in 2003, 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, by 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 imposing 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 hue 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'.
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.')

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Copyright © 26 January 2005 Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA


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