<< -- 3 -- Jenna Orkin ROSALYN TURECK
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 recherché,' 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 bordered on 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.'
Copyright © 26 January 2005
Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA