When she was a child, Rosalyn Tureck’s father would tell her about her grandfather, a famous cantor in Russia: Each year, before the High Holidays, a coach with eight white horses came to the door to take him on tour. Pianist Rosalyn Tureck has toured the world as a consummate interpreter of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach, drawn by the white horses of lifelong commitment.
Tureck was born in Chicago on December 14, 1914, the third of three daughters of Russian immigrants Samuel and Monya (Lipson) Tureck (né Turk—Rosalyn’s father was of Turkish descent). Of modest means, her family observed the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays in a warm atmosphere. Surrounded by music from infancy, she blossomed under fine piano teachers Sophia Brilliant-Liven and Jan Chiapusso, winning a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music at sixteen. At her audition she amazed the distinguished piano faculty by presenting a list of prepared works that included sixteen of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.
At Juilliard, she studied with Olga Samaroff, graduating with distinction in 1935. She made her Carnegie Hall debut on October 18, 1935. In 1937, at age twenty-two, she gave an extraordinary series of six weekly all-Bach Town Hall recitals, earning the Town Hall Young Artist Award. For the next fifteen years Tureck was based in New York, performing, teaching, and touring. Her first European tour was in 1947 and her London debut in 1953. Subsequently, she divided her time between living in England and in the United States.
Besides her frequent performances in Europe and the United States, Tureck toured in South America, Israel, Turkey, South Africa, Australia, and the Far East. Undaunted by age, she appeared radiant in a video of a 1992 concert in Buenos Aires, played to superlative reviews in Florence and Munich in 1993, and made a particularly poignant debut in an all-Bach program in St. Petersburg in 1995. In the program notes she described her childhood in a circle of emigré Russians and the deep debt she felt to the rigorous and passionate training that characterized the Russian school of music.
Although her special relationship with the music of Bach developed early, she did not at first limit herself to the all-Bach programs for which she was particularly known. Her early repertoire included numerous Romantic works, including concertos. She also actively supported and performed contemporary music, premiering such works as William Walton’s Piano Sonata and the William Schuman Piano Concerto. After four decades of performing almost exclusively Bach, Tureck once again began presenting a broader repertoire in the 1990s, while still maintaining her Bach focus.
Rosalyn Tureck performed mainly on the piano, yet she also excelled on the harpsichord, clavichord and organ, and sometimes performed on more than one instrument in a recital, relishing the differences in sonority and in technical requirements. Her most striking accomplishment of this kind was her performance of the Bach Goldberg Variations first on the harpsichord, then on the piano. “You play it your way; I play it Bach’s way,” she once said. Tureck’s interpretation of Bach was based on meticulous scholarship, going back to all extant versions of the text and to works on performance practice, particularly on ornamentation, together with a finger technique she evolved. The goal was that all ten fingers articulate separately and be equally well developed, a triumph over the anatomy of the hand. While occasional critics found her approach lacking in spontaneity, the great majority acclaimed her accomplishments.
Tureck received numerous awards and five honorary doctorates, including one from Oxford University in 1977. She taught at the Mannes School of Music (1940–1944), Juilliard (1943–1955), the University of California at San Diego (1966–1972) and Yale (1991–1993). She lectured at a range of institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Hebrew University and the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In 1994 she founded the Oxford-based Tureck Bach Research Institute, which in 1995 offered its first symposium; the topic was structure in science and music.
Her publications include a three-volume Introduction to the Performance of Bach (1960) and many articles on performing and teaching. She edited a number of Bach’s works, including his Italian Concerto. Her playing has been captured on LPs, cassettes, television, video, film, and CDs. Many performances have been issued in retrospective collections such as Rosalyn Tureck: The Young Firebrand.
Tureck married twice; her first marriage, to Kenneth Klein, ended in divorce in 1945.The couple had no children, but Tureck played a satisfying maternal role for Klein’s two children by a previous marriage. Her second marriage was to scientist George Wallingford Downs who died in 1965.
Rosalyn Tureck credited the Jewish values of her upbringing for her lifelong focus on inner spiritual and intellectual life, her deep regard for scholarship and her lack of concern with external rewards. Rosalyn Tureck, hailed as “the high priestess of Bach,” died at her home in Riverdale, New York on July 17, 2003, on the same evening in which a concert in her honor had been held at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.
SELECTED WORKS BY ROSALYN TURECK
An Introduction to the Performance of Bach. 3 vols (1960); Rosalyn Tureck Live at St. Petersburg, VAIA 1131. Compact disc; Rosalyn Tureck Live at Teatro Colon, VAI 69081. Video; Rosalyn Tureck: The Young Firebrand, VAI 1058. Compact disc.
Dubal, David. “Rosalyn Tureck.” In Reflections from the Keyboard (1984); Gillespie, John, and Anna Gillespie. “Rosalyn Tureck.” In Notable Twentieth-Century Pianists: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Vol. 2 (1995); Lepage, Jane Warner. “Rosalyn Tureck.” In Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies (1980); Mach, Elyse. “Rosalyn Tureck.” In Great Pianists Speak for Themselves (1980); Tureck, Rosalyn. Letter to author, and Rosalyn Tureck Collection. Special Collections, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University, Boston, Mass., and Tureck Bach Research Institute, Oxford University, and Rosalyn Tureck Collection. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, NYC; Duchen, Jessica; “Rosalyn Tureck.” The Guardian, July 19, 2003.
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Feinberg, Harriet. "Rosalyn Tureck." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/tureck-rosalyn>.