The High Priestess of Bach- The Story of Rosalyn Tureck

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Deemed “The High Priestess of Bach,” Rosalyn Tureck is considered by many to be one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  She was extremely well versed in literature, history, philosophy, and many of the sciences, and believed that “A deeper understanding of all these fields enriches one’s own concepts and performance.”  Rosalyn was born in Chicago on December 14, 1914.  She was the daughter of Samuel Tureck and Monya Lipson, and a descendant of Eastern European rabbis and cantors.  Her father was of Turkish/Russian background, and an American customs officer for phonetic reasons changed the spelling of his name from Turk to Tureck.  Rosalyn and her two sisters were all taught to play piano by their mother.

Talented at an Early Age

At the age of nine, Rosalyn began studying piano with Sophia Brilliant-Liven, a former pupil of Anton Rubinstein, and would continue under her tutelage until the age of 13.  It was during this period, at the age of nine, that she made her solo recital debut at the Lyon and Healy Hall of Chicago.  Of her teacher, Ms. Tureck comments, “…she paid me a compliment only once.”  It came during the semi-finals of a piano competition. Brilliant-Liven told her young pupil, “If I had been listening from outside the auditorium, I would have sworn it was Anton Rubinstein himself playing.”  During her studies with Brilliant-Liven, Rosalyn was introduced to the Russian inventor Leon Theremin following one of his performances.  She was fascinated in his electronic instruments, and remained so throughout her life.

From 1929-1931, Rosalyn studied with Jan Chiapusso, who placed emphasis on the repertoire of Bach.  The young pianist began what would become a lifelong effort to pursue and perfect the art of performing Bach’s music.  It was under his instruction that she was introduced to the sounds of Indonesian, Asian and African instruments, thus broadening her interest in different instruments.   In 1931, Rosalyn moved to New York and entered the Juilliard School of Music.  It is said that, during her audition for the school, she was asked to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue.  She replied, “Which one?”; she knew them all.  Rosalyn became a student of Olga Samaroff, who was the American wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski.  During her first week there, she entered to receive a scholarship to study for one year with Leon Theremin.  She auditioned with “God Save The Queen” and won.

A Specific Style

Rosalyn Tureck is considered to be the “High Priestess of Bach”, and dedicated much of her life to perfecting a specific style of playing his music.  The turning point came for her during her first year at Juilliard.  She commented that, “…one Wednesday I started studying the Fugue in A minor from the WTC First Book.  At a certain point I lost consciousness and when I regained it I had a sort of revelation.  All of a sudden I had within my reach a penetration of Bach’s structure, of his entire sense of form… A door had opened for me on an entirely different world.”

Rosalyn’s philosophy of performance involved a reverence for the “vision and structures” of the composer.  She acknowledged that each performer must present his or her own individuality in a performance.  However, she objected to the notion of reinterpreting a piece of music.  She believed that, “…a musical composition is a concrete edifice containing myriad facets of structure and interrelationships.”  In other words, the composition needed to be performed as the composer intended it.

An Electronic Piano and Contemporary Music

Electronic instruments fascinated Rosalyn.  In addition to her studies with Leon Theremin, she also spent 20 years working with Dr. Hugo Beniof, a seismologist at CalTech, to create an electronic piano for the Baldwin Piano Company.  Their goal was to create an electronic piano with the characteristics of a concert piano.  Such qualities included the damping of tones and the sustaining pedal.  Though they made great progress, Beniof died before their work was finished.  Baldwin, rather than perfecting the instrument further, decided to market it as it was.  They launched a substantial publicity campaign, the crux of which was that the piano could play louder than an entire orchestra.  They even arranged a performance at the Hollywood Bowl to demonstrate its capacity for sound.  Though novel, such qualities as bombastic sound do not sell concert quality electronic pianos, and thus the creation was not a marketing success.

Rosalyn was a great advocate and champion of contemporary music, including composers such as Charles Ives and David Diamond.  Diamond wrote his First Piano Sonata for her, and she premiered Schuman’s Piano Concerto.  She also introduced Aaron Copeland’s Piano Sonata to England.  She created and headed the Contemporary Music Society (1949-53) in order to showcase the performance of contemporary works.  Each year, the society hosted four programs by mostly living American and European composers.


Rosalyn’s written accomplishments are no less impressive than her vast performance record.  She authored numerous articles and books, such as Introduction to the Performance of Bach, a three volume set, Authenticity, and Cells, Functions, Relationships in Musical Structure and Performance.  In addition, she held five honorary degrees, appeared in several television programs and films, and performed in numerous European and world tours.  She was also the recipient of a multitude of awards having to do with music performance.  In her lifetime, she released more than 20 albums, and created organizations such as Composers of Today in New York, the Tureck Bach Institute in New York, and the Tureck Bach Research Foundation in Oxford.  Her papers and manuscripts are housed in the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, and her recorded tapes, films, Master Classes, recitals and lectures can be found in the New York Public Library archives at Lincoln Center.

Rosalyn Tureck died on July 17, 2003, at the age of 88.  She was an influence of a great many of her very successful peers, and will be remembered for her uncompromising attention to detail and revolutionary approach to the performance of the music of J. S. Bach.  Her recordings, films, and written works will live on to inspire generations of musicians for many years to come.