Interview with Rosalyn Tureck

For the New York Herald-Tribune
With: F. D. Perkins
Taped: October 13, 1961

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Of course I have played Bach on the piano in public most of my life, but I've studied the other instruments since I was a child and I know the harpsichord and the clavichord and the organ, too, for that matter, very well and have known them all of my life. And when I play Bach on the piano, many, many considerations are there. My knowledge of the harpsichord, my knowledge of the clavichord, my knowledge of the piano, as instruments, and my musicological work in historical practices and of course the music—as a musician can analyze and understand the structure of the music.

Now all of these things have formed a complex which has resulted in my style of playing. Through these things I have made my own kind of discoveries and created this style. Everyone knows that my style of playing cannot have grown just from being a pianist, and that this wider view was necessary in order to achieve this kind of depth of my instrumental approach.

Now, I'm beginning to play the harpsichord and clavichord in public. Perhaps very few people realize or have been informed that I've always known these instruments and have always played them But when I decided that. I was going to play Bach on the piano as my major work, I did it for some very important musical reasons.

First of all, the piano is our contemporary instrument and it speaks with the most immediacy to us today. And Bach is significant for us today. If Bach weren't significant for us today, then we wouldn't be listening to Bach. That is the first thing. Thus, Bach has a contemporary meaning and the piano being such a tremendously flexible instrument which has so many possibilities—much wider than the harpsichord, much wider than the clavichord, and capable of singing tone, of staccato, of brilliance, smallness, of every kind of touch—is a perfect instrument for this kind of music.

Now, the traditional attitude toward performances of Bach was that either you play Bach on the contemporary instruments or you play Bach on the earlier instruments. But I have never felt this way. It has been assumed that because I am a Bach pianist that I would be against the harpsichord and clavichord, because people tend to think in categories, isn't this true? Now I have always loved the harpsichord and clavichord, but my main reason for playing Bach on the piano was because I felt that, first, it could be musically right if one knew how to do it and that is what I have spent my life doing.

Now that I've proved that it is musically right and this is internationally recognized, I'm beginning to play the harpsichord and clavichord in public in order to focus the emphasis again on this point of view that Bach is not exclusive music, that is, it is not exclusive for one specific instrument.

We all know that the harpsichord and clavichord existed together. They were played by the same musicians at the same time and the same works were played on these very different instruments. We know that the term "clavier" is a generic term and it means "keyboard", and that practically all composers' titles employed the term "for clavier". And the same works were played on a single manual harpsichord, on a double manual harpsichord, on a pedal harpsichord, on a clavichord, or sometimes on the organ. So that the musicians of that time did not have the contemporary point of view of a work for a specific instrument or for a specific sonority.

This view is a contemporary one which has grown out of the romantic 19th century. And this is something I have always pointed out—that the interest in specific sonorities is a 19th century interest. Because we all know that the orchestra grew up in the 19th century (FDP: It started in the 18th century...in its present form.. ..) Yes, it started in the 18th, of course, but it grew up into its present great forms in the 19th century at which time the interest of composers became more and more focused on specific colors—this is my point—and this has been carried on into our day. So that it's a contemporary—well, I might even say it is something like blanketing—it is a contemporary coloration that is given when one says that Bach must be played on one instrument, and this or that sonority is correct and all others are incorrect—Well, to follow right on from there—the claim of people who want to push out all other instruments and have Bach played only on the harpsichord for his keyboard music—if they say this is the correct—color for his keyboard music where is the clavichord? Why don't we hear the clavichord all the time for Bach? Because it's impractical—we can't hear a clavichord in a concert hall. (FDP: It would be fine in this room....) Oh, it would be lovely in this room. Actually I am playing the clavichord in The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. (FDP: Well, that's acoustically ...) Acoustically it is simply marvelous. I have played the clavichord in other auditoriums about that size—at the Glyndebourne Festival I played the harpsichord, piano, and clavichord, and it is also acoustically very good and we had a beautiful screen around the clavichord which directed the sound out. And I had asked the audience to be very, very, very quiet. It's amazing how quiet an audience can get. And it was heard. But the point is that one cannot do major works or major concerts on a clavichord in an auditorium.

Therefore, when one says the harpsichord is the correct sonority for Bach, one is ruling out the clavichord simply because of practical grounds. But this is not historically accurate. So that I feel that those who have been focusing everything on the harpsichord are not being historically accurate, because if they wish to focus on the earlier instruments then they must focus on both. Now, as far as the music is concerned, the music is beautiful on the harpsichord, it is beautiful on the clavichord, it is beautiful on the piano. There are certain things which are better for one instrument than or another and— this is a point which I have seen almost nowhere expressed recently—if you know the piano and the harpsichord and the clavichord very well, you really cannot play the same way on any of these instruments. In other words, you play a certain work of Bach's on the harpsichord in a certain way and then you go to the clavichord—you cannot play it in the identical way. So that the picture is much richer and much wider than is implied when you say the harpsichord is the instrument.

Now my belief that Bach is a universal composer and it isn't a personal belief, it is universally recognized—he is a universal composer in terms of the sheer genius of his structures and forms, in the breadth of his conceptions, intellectually emotionally,—is completely consistent with an inclusive view of instruments. Bach cannot die—an instrument can die—but Bach can never die. (FDP: No, of course not. .) And it becomes such a local little point of view if you insist on one instrument or the other as being the only one. Because Bach is too big for that. (FDP: Yes, oh yes ..... ) And as long as music exists in terms of complex art forms, Bach will always be the great figure that he is. And obviously instruments will change all the time. The piano is not here for ever and ever and ever. It's going to change—it may even go out of existence one day (FDP: ... that would be regrettable.) It would be very regrettable—but at the same time, must Bach, then, go out of existence, too? And if Bach were to be confined to one instrument, then he would go out of existence—Now that becomes quite absurd. (FDP: ... didn't Bach play an early piano every now and then....?) Of course (FDP: he went to Berlin Potsdam...) Yes, he did, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who was a very great musician and who had one foot in his father's past and one foot in our modern times, in his own fine book—his treatise on performance—he himself includes the piano. In the chapter on accompaniment he says the piano, the organ, the clavichord and the harpsichord are the four instruments to be played. And as a matter of fact, he makes the point that for the greatest elegance in accompanying important solo vocal works, the piano and the clavichord are the perfect instruments The piano was still a delicate instrument, but you see that there was no controversy in his mind about the use of these instruments. And this is my point of view also: that this music is inclusive and must not be excluded to a specific instrument. Now that I have established this style—that Bach can be Bach when played on the piano, I am still going on in the same wide direction in which I began, in playing the harpsichord and the clavichord . (FDP: ...now, of course, when we come to certain works... such as the concertos...) The concertos don't have specific instrumental styles, but the Goldberg Variations has rather an implicit specification because of the physical two-manual idea—and the Italian Concerto has also the same kind of implication because of its forms in terms of concerto solo—tutti. Well, that's perfectly all right, that needn't be ruled out—I'm not ruling that out, at all. There's no reason at all why they shouldn't be played on the harpsichord. But at the same time, there's no reason why they shouldn't be played on the piano. (FDP: Good! ... So then, we have made progress...) Exactly! And one must play with as much depth and knowledge of understanding no matter what instrument you're playing on—and in our time this point of view degenerates to a level where as long as one sees a harpsichord on the stage—any harpsichord, the most limited tiny wiry thing—it is considered authentic. (FDP: ... yes ...) And there is so little questioning of the style of playing on the harpsichord. If one plays the harpsichord, one is approved within certain circles—not so much how one plays the harpsichord or what the harpsichord is in itself. There's another point! Today we have to make harpsichords, with the result that the materials in most harpsichords are different from the ones used in Bach's time, thus the actual sonority is different—it is not the golden more delicate sound of the earlier harpsichords. On the whole, more of them are bigger—bigger in the sense of more brilliance. I've played on hundreds of harpsichords in museums all over Europe. Some of them are very big—but big in terms of depth of tone. Thy don't have the brilliant wiriness which makers today are striving for (fortunately not all makers), because the focus of their effort is to make the harpsichord as loud as possible (FDP: which is the wrong thing to do ...) Of course—on any instrument if you strive for that, you always sacrifice quality. So it isn't all that authentic—in the sense that this sound is the sound that Bach heard. (FDP: ... no ... )

Now, we must consider all these things and I'm trying to broaden the general point of view and attitude and understanding about historical matters as well as Bach's music. Fine —the harpsichord—if you play a good harpsichord today you get an approximation of the sonority which they had. But if you play only on the harpsichord, you miss this important realm of the clavichord which was much more important in Germany and where more of Bach was played on the clavichord than on the harpsichord. After all, the harpsichord was the instrument of France— Couperin was the harpsichord composer, not Bach. (FDP: ... true ...) and in Germany in the homes—the instrument was a clavichord, not the harpsichord. The church instrument was an organ, and the life of Germany was in the home and in the church. In France the court dictated the trends and in France the harpsichord was the court instrument. Now, you see there is a very important confusion—to try to push all Bach onto the harpsichord. (FDP: ... yes ...) So what I'm doing—I'm not changing—which might be a superficial immediate impression on the part of some people. I'm not changing at all—I've always had this inclusive wide point of view. I'm going on—and I want to show the true spirit of that music—that can sound on the piano, that can sound on the clavichord, that can sound on the harpsichord, and that spirit needs this breadth of view.

There's one small point I want to cover—some people think it is a big point, but for me it's a small point. That is, some people have wondered: do I try to imitate the harpsichord when I play Bach on the piano. No—I don't try to imitate the harpsichord, or the clavichord, or the organ. But I include all these sounds in my general images of sonority. If I play certain passages staccato on the piano, I'm not playing it just because I'm trying to make it sound like a harpsichord, because a harpsichord has a plucked tone. If I did that, I'd be a superficial artist. I'd be an imitator, and art cannot be achieved through imitation. It has to be achieved through a very deep knowledge, through a deep integration—of sonorities and ideas—if I play a passage staccato, there are structural reasons, there are musical reasons, as well as instrumental reasons, and all together become significant.