| February 15, 2002|
The Memorabilia of Music
By JEREMY EICHLER
blustery afternoon a few months ago, I set out to find a former home of
Sergei Rachmaninoff. The great pianist and composer once lived at 33
Riverside Drive, but when I arrived I discovered that his townhouse had
been razed to make room for a stately apartment building at the same
address. A plaque affixed to the facade tells the passer-by nothing
about the old Russian master but proudly notes that George and Ira
Gershwin lived there years later. I was intrigued by this coincidence.
Like the vertical strata of an archaeological site, New York's musical
history seemed to be stacked on top of itself.
If anyone could
appreciate this observation, I knew it was a wonderful couple I had
recently met only blocks away. There is no plaque on their building,
but inside their apartment the layering of the musical past goes far
beyond the overlapping addresses of yesterday's New York.
Indeed, to enter their home is to find this very history distilled into
the world of artifacts: books, photographs, etchings, paintings,
manuscripts, letters, diaries, quotations, concert programs and
instruments. These objects line the walls, tower high in the closets
and quite literally emerge from the carved woodwork. The only things
they have in common are that they are old and music-related and that
they have been collected by the remarkable husband- and-wife team of
Marianne Wurlitzer and Gene Bruck.
The apartment is a gallery
with elements of a museum, an archive and an antiquarian shop, but none
of these quite describe the space that this couple has created. It is
perhaps better thought of as a variety store of music history where,
for a reasonable sum, you can purchase an actual letter written by
Brahms to his publisher, a first edition of Bach's "St. Matthew
Passion," an original silhouette of Paganini in concert or an
autographed musical quotation from Verdi's "Aida" in the composer's own
hand. There are thousands upon thousands of such items within these
walls. Given how much it encompasses, the gallery fittingly draws its
name from a simple linking of theirs: Wurlitzer- Bruck.
heard of this extraordinary place the way most people do, by word of
mouth. Although they have been in business for more than 25 years, the
two have never advertised or sent out a catalog or even placed a sign
on the door. Business is by appointment only, and they say customers
who are serious have a way of finding them.
When I arrived at
the gallery for the first time, I found it difficult to keep my eyes on
any one thing, so intense was the overload of the curious, the strange
and the beautiful. Everywhere I looked, centuries of history
intermingled and distinct musical traditions competed for scant wall
A Bourdelle bust of Beethoven peered out austerely
beneath a gorgeous Norwegian Hardanger fiddle with a fingerboard of
bone, ebony and mother of pearl. A signed portrait of the jazz drummer
Max Roach levitating in the lotus position hung mischievously over a
quotation from Wagner's "Tannhäuser." A giant 4-by-3-foot original
etching of the Joachim String Quartet adorned a wall next to a blue and
white porcelain cello made as a garden ornament, and on and on.
The main room of the gallery was bathed in a soft afternoon light that
streamed in through large windows overlooking the Hudson. The striking
view, 17 stories up, added to the peculiar enchantment of this place —
a secret musical reliquary in the sky.
After a quick tour of
the apartment, Mr. Bruck and Ms. Wurlitzer invited me to sit down, and
across the two bronze Shan rain drums that they use as a coffee table
we began to get acquainted. Mr. Bruck is a gentle and soft-spoken man
who has had many jobs in music journalism and publishing. Ms. Wurlitzer
comes from an illustrious line of instrument dealers (known primarily
for their pianos, organs and jukeboxes), and she speaks with the
knowing sharpness one might expect from growing up around a family
business, together with the thoughtful wisdom of having reinvented it.
The idea to open a shop selling what they themselves are hard- pressed
to describe but generally refer to as "oddball musical things" came to
them in 1974. They took their first business trip to Europe to start
buying shortly thereafter.
"If we could sell it all when we
got back, fine," Mr. Bruck said. "If not, we'd have all that nice
stuff, and we'd go and get real jobs."
Almost three decades
later, business is still good, and in true mom- and-pop fashion, they
have moved their living quarters to a studio apartment one floor above
Conversation eventually turned to the shop
itself, and the stories began to dovetail one into the next. I quickly
realized that for every one of the countless items in this shop, there
was a separate tale of the research, the hunt, the acquisition, the
provenance and the personalities involved.
The couple clearly
relished telling these charming anecdotes, and they would pass the
narrative thread between each other in midstory or even midsentence
with a practiced ease, like string quartet players handing off a single
melody across several instruments.
Accordingly, I learned that
much of the business they do is in presents. They once selected a gift
to be offered to the emperor of Japan (he was an amateur cellist and
was given a facsimile of original Mozart quartets), and for Woody
Allen, who bought a Gershwin-autographed score to "Porgy and Bess" for
an occasion he did not specify. They also travel frequently to auctions
overseas, including a recent trip to Europe from which they returned
empty-handed only to find the librettos of the first two operas in
history, printed in Florence around 1600, for sale in the building
across the street. (They bought them.)
The couple have
performed dozens of appraisals, another subject of many a yarn. Within
their first year of business, the New York Public Library asked them to
appraise the original manuscript of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony. They
have also appraised the Toscanini estate of more than 26,000 items.
"It was very poignant," Mr. Bruck said. "We got to know him through his
collection, through his letters and even through his eyeglasses, which
you could see getting progressively stronger."
there are the tales of their own families and past lives, and here Ms.
Wurlitzer takes center stage. Her grandfather, Rudolph Henry Wurlitzer,
had a fabled shop in Cincinnati where the great instrumentalists of
music's golden age would stop by.