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February 15, 2002

MY MANHATTAN

The Memorabilia of Music

By JEREMY EICHLER

Nancy Siesel/The New York Times
Marianne Wurlitzer and Gene Bruck with an English pedal harp in their gallery of ``oddball musical things.''

Other Resources

The Wurlitzer-Bruck gallery is open to customers by appointment only. Information: (212) 787-6431 or
www.wurlitzerbruck.com.



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Photo: Metropolitan Opera, 1938
Photo: Metropolitan Opera, 1938
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One 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.

I first 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 space.

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 the gallery.

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."

And finally, 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.

Continued
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