by Leman Biret
As the parents of a gifted child, we were always reminded to keep a journal when Idil was growing up and record not only her musical progress but even her daily prating. Unfortunately, we never did get around to do this, and now I greatly regret the lack of any sort of documentation that would help me in reconstructing those good old days. All I can do is to dig into my memories in the hope of retrieving the more outstanding of the countless fascinating and pleasant events.
How did we first discover our daughter’s extraordinary talent? Of all the questions often asked of us, this was perhaps the most common. Actually, at first, we didn’t realize her exceptional gifts. At two and half, she amazed us and made us suddenly aware of how different she was by recognizing melodies she had heard earlier and playing them with one finger on the piano. But even before that, she had given indications of her remarkable sensitivity to sounds. As early as three months of age, Idil would stop crying the moment her grandmother began playing lullabies on the piano. She would start crying when the piano stopped and be quiet when her grandmother started playing again. The radio had the same effect, though no one could tell how she was perceiving the music; whether as musical passages or just as loud noises. When she was three or four months old, she began displaying an astonishing sense of rhythm. Some friends of ours would seat her on their laps and rock her back and forth while singing to her. As soon as they stopped, Idil would, in her fashion, pick up where they had left off, trying to imitate the sounds by saying da da dada [since she could not talk] and successfully repeat exactly the same rhythm.
Yet, about six months later, we became certain that our daughter hated music because her sensitivity had taken such a strange turn. One day, a relative of ours, Nurettin Sazi [Prof. of sociology and amateur violinist] who was visiting us started to play his violin. He had hardly begun to play when little Idil let out a howl that reverberated throughout the small room and he had to stop. She was crying as never before, while we made every effort to calm her down. That incident left us convinced that our child did not like music and we were quite saddened.
When she was one year old, before she could talk, when we tapped on the table the rhythm of a march or children’s song played on the radio she would immediately recognise it and start humming the melody as well as she could. Until about the age of two her play area was near the piano. When she first started crawling, she would go to the piano and bang on the keys with her hands as hard as she could. As she discovered the low and high notes she would look at us with amazement and delight, as if trying to say something to us. At the same time she was terribly afraid of the piano. One day when our friend Vahdet [Vahdet Esmen an eminent Turkish soprano who sang at the Volksoper in Vienna between 1935-39] said to her “let us put you into the piano” in an effort to help her overcome her phobia, she started crying uncontrollably and it took us a long time to make her forget these words.
Another time, when she was two, Vahdet came with several friends playing her guitar and singing. Again, Idil became distressed and hysterical. However, being of an age to know proper from improper behaviour, she felt compelled to explain herself with the excuse that the guitar’s oversized case had frightened her. But when this was removed and Vahdet returned to singing more softly, this time Idil still clung to us, trembling. Subsequently, she got used to her singing when she started the songs quietly, gradually raising the level of the sounds. Sometimes, even the slightest sound from the radio would be enough to make her run away, screaming. We later learned that Nadia Boulanger had exhibited the same behaviour in childhood – the result of exquisite sensitivity to music, according to experts in the field.
Interestingly, the full moon was also frightening for her and even after we had pulled the curtains she would keep looking at it from a raised corner and never let us fully draw them close. Again, she would watch the moon with amazement which slowly turned to happiness. The lamps in our home, too, were a source of wonder for her. When she saw a source of light she would keep looking at it and shout with joy “amba, amba” [“lamba, lamba”, “lamp, lamp”, with the letter “l”, that she could not pronounce, missing].
As she grew up slowly her attitude to music reversed. When going to bed at night she started wanting to hear the piano or the radio; otherwise she would refuse to sleep. When Vahdet sang and played the piano this time Idil started crying when she stopped. She would first beg her to continue saying in broken language “da, da” [“daha, daha”, “more, more”], and if Vahdet did not continue playing she would start crying uncontrollably. One day, hearing the mandolins on the radio created a big turbulence in her little soul. A mandolin group started playing on the radio when she was having her dinner. Idil first listened with astonishment and then tears started rolling from her eyes. It was impossible to make her eat anymore. She put her head on her father’s shoulder and kept listening to the mandolins while crying. From then on she started waiting impatiently for the weekly “mandolin” program on the radio. She would rush to bed before the program started and then fall asleep while listening to it.
This interest did not last long and soon she started preferring to hear orchestral music. After listening a while she would detect the main melody and play it on the piano with one finger. Afterwards, when she reached the age of four, she would play these on the piano with two hands and the correct harmony. Bach preludes from the Well tempered Clavier, for example, which even talented musicians took considerable time to study and memorize, were mastered by Idil in a few days after listening once or twice after which she would play these on the piano without a single wrong note. When she sat at the piano she never “tried” a piece or hesitated before starting to play. That she sometimes suddenly played a long piece which she had heard a few days before gave the impression that she had been mentally working on it all that time. Actually, a surprise confirmation of our suspicions in this respect occurred when we visited Karl Berger [The eminent Hungarian violinist who moved to Turkey in the 1930s] in Istanbul. Idil, who was about five years old then, played a number of pieces for Berger who showed great admiration. Then, she continued and played a Bach ‘Invention’ we had never heard before. Seeing, our surprise Berger asked her where she had learnt this, Idil said “On the train”, ever so nonchalantly as though this was something very normal. Apparently she had heard her teacher Mithat Fenmen [An eminent Turkish pianist, teacher and pedagogue – student of Alfred Cortot] play this work just before we left Ankara for Istanbul by train. That day we knew for certain that she worked on the pieces she heard not with her hands by her mind. (She did something like this later in Ankara, when she played two Bach Partitas that she had heard from her teacher without heaving seen the more than twenty pages of the score). I will never forget the admiration Berger showed that day which bordered on respect. After the first piece he heard, Berger said, with tears in his eyes, “This child is a genius. Thank god for letting me see such a miracle in my lifetime.” He continued to say, “This is a waterfall and no power can stop it from flowing. But, they can change its course. Therefore, she must study with the best pedagogue in the world.” Sadly, we were not to see Karl Berger again who passed away soon thereafter.
It was very difficult for Idil to get used to musical scores. Idil knew the notes by the age of four and she could write the notes she heard because she possessed an “absolute ear”. But, because of her unerring memory Idil preferred to play by ear rather than to sight read and work at length on a score. Lazar Levy [Pianist, Professor at the Paris Conservatory] who was the first foreign artist to see Idil expressed his admiration of this ability of hers by saying that it was “frightening”. Transposition [Playing a piece in a different key from the original], which posed great difficulties for all musicians, was something she did with ease and in all the keys without exception – something which amazed all the musicians who heard her. Some of them would test or try to trip her up by sounding any note and saying that it was a C or E whereupon Idil would be very angry and find the correct note and say that it was not C but B, or, not E but A. When two hand chords were played with ten notes she would tell correctly all the individual notes contained in these. For example Lazar Levy made her turn her back to the piano and played a piece of five or six measures. He then asked Idil to play the same whereupon she came running to the piano and played them exactly the same as he had done. Musical authorities of the time in Turkey later asked Lazar Levy to write his thoughts about this child which he did. In this note he said that in his long career he had seen many a child who showed early signs of development but never such a gifted one. Idil, who possessed an unimaginable perfect ear and unerring memory, must be acknowledged as a genius who would certainly be a source of pride for her country in the future. He then explained how she should be trained and said that he would personally assist her education when she came to Paris.
Idil had such an ability to detect the sounds that she could tell their names from that of a car horn to cups touching saucers. While car horns were monophonic for us she could discern three distinct tones saying, for example that they were in C, E and G. Equally remarkable, she could detect that thunder was in the key of G, the clock struck in B minor or the wind was whistling in D. Car horns were monophonic for us whereas she could discern three distinct tones. The same went for church bells. It was Nurettin Sazi, who first discovered the fact that she possessed an absolute-pitch ear. One day when Idil was around two and a half years old he asked her to give the sound of the note A from memory which she did. When we found on the piano that she had given the correct note we did not know what to say. Others then started asking her in a haphazard way to give various notes and she replied to each giving the right one. On her own she was calling the notes toward the high register “sharp” and those toward the low register “flat”. Apparently, and astonishingly, she had learnt this information from scales played to her with the name of the keys being given.
Her interest with the world of sound was increasing day by day. By the age of four she had also started making small compositions.
Among her first improvisations were several pieces dedicated to Mosques she had seen (and, interestingly, been a little frightened of) in her first visit to Istanbul. After her second visit next year she composed a piece for each of the mosques she visited. She also supplied the lyrics with her inadequate vocabulary of that time with simple titles such as ‘Look what I brought you, Mosque’ for Sultan Ahmed Mosque [The Blue Mosque] which was repeated throughout the work. Previously she had also composed works titled “Fly”, “Doll picking lottery ticket”, “Dance of the thieves” and the like. At the time she was also very impressed when Adnan Saygun [Eminent Turkish composer and musicologist] played her one of his compositions “The book of Inci”. While the work was considerably difficult both pianistically and conceptually Idil learnt it very quickly.
Most of her composing was spontaneous, which she liked, and these were the ones most admired by musicians who heard them. Unfortunately, there was no one around in the house in the early days to write down, i.e., score, what she was improvising, which is a pity. If we had a tape recorder those day we could have recorded her minutes long spontaneous improvisations that were played with a different rhythm and harmonic conception each time. Later, some of her shorter efforts were captured on paper by Evelyn Örge, a student of Mithat Fenmen’s, by making Idil repeat them. We now have about thirty of these. Among these “Train”, “Pastoral”, “Clock Tower”, “Etude”, “Inci and second Prelude”, “The walk of elephants” were praised. Later, Idil’s teacher in Paris Mlle. Bonneville, had her students play these pieces at a student concert at the Ecole Normale. We had discovered very early that if the parents of musical prodigies are themselves not musicians, preferably professional, this is very much against the child. We very much regretted this.
As I said before, my friend Vahdet used to sing at our home while Idil was 3-4 years old. One day, Idil surprised us yet again by breaking into song while at the piano, specifically some ‘Lieder’ of Schubert and Ave Maria by Gounod that she had heard Vahdet sing. Around this time, Professor Çaçkes who was teaching at the Ankara State Conservatory and her wife had apparently showed great interest in this child and were looking for an opportunity to listen to her. One day I met them while taking Idil for a walk. They came to visit us a few days later and Idil played several pieces for the professor and his wife and when she got to Ave Maria, she started singing as well. No sooner had Idil launched into this vocalizing than Mrs. Çaçkes [Dolly Lorenz], who herself was a renowned singer at the Vienna State Opera, burst into tears. At the time countless Turkish and foreign musicians were visiting us to hear Idil. Soon, she was to start studying with Mithat Fenmen.
It was Mithat Fenmen’s father, Refik Fenmen, who one day invited us to attend a concert given by his son and Orhan Borar [Turkish Violinist] at the Conservatory hall and introduced Idil to President Ismet Inönü and his wife who were in attendance there that night. When Hasan Ali Yücel [Minister of Education] told Idil that Inönü wanted her to play, her reply – as though she were waiting for this for a long time – “I will play after the concert” made everyone laugh. When her turn came, she was taken to the piano and seated on top of a pile of musical scores so that she could reach the keys. Mithat Fenmen stood near her and introduced the pieces she would play. We were waiting to see what she would do and the reaction she would get from playing in this surprise situation. As confident and natural as if she were at home she played the Prelude in C Major from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in one go, than moving on to the C Minor Prelude. Idil was not finding the thunderous applause unnatural…and continuing as though performing was something she had been doing forever. Here she was, bringing down the house and causing people to wipe tears from their eyes but she was as oblivious to this as if she were eating at the kitchen table or playing with her toys.
Next Idil played a Minuet from Beethoven’s Sonata op.49. We were in a state of great excitement by this time and thinking that she may also be in the same position we wanted her to stop playing. But, she was resisting, wanting to continue. Later we learnt that she would have played Danse Macabre of Saint Saens and some other pieces. Upon our insistence she was taken down from the stage, again in people’s arms. President Inönü and his wife Mevhibe Inönü showered Idil with praise. Everyone was wiping tears from their eyes. We were sorry that there was no photographer to record the unplanned events of the evening, with Idil on the stage and then on Inönü’s lap with her little arm around his neck while talking with the President.
It was not without reason that Idil played only the Bach Preludes that night without their Fugues. Because there was no one at home who could play a fugue the poor child was unaware of their existence. But, radio was very helpful and she began playing on the piano the orchestral works she heard there, very close to the originals. Later when she heard the Bach Fugues from her teacher she liked these very much and did not want to play the Preludes any longer without the Fugues. She had also made a joke resembling Preludes without Fugues to cups without saucers saying “would one drink coffee from a cup without a saucer?”.
At the same time Idil was showing interest in poetry and drawing. When she was five she wrote pieces called “Green fields”, “Flag” and “Plains” which were found praiseworthy given her age. While only three she had drawn the head of a child calling it her own. Later she drew caricatures of some people with striking resemblance. With the crayons given as presents she was making pictures of houses, fields, mountains, seas with considerable success in the use of colours.
Following her performance in the presence of the President, Idil’s future musical education became the subject of debate in the first next session of the Parliament where it was agreed that everything should be done to ensure that she is raised in the best possible way. After much discussion and consulting with various Turkish and foreign musical authorities, the legislators decided to enact a law (called “the Idil law”), providing for her training abroad. [The law was passed on 7 July 1948].
The newspaper reports of these developments were spreading Idil’s name and more and more people wanted to see the child. Karl Ebert and Ernst Praetorius, the conductor of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra of the time, came and were greatly impressed. Also musicians who were in Ankara for concerts came to visit us. These included Madeleine de Valmalete, Lazare Levy, Lelia Gousseau, Devy Erlich, Hermann Scherchen, Monique Haas, Colette Franz and many others whose names I cannot now remember. Monique Haas had expressed her amazement by saying “I have travelled the world over and never seen such a child before”. In the report he gave to the Turkish Government, Lazare Levy was saying similar things.
They all acknowledged Idil to be a child prodigy. Soon afterwards, an American who heard her perform offered her a concert tour in the U.S. worth $100.000. We turned this down. We also received an offer of admission to the Philadelphia Conservatory in USA who were prepared to waive their minimum age requirement (10 years) for Idil. But, our musical authorities wanted her to receive a very special education.
Another unforgettable event was the following: When a few musician had come together at our home Mithat Fenmen played part of a piece, on purpose, wrongly. Idil came running saying “This record is playing wrong” and then herself played it correctly. We found it very diplomatic on her part to find fault with “the record” and not Mithat Fenmen for this intentional error to test her, and laughed a lot.
Among those who came to our home to see Idil were many ministers, high level officials and other important people who brought her many valuable presents and toys. President Inönü’s daughter Özden had brought a large doll which Idil liked very much and named “Inci”.
There were times when we were afraid of Idil. She would play pieces we did not know and when we asked where she had learnt them, she would say, after some hesitation, “from the radio”. I never forget the day when she played Mozart’s Sonata no.13 “Turkish March” from beginning to end. Almost every day she would do something that took us by surprise. Often she would almost discover what would play on the radio. One day she said “they will play Carmen” and the radio indeed played music form Carmen. Once, in Istanbul, when we lost our way Idil pointed at a passing dog and said “I have spoken with the dog he will lead us to where we are going”. Then when the dog stopped in front of a house we saw that it was the house we were looking for. Another day when we were waiting for a tram which was late in coming she said that we should wait and take tram number 14. A short while later tram number 14 came and we saw that it was going where we wanted. Idil explained this by saying that she had thought of the number of her grandmother’s house which was 14. We would be amazed and shiver at such occurrences which were unexplainable.
In the two years she had studied with Mithat Fenmen, she had made great progress, culminating in a radio performance of Bach’s D minor Concerto on August 31, 1948. The late Nazim Kamil reviewed this concert.
In 1949 when Idil went to France she generated as much excitement as she had done in Turkey. The director of the Paris Conservatoire Claude Delvaincourt met Idil at a lunch hour and after listening to her briefly he called to postpone his other appointment saying that he was confronted with a very interesting case and would be late. He then talked to us for nearly half an hour on who would be the best teacher for Idil hinting that Jean Doyen may be the person. We later learnt that Jean Doyen allowed his students to develop in the way most suited to their personalities without in any way forcing them. Because of this some less capable students even thought he was disinterested as a teacher.
A few days later, Madame Lucette Descaves, one of the teachers at the Paris Conservatoire who had heard about Idil from the Director, invited us to her home. Present were, the famous singer Perrugia, the French Prime Minister’s conference organizer Guy Mollat du Jourdain, the Secretary General of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire André Huot, the Director of the newspaper Images Musicales Jean-Marie Grenier, the correspondent of United Press and Denis Gouarne the assistant of Mme Descaves.
After a few small pieces Idil played Bach’s D Minor Concerto. Lucette Descaves who was frozen with amazement asked Idil to make a transposition. Idil did this without hesitation. Then, Mme Descaves played a Chopin Etude of considerable difficulty and asked Idil to play the same as much as she could remember. When she played the Etude, full of arpeggios, from beginning to end with her tiny hands even we were amazed. The much excited Mme Descaves said that she would take Idil into her class with a special permission from the Ministry of Education (students could not enter the Coservatoire before they were 10 years old). The following week Mme Descaves took Idil to the stage at her student concert, introduced her as “A child prodigy from Turkey” and asked her to play a few pieces. Afterwards, the hall was ringing with applause.
We were exhausted from responding to the questions put to us by many people. Everyone was suggesting a different teacher and trying to prove that this was the most appropriate person. Mme Descaves’ excitement spread to all the teachers at the Conservatoire who were doing all they could to take Idil into their class. Some were sending intermediaries to the Turkish Embassy, some contacted us and Lazar Levy wrote to Ismet Inönü the President of the Turkish Republic. Our Ambassador Numan Menemencioglu was very happy with the excitement created among the teachers and kept saying that this was very good. But, the commission back in Turkey responsible with the application of the “Idil Law” had already decided on Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was not in Paris then. After a few months when she arrived Nevit Kodalli [A Turkish composer and a student of Nadia Boulanger]. Because Boulanger was preparing for another trip she could not listen that day to Idil playing but talked with her and gave her chocolates. Later, in her first report on Idil she would write that “she was stricken by her intelligence”. Mlle Boulanger gave Idil her first lessons during the summer of 1949 in Fontainebleau where she was the Director of the American Conservatoire. On the first day she asked Idil to learn the seven keys and was quite amazed when she came back after a week having learnt them all. At the same time Mlle Boulanger told the Turkish Cultural Attaché that she would not accept any payment for teaching Idil and that she accepted this duty with pleasure and prayed god that she would live long enough to see Idil grow up.
During our first months in Paris Idil was bored at the hotel and with what one could call a feeling of nostalgia she cried almost every evening when it became dark. We went around the city during the day and took her to puppet shows in the parks. She liked very much the subway and tried to read the name of all the stations. Once when she read out loudly the name of the Etoile station pronouncing the word as it sounds in Turkish all the passengers in the wagon started laughing. She soon started taking French lessons twice a week from Mme Poulet.
Before she started her music lessons, following the suggestion of a friend, we took Idil to Marguerite Long. By a coincidence the assistant of Jean Doyen, Mlle Lejour, was also there. When Idil started playing the Bach Concerto Mme Long and Mlle Lejour looked at each other and listened without making a movement until the end. They were both very surprised. Mme Long then said that Idil should perhaps play with Roberto Benzi at the Palais de Chaillot (Those days Roberto Benzi, an 11 year old child, was conducting concerts and was quite well known in Paris). When we told her that the authorities in Ankara did not permit Idil to give public concerts she was very surprised and somewhat annoyed. Mlle Long who called Idil “La petite muse” [The little Muse] invited her to her private Conservatoire and let her students listen to her. Later we learnt that Mme Long was not in good terms with Nadia Boulanger and our contacts became infrequent.
After a wait of three months we finally found an apartment. After spending nine months here we were to move to a better apartment facing Champs de Mars and live there for the next eleven years.
In the fall of 1949 the French Radio made an interview with Idil and recorded her playing works by Bach, Couperin, Beethoven and Debussy. [Later, in February l953 the Radio was to make a second series of recordings with Idil following her performance of the Mozart concerto for two Pianos with Wilhelm Kempff – both of these are preserved in Idil Biret’s archives and available to connoisseurs on CD. The concert with Kempff was broadcast live by the French Radio but regrettably the tapes of this broadcast, also relayed later by BBC and the Turkish radios, have not yet been located. From then on the French Radio regularly recorded Idil Biret and today it has the most extensive archives of her recordings. These include Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Idil’s own transcriptions of Brahms’ third and fourth Symphonies, Liszt Sonata and the three Piano Sonatas of Pierre Boulez].
During that year Idil was introduced to Wilhelm Kempff who was in Paris for concerts [On 15 May 1949]. When she played for him some of her compositions and a few other pieces, Wilhelm Kempff stood up and said to the Consul General who was with us there “I congratulate you and Turkey for this genius of a child”. He then gave Idil his photograph with the inscription “To my little colleague with my admiration” and stated that he wanted to give a concert with her one day.
That magnificent day was to come a few years later, in February 1953. The 2400 seat hall of the Theatre Champs-Elysée was completely sold out and many people had to be turned away [Two concerts were given on 7 and 8 February. Idil played with Kempff Mozart’s concerto for two pianos. The orchestra of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire was conducted by Joseph Keilberth]. The praise the performers received, both on that and the following day’s concerts were excellent. Even Nadia Boulanger, who was against public performances of this sort, was highly pleased with the result. As for the conductor Keilberth, he was smiling with relief earlier having had serious misgivings about a concert with a child whom he had not previously seen.
Marc Pincherle, the eminent musicologist and historian, also met Idil during our first year in Paris. He came to our house with a mutual friend, Koharik Gazarosyan [A Turkish pianist of Armenian origin]. He listened to Idil with increasing admiration and subsequently wrote a long article about her where he said, referring her transpositions and improvisations in the style of various composers, that he had never seen such a thing in his life and that she had played with much more originality than the composers she imitated. To emphasise this in one part of the article he said that Idil’s playing was “more Franck than Franck himself”. He invited us to his home where we met Mrs. Pincherle. As he played the violin Idil joined him in a duo performance. Pincherle was to become a devoted follower of Idil’s progress in the years after that and never missed any of her concerts in Paris.
Koharik also figured in another introduction. One day we went together to a recital at the Pleyel Hall by Walter Rummel, a German pianist. There she talked to Rummel about Idil and he was very interested. Later, Walter Rummel and his wife came to our place to see Idil. She played Schubert’s “Die Forelle” [The Trout] also singing the song. After playing certain transpositions, she stunned everyone by rendering what had been Rummel’s encore at the recital This was one of his compositions that had not yet been published. This reduced both Rummels to tears, and Walter said “This child is a genius. Do not let people see her or hear her and above all protect her from the envy of others” [Many years later Alfred Brendel said to me at one of Idil’s recitals he attended “that Idil’s pianist colleagues feared and envied her”. This made me recall Rummel’s prophetic words]. Then the Rummels stayed for a long time and received much information from us about Idil.
Those music lovers who did not have mutual friends with us were calling or sending messages through contacts saying that they wanted to come to see and hear Idil. The famous writer Edmond Rostand was one of these. Mlle Boulanger was very much against such visits. But we could of course not be responsible for unannounced visitors accompanying friends.
Wilhelm Backhaus who was in Paris expressed the desire to listen to Idil and a meeting was arranged at the Turkish Embassy [On 23 October 1949]. Idil played many pieces for him. Backhaus was quite excited, particularly when he noticed with surprise that she was playing all the pieces without using the pedals. He said that playing like this he could not create the same effects. Then, in return, Backhaus played for Idil Bach’s Italian Concerto. He suggested that a film should be made to keep a memory of Idil’s childhood years. Years later, at a ceremony in Germany celebrating his 85th birthday, Backhaus asked Idil to perform and she obliged him with a Beethoven Sonata [She played the Sonata op.18 no.2. Backhaus then asked Idil to come and work with him and a date later in the year 1969 was arranged. Sadly, he passed away shortly before this.].
Around the same time Kempff took Idil and us to Madame de Prevot, one of Liszt’s grandchildren. I never forget the moment Idil stood up in order to reach the pedal and ended up breaking it. Kempff found this amusing, and laughing said that Idil would be quite a sensation in America if she were to do the same thing there.
Again one day following the suggestion of Wilhelm Kempff, Madame de Prevot introduced Idil to Alfred Cortot at the Ecole Normale. When Idil started playing the third Prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Cortot’s attention peaked. He asked Idil to play the same piece also in the f sharp key which she did without any hesitation. Thereupon Cortot got so excited that he called another professor, Jules Gentil, to come and listen. Upon learning that she would study in Paris under the tutelage of Mlle Boulanger he said that Idil would be in good hands. Later, after completing her training at the Paris Conservatory, Idil went on to take individual lessons from Cortot which lasted for to years until he passed away. Cortot also refused any payment for these lessons and gave Idil gifts of scores which he had edited.
Idil’s studies at the Conservatory were going very well. In l952 in Solfege Superieur and Dechiffrage she received her first Medaille with the highest score. In June l957 she graduated form the Conservatory with the highest honours as the first in all her classes, receiving Premiere Prix in Piano, Chamber Music and Piano Accompaniment.
The following year in 1958, upon the invitation of the Turkish Government, Nadia Boulanger went to Turkey and conducted orchestras in Ankara and Istanbul with Idil as the soloist [Idil played the following works – Schumann Concerto, Mozart Concerto K.491 and the Symphonic Variations by Cesar Franck]. Mlle Boulanger stayed involved with Idil with increasing interest until then end of her life. Talking to some of her close friends she is reported as saying “God sent me in the form of this little child the soul of my deceased sister. This is unbelievable.” On Idil’s birthdays and at each new year she would give her gifts of valuable music scores and books, records, toys, electric trains and flowers [Boulanger once gave Idil the picture of an angel writing as follows on the side, “To my little Idil, at Christmas 1959 wishing that the Angel will guide and protect her in the beautiful and perilous road on which she is setting out. With all my heart. NB”. These were prophetic words indeed.] She always said that she loved Idil very much and once on a BBC program in UK she stated that Idil was her most valuable and best loved student. The eminent musicologist Marc Pincherle was a great admirer of Mlle Boulanger but he differed with her on some points. He thought that Idil should give public concerts at least once every few months. Nadia Boulanger, on the other hand, would not permit this. The teachers at the Paris Conservatory were also unhappy saying that Mlle Boulanger should have at least let them hear Idil’s playing privately if not at public concerts. After Idil’s graduation from the Conservatory Boulanger arranged a Mozart concert for her at the Singer Polignac residence. She invited the President of the French republic Vincent Auriol to this concert which she conducted in front of a very select audience.
While she was still studying at the Paris Conservatory the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels heard Idil play [The Schumann Fantasy op.17] at Mlle Boulanger’s home. He was very impressed and invited Idil to make a concert tour in the Soviet Union. This became a source of joy to us all and it was decided that she would undertake the concerts in Russia following her graduation from the Conservatory. Idil’s first tour in l960 turned out to be the most memorable event of that period. Originally planned for 32 days it lasted over two months with the addition of many more concerts. She played in Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Kiev, Stalingrad, Harkov, Rostov, Kisinov, Krakau and many other cities whose names now escape my memory. We were all delighted by the warmth and intensity of the Russians’ response to Idil’s playing. The audiences were so enraptured that they would demand six or seven encores at each concert. Everyone wanted to give her something, whatever they had there and then – a score, a record, a candy, a flower. Some brought poems they had written for her during the concert or before. Orchestras asked her for signed photographs. At her concerts in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Hall we saw many women and even a colonel in uniform crying. A women sitting next to me, with tears rolling down her cheeks told me “Do you know that they do not let everyone play in this hall”.
[I witnessed similar events many years later. A Russian piano teacher, the mother of the pianist Evgeny Mogulevsky, who had heard Idil in the 1960s in Odessa met her again in Brussels in 1999. She started crying and took Idil’s hands in hers murmuring “you were always the greatest for me”. After her concert with the Leningrad Philharmonic at the Istanbul festival in 1983 where she played Rachmaninov’s 3rd Concerto, the conductor Alexander Dimitreev came to her home. He kissed Idil’s hand and said “In the Soviet Union there is no women pianist who can play this concerto the way you did yesterday. The number of men who can do so can be counted with the fingers of one hand”.]
Eminent Soviet musicians and the great composer Aram Khatchaturian came backstage after the Moscow concert to congratulate her. The public lined up on the stairs to get Idil’s signature and surrounded her car. The police had to clear the way to let our car return to the hotel, so thick was the crowd wanting to get near to her. The eminent conductor Kyril Kondrashin was also there and he talked with Idil about their joint concert planned to take place next year in London. This concert with Kondrashin had to be cancelled when Idil caught the measles. [A further scheduled concert with Kondrashin in 1979 in Brussels had a change of conductor when Kondrashin could not leave the Soviet Union]. In future years Idil would return to the Soviet Union several times to give many more concerts. In her second tour in addition to the cities of the first tour she gave concerts in Minsk and cities in the Ukraine. In her third tour we also crossed the mountains into the Caucasus and she played in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku. In Yerevan Armenians who had gone there from Turkey gave us a warm welcome and took us to see the sights in the city. At her concert the hall was filled to the last seat as at all her other concerts. In Baku the eminent Azerbeicani conductor Niyazi Tagizade conducted her concerts. Afterwards, we did not accompany Idil anymore in her tours in the Soviet Union, so I do not know the cities she visited.
Another most poignant memory from that time involves Harriet Cohen, the brilliant British pianist, who, tragically, could no longer play due to an illness. Harriet Cohen attended a private recital given by Idil at the Turkish Embassy in London in 1961 and was greatly impressed, so much so that the Harriet Cohen- Dinu Lipatti gold medal was then awarded to Idil. This annual award had been created to honour the most acclaimed young virtuoso of the year. The British impresario Ian Hunter who was present at this recital started organizing concerts for Idil in the UK.
[The memoirs of Mrs. Leman Biret end here.]
This is the translation of the brief memoirs by Idil Biret’s mother covering Idil’s childhood and younger years until about the early 1960s, written shortly before she passed away in l988.
One important event missing from her notes is Idil’s encounter with Arthur Rubinstein who greatly admired Idil when he met and heard her play in Paris in the early 1950s. He invited Idil to appear on a television interview with him where he introduced her to the public as a greatly gifted young musical prodigy.
Translated from Turkish into English language
and copyright by Sefik Yüksel, January 2001