Rhinegold Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Leloir/Warner Classics

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Zuzana Růžičková (14 January 1927 – 27 September 2017)

3:33, 2nd October 2017

Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková has died aged 90.

A key figure in the revival of the harpsichord and a devotee of Bach, Růžičková’s career is all the more remarkable given that she survived internment in three concentration camps in her teens.

Born to a Jewish family in 1927, Růžičková began keyboard lessons at the age of nine. Impressed with her talent, her teacher intended her to study with Wanda Landowska in Paris, but this plan was thwarted by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

In 1942, aged 15, Růžičková was sent with her family to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where her father and grandfather died. She was later transported to Auchswitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by the British Army in April 1945.

After surviving three years of malnutrition, forced labour, disease and the threat of the gas chambers, Růžičková returned to Czechoslovakia and resumed her music studies. She practiced up to to 12 hours every day to make up for lost time and to adapt her hands – damaged by manual labour – to playing again.

However, Růžičková’s tribulations continued when the anti-Semitic Communist Party of Czechoslovakia came to power in 1948. She refused to join, and suffered harassment and surveillance for the next 40 years.

She came to international attention after winning the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1956. The Czechoslovak government permitted her to perform internationally, but her refusal to join the Communist Party meant she remained under suspicion.

In 1965, Růžičková began a decade-long project to record all of Bach’s keyboard works with French record label Erato, becoming the first person to do so. These records were re-released in January to mark her 90th birthday.

Růžičková’s career as an educator began at the Academy of Performing Arts in 1951, but it was only after the fall of communism that she was granted the title of professor. She taught a harpsichord class at the Bratislava Music Academy between 1978 and 1982, and regularly gave masterclasses across the world. Her students included Christopher Hogwood, Ketil Haugsand and Mahan Esfahani.

Esfahani paid tribute to Růžičková as ‘an irreplaceable giant’, adding: ‘I will cherish every hour I spent with Zuzana as the most important of my life, and as hours which changed the course of everything for me.’

Růžičková retired in 2006, the same year as the death of her husband, composer Viktor Kalabis. She received numerous honours and awards, including France’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Czech Medal of Merit.

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