The Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková died this week at the age of 90. Her death is a musical event because she was a fine performer who did something historically important: she was the first person to record all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music for harpsichord. More importantly, we note her passing because she was one of the wise, resilient, and humane people in the world of music. In this post I link to video clips and music recordings that give a sense of both her musical and personal appeal.
Růžičková was born in Czechoslovakia in 1927. Nazi Germany began its occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Though Zuzana was not personally very religious, her mother was Jewish. Růžičková was thirteen years old when she was arrested and imprisoned. During World War II, she survived internment at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, as well as forced labor in Hamburg.
She became a world-class harpsichordist and persisted against anti-Semitism to make an international career in Communist Czechoslovakia. In this interview segment she remembers the persecution and political restrictions that she endured with her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis:
Here is the trailer for a recent documentary film about Růžičková. In both the trailer and the interview linked above, you’ll feel the force of Růžičková’s intelligence and her generosity of spirit.
Růžičková began recording Bach’s entire corpus of keyboard music in 1965 and finished ten years later. Here is her performance, from 1969, of the Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056. Růžičková’s harpsichord is warm and sparkling–not qualities that every harpsichordist can muster. The orchestra here often feels heavy, especially by the standards of our current historically-informed performances, but Růžičková’s voice is distinctive throughout.
Performed by Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord) and the Prague Chamber Soloists, conducted by Václav Neumann (11 minutes)
Růžičková explored more music than Bach’s. Here she is performing one of the whimsical and touching neoclassical pieces by her Czech compatriot Bohuslav Martinů. This Harpsichord Concerto, composed in 1935, is scored for a small orchestra that includes, delightfully, a piano.
Performed by Zuzana Růžičková (harpsichord) and the Prague Chamber Soloists, conducted by Kurt Sanderling (18 minutes)