Zuzana Růžičková at 90: Other music was exciting, Bach was almost deja vu

Photo: Erato

The internationally-renowned harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková will celebrate her 90th birthday at a special concert in Prague on Saturday. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, the Plzeň-born musician – inspired by her love of Bach – brought the harpsichord to new audiences around the world in a long and successful career.

Zuzana Růžičková, photo: YouTube
A deep childhood love of Bach led Zuzana Růžičková, who was born in Plzeň on January 14, 1927, to switch from piano to the instrument that made her name: the harpsichord.

Her teacher wanted her to study under the famous Wanda Landowska in Paris – but Zuzana was Jewish and the Nazis soon put paid to those plans.

“Organ was out of the question, because I was a sickly child, so: the harpsichord. But I had never seen a harpsichord or heard a harpsichord before. I was 11 years old.

“But [the teacher] said, Okay, for the next three years normal school and after that Wanda Landowská and Paris.

“So I took lessons in counterpoint and harmony to be prepared for Landowská. But in the end instead of Landowská the Nazis came.”

Almost all of Zuzana Růžičková’s family died in the Holocaust. She attributes the fact she and her mother survived Terezín, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to hundreds of strokes of fortune.

Along the way the teenager was deployed as forced labour – and recalls a chilling moment at a factory in Hamburg.

Johann Sebastian Bach
“We went to this canteen and there was somebody there playing Chopin. I suddenly knew that there was music somewhere in the world. And that I was absolutely cut off from it and that maybe I would never hear it again.

“It was just a feeling, but a terrible, terrible feeling, and I lost consciousness.

“Then somebody came and wanted me to come to work again, but I couldn’t. So the man who was in command of us – a normal German, not SS – took me into a warm room and tried to revive me. My mother was with me.

“After she told me that the man looked at me and said, My God she looks like a human child.

“The propaganda was so fierce that they really treated us like cattle.”

After the war Zuzana Růžičková’s hands were in such bad shape that her teachers believed she would never play at a high level. But she persevered and eventually achieved a wonderful career that took her to many places around the world.

“It was pioneer work. The harpsichord was almost unknown to the general public. Not even just in Czechoslovakia, also in Russia...

“There were two kinds of audiences which I loved. One was those like in Ansbach [home of an annual Bach festival], who came and said, Why did you play it in a different tempo than the last time or when it was recorded? They were really an educated audience.

“And the other audiences were those who really discovered the harpsichord for the first time. That gives me quite a lot of satisfaction now.”

Photo: Erato
A 20-CD boxset of Zuzana Růžičková’s complete recordings of Bach for keyboard has been rereleased to mark her 90th birthday. After an entire lifetime, the musician still feels a deep connection to the composer.

“Actually since I started to play the piano, there was something [about Bach] which felt almost like home, something that I knew. Other music was exciting. But Bach was almost like deja vu.”

The musician will celebrate her birthday at a concert of her most eminent students at Prague’s Academy of Music on Saturday evening.