Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017)

Zuzana Růžičková, the esteemed Czech harpsichordist, famed for her interpretations of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, has died at 90.

Born in Plzen (Pilsen) to a Jewish family, Růžičková was encouraged by her piano teacher to take up the harpsichord and planned to study with Wanda Landowska in Paris. Those plans were dashed by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39.

In 1941, the 13-year-old Růžičková and her family were imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she was able to study with the composer Gideon Klein. She and her mother subsequently were sent to Auschwitz, worked as slave laborers in Hamburg and, shortly before the end of World War II, were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they narrowly escaped extermination before the arrival of British and Canadian troops in April 1945.

Returning to Czechoslovakia, Růžičková studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and after earning a master’s degree became a member of its faculty. After the communist takeover of the country in 1948, she refused to join the party and was subject to close official scrutiny, as a Jew and potential dissident.

In 1952, she married the composer Victor Kalabis (1923-2006), who wrote a number of works for her.

Following her victory in the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1956, she was allowed to tour throughout Europe. In 1962, Růžičková and the conductor Václav Neumann founded the Prague Chamber Soloists. She performed extensively in chamber music, playing with violinist Josef Suk, cellists Janos Starker and Pierre Fournier, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and other leading musicians, and was for many years a featured soloist with the Czech Philharmonic.

Růžičková was a prominent artistic voice in the protests that led to the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of the Czech communist regime in 1989.

In recent decades, widely lauded as “the first lady of the harpsichord,” Růžičková taught and conducted master classes in Prague, Bratislava, Zurich and other cities. She retired from public performance in 2006.

From 1965 to 1973, she recorded the complete harpsichord works of Bach in sessions in Prague and Paris. Those recordings were reissued last year by Erato.

An obituary by Emily Langer for The Washington Post:


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