Interpretations of Bach and of experience

08 December 2017

Roderic Dunnett on a great Jewish musician


Harpsichord virtuoso: Zuzana Ružicková making a public appearance in Prague, July 1969

Harpsichord virtuoso: Zuzana Ružicková making a public appearance in Prague, July 1969

ZUZANA RUŽICKOVÁ was not only one of the finest musicians whom Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, produced during the postwar years. She became a symbol not so much of active opposition as of rebuke to the totali­tar­ian forces that dominated her country for half a century.

Now, her life has been commem­orated in a documentary that re­­­ceived its première at JW3, the Jewish cultural centre in north London, during the UK Inter­na­tional Jewish Film Festival last month.

Ružicková is celebrated, above all, for her playing of Bach. Unlike Glenn Gould, her performances of the Goldberg Variations and, indeed, all Bach’s keyboard out­put, of which she made the first ever complete recording for the Paris-based Erato label, she could con­­tem­plate performing only on the harpsichord. It was for this that she became hailed as “the new Landowska”, a reference to the Polish-French-American harpsi­chord virtuoso (1879-1959), the doyenne of 20th century per­formers on that instrument.

Interviews with Ružicková, cap­­tured shortly before her death, aged 90, in September last year, provide the vital and deeply in­­volving es­­sence of this document­ary. She was also honoured as a performer of Scarlatti, and of much else in the repertoire.

But she was much more. Married to the leading Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, a relationship that gave her strength in the years of the Communist oppression, she sur­­vived Terezín, Auschwitz, and Birgen-Belsen (both in her teens), returning to her home country only to see Czech democratic institutions torn up once again and subjected to Marxist-Leninist diktat.

Her salvation was her indomit­able spirit. Unlike many, she was prepared to talk about her experiences, thus becoming a model for the young in later years. Above all, there was no hint of rancour or self-pity in her reminiscences. There may be censure, as for example when she talks about the Stalinist trials and interrogations in Czecho­slovakia in the early 1950s, to which she herself was subject in a cross-examination that might well have cost her her life. But her comments are factual, not hand-wringing, not least because she faced up to such bullying with equanimity and im­­mense courage despite the anguish lest “truth can never win, only brute force.”


Music was, to her, separable from politics. Her playing was of such crispness, of such technical perfec­tion, and such deep layers of insight (although, as she explains to a young pupil, she believed that she would never penetrate the full depth of Bach’s writing), hearing her was like the purest of pilgrimages.

There are many moving details in her story, as when by chance she encounters in London one of those who actually liberated her from Belsen. The converse was when she and her mother returned to Plzen (Pilsen): nobody would offer shelter. It was as if they were diseased.

Every detail of this film, by Getzels Gordon productions, is strength­ened by the quality of the archival footage retrieved (with much effort) from Czech TV, and the intelligence and sympathy of the montages it presents. The whole biopic becomes a portrait of a tyran­nised country, explored through one unique life. If there is a cri­­ticism of its 90 minutes, it is a positive one: that one longs for more of her wis­dom, her uner­ring calm, her beauti­ful voice, and, above all, her playing.

“One of my father’s last com­ments was, ‘Don’t hate; hate poisons you.’ She took to heart his dictum. If one did so, she reminds us, ‘one’s oppressors would win.’”

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