Harpsichord Virtuoso Zuzana Ruzickova’s Legacy Captured on Film

October 15, 2018 Updated: October 16, 2018

NEW YORK—Looking straight at the viewer, Zuzana Ruzickova, then 87, detailed the horrors of three Nazi concentration camps, and then the following communist regime takeover, in measured tones and with great clarity.

“When people ask me how I was able to survive, I always say, ‘It was a hundred miracles,'” Ruzickova said.

She’s sitting at her kitchen table, retelling her life story to filmmakers Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon Getzels. Four years later, just two months shy of her 90th birthday, and only two days before the world premiere of the resulting documentary, “Zuzana: Music Is Life,” she passed away on Sept. 27, 2017.

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Zuzana Ruzickova in the documentary “Zuzana.” (Zuzana: Life is Music)

The virtuoso is remembered for being the first to record the entirety of Bach’s keyboard works on harpsichord, as well as inspiring the world with the story of her indomitable spirit.

Ruzickova had a deep connection with Bach that one can only term spiritual, and this had been her constant through life, through even the upheaval of humanity spanning the 20th century, and that story has been preserved in feature documentary form and in a memoir set to be released next spring.

A Born Musician

Early in the documentary, she recounts how, as a baby, she had a nurse who sang wonderfully. Then later, she had a different nurse who sang terribly, and it made her cry every time.

Eventually, her parents put an ad in the newspaper for a nanny, with an added requirement that she could sing well.

“It was the first sign of being a musician,” she said with a laugh. Ruzickova had a sweet, idyllic childhood, though she was sickly as a child. One year she had a fever so bad that her parents vowed by her bedside to give her anything if she would only get better.

She said, “I want to have piano lessons.”

Ruzickova showed an early affinity for Bach; other music was exciting, but Bach felt like home. So her piano teacher recommended that she take up either the harpsichord or the organ, as Bach did not write for the modern piano.

“Organ was out of the question, because I was a sickly child, so: the harpsichord,” Ruzickova told Czech Radio.

At age 14, Ruzickova was meant to start lessons with Wanda Landowska, but her world abruptly changed.

“Instead of Landowska, the Nazis came,” Ruzickova said.

The Jewish people were rounded up and put in Terezin, a concentration camp billed as a “city for the Jews.” From there, she was transported to Auschwitz, and then to Bergen-Belsen.

“If Auschwitz was hell, Bergen-Belsen was nether-hell,” Ruzickova remembered.

There were a hundred times when she could have died, and numerous miracles that nudged her out of the way and back onto the path of life. In the film, Ruzickova recounts the pockets of art and music the Jewish people held onto throughout the ordeal, remembering all the difference it made.

Through it all, Bach was close to her heart, and when the horrors receded, Bach remained.

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Zuzana Ruzickova stands before a wall of names of those who died in the Holocaust. These are lost “pieces of humanity that can never be made whole,” she said. (Zuzana: Music Is Life)

Communism and Bach

“Zuzana: Music Is Life” is not just a Holocaust story.

Ruzickova struggled with depression when she returned from the camps to her hometown in Czechoslovakia, in 1945.

She went to see her old piano teacher, determined to continue pursuing music. But her teacher looked at her hands, now rough and damaged from harsh manual labor, and wept.

Ruzickova was undeterred; she felt she had nothing else she wanted to accomplish in this life. She practiced 12 hours a day to make up for lost time, and eventually she was accepted into Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts in 1947. She could not be a concert pianist, but she became an instructor, giving piano lessons to composers.

It was there that she met composer Viktor Kalabis, whom she later married. They were desperately poor, and there were dark times ahead, but the couple loved each dearly, and their love story became a bright light woven throughout Ruzickova’s story.

In 1948, the Soviet Union took over, and Czechoslovakia became communist.

Under this new regime, the Jewish people, as well as artists and intellectuals, were once again persecuted.

Ales Brezina, a Czech composer and student of Kalabis, has written multiple works on this dark, 40-year period of communism. Outside of the Czech Republic, and even to the younger generations in Czech today, this damaging history is really unknown. As the filmmakers listened to him explain what communism is really like, they too realized they were hearing this for the first time.

He gave a telling example, but one still likely unfamiliar to Western audiences: “It was like a watered-down version of the Cultural Revolution in Communist China.”

Whole demographics of people were persecuted, Brezina explained, but what he felt was the biggest loss and the biggest crime was that young people were robbed of the ability to think for themselves.

Through his operas and archival footage, we get a glimpse at what the people must have experienced.

Ruzickova said the communists had everyone go through “very thorough brainwashing,” requiring study of the works of Marx and Lenin.

So she and Kalabis were, of course, soon fired from their teaching posts and forbidden to teach again.

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Zuzana Ruzickova in the documentary “Zuzana.” (Zuzana: Life is Music)

“How could you teach students about Bach, religion, or Louis XIV without knowing how to explain them in the Marx-Lenin way?” she told BBC Music Magazine.

Why not make life easier for herself and just join? Fascism and communism aren’t just atheist ideologies, but ones that condemn the notion of a higher power. That wasn’t Ruzickova’s way: Her faith in a higher order, embodied by the music of Bach at times, gave solace to her soul, meaning to her life, and kept her going.

“Bach could help me after everything I’d been through,” Ruzickova said. Bach, to her, was above human suffering, showing there was order above all.

“You always feel in his music that God is present somehow,” she said.

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Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani with  Zuzana Ruzickova in “Zuzana: Music Is Life.” (Zuzana: Music Is Life)

Foreign Currency and Faith

One turning point came when Ruzickova won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1956.

It had been a competition she was reluctant to even enter; it was held in the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, which decades ago was the site for “the Führer’s building.”

Ruzickova was shaken, and Kalabis told her that if it had been anything else, he would have told her not to go.

“You are bringing Bach back to Germany,” he said. “I think it’s really your task to go there.”

Bolstered by his support, Ruzickova went and won. The competition launched her career, and soon she was asked to perform concerts worldwide. She became so famous, the regime had to let her travel.

The communists were really short on foreign currency at the time, Ruzickova explained, and thought that if she performed, people would look well on Czechoslovakia. So she was given permission, case by case, to leave the country, though she was never allowed to perform in the United States.

She was also allowed to record the entirety of Bach’s keyboard works with Warner Classics, but there was always a communist minder chaperoning her every move.

“They would keep a hostage” within the country, she added. They knew she loved Kalabis, they knew everything, Ruzickova said.

Ruzickova’s impact on her country’s people cannot be overstated. At the time, there were two main channels on television—one was communist drivel, and the other was classical music.

“Listening to her filled you with dignity,” people remembered.

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Zuzana Ruzickova made a list of the most significant music of her life, playing the CDs for the filmmakers. (Zuzana: Music Is Life)

The documentary includes interviews with many other people who came in touch with Ruzickova at different points in her life and on whom she had a lasting impact.

Ruzickova said the eras of tyranny robbed the European people of their faith in human kindness, but for many people, her unrelenting hope and spirit cut through that. She gave young people growing up in these periods, and later, a connection to the past before the Nazis and before communism.

Later in her life, when she was no longer able to perform and play, she taught again, making an effort to mentor and encourage young children who were budding musicians.

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani sought her out as a teacher about a decade ago, finding resonance in her individualistic interpretations.

She divulged striking parcels of wisdom that lent an insight into her interpretations, telling him as they worked on the start of a fugue: “Every crotchet is strictly equal! This is now the law come from above, the Word coming to rescue us in our darkest hour. As the tones rise, Bach opens the gates and light rushes through.”

Writing for the New Yorker, Esfahani marveled at her timelessness. With Ruzickova, the harpsichord was a living instrument.

“It took me 90 years to understand Bach’s Goldberg Variations,” Esfahani remembered her telling him. “If only I had 90 more; I’d still not know what to do with them.”

In the last half-century, early music has seen a sort of resurgence, and the interest is increasingly open and curious. Ruzickova, a pioneer of the harpsichord, passed away one year ago, but her legacy lives on.

Esfahani remembered, “As she said when I once threw up my hands in frustration over some piece by Bach, ‘Music has so many secrets—but I’ll ask Bach when I see him.'”

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Mahan Esfahani working on a fugue with Zuzana Ruzickova in “Zuzana: Music Is Life.” (Zuzana: Music Is Life)