Zuzana Růžičková

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Zuzana Růžičková (Czech pronunciation: [ˈzuzana ˈruːʒɪt͡ʃkovaː]) (born 14 January 1927) is an award-winning harpsichordist, whose work has garnered acclaim around the world. Born in Czechoslovakia, where she has lived her entire life, Růžičková is an interpreter of classical and baroque music. She was the first harpsichordist to have recorded Bach's complete works for keyboard.[1][2] These recordings were made over ten years in the 1960s and 1970s for Erato Records, and were remastered and newly released in 2016 by Warner Records/Erato. She was the wife of the late Czech composer Viktor Kalabis. As a teenager, Růžičková was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps of Terezin and Auschwitz, and was then transported to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. She was liberated in April 1945 and returned to Plzeň later that year.

Both Růžičková and Kalabis refused to join the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia that held power from 1948 to 1989, and they were consistently harassed as a result. Růžičková performed across the world for 50 years; she made over 100 records; and taught such prominent musicians as Christopher Hogwood, Ketil Haugsand, Jaroslav Tůma, Monika Knoblochová, Vaclav Luks, and Mahan Esfahani.


At age 18, Zuzana returned to her hometown of Plzeň determined to dedicate herself entirely to pursuing a musical career. She studied piano with Bohdan Gsölhofer in Plzeň, and from 1947-51 she attended the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague where her professors included pianists Albín Šíma, František Rauch and harpsichordist Oldřich Kredba. At this time she decided to specialize in the interpretation of early music and gave her first harpsichord recital in 1951. In 1956, she won the International Music Competition in Munich and accepted a scholarship from jury member Marguerite Roesgen-Champion (de) to continue her harpsichord studies in Paris.

Her success at the Munich competition marked the beginning of an international career. Over the following five decades she performed regularly throughout Europe and made repeated visits to Japan, but the Communist authorities denied her many trips to the United States. She performed at Bach Festivals in many European cities, including Leipzig, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Ansbach, Frankfurt, Schaffhausen, and Bath. In 1962, she co-founded the Prague Chamber Soloists with conductor Václav Neumann and in 1963 she formed a very successful duo with violinist Josef Suk.

Other chamber music partners have included János Starker, Pierre Fournier, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Aurèle Nicolet and Maxence Larrieu. She has also worked with noted conductors including Serge Baudo, Paul Sacher, Herbert Blomstedt, Libor Pešek, Neville Marriner and Helmuth Rilling. Her recorded repertoire is vast, spanning works from the English virginalists through those by modern composers such as Bohuslav Martinů, Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla and Frank Martin. The music of Bach, however, has always remained central to her art, culminating in an integral edition of his solo harpsichord works published by the French label Erato in 1975.[3] In October 2016, her entire recordings of all of J.S Bach's keyboard works in remastered form were released by Warner Records/Erato. Supraphon has reissued several CDs of collections of Ruzickova's earlier recordings.[4]

British harpsichordist, Pamela Nash, wrote about Ruzickova in the June 2013 UK publication "Sounding Board" as Ruzickova celebrated her 85th birthday and Supraphone released new CDs. Nash noted,

Acclaimed as 'The first lady of the harpsichord,' and recognized by many as Landowska's successor, her career has left the harpsichord world a legacy , documented by over 100 recordings, spanning half a century…this timely commemoration serves as a timely reminder of Ruzickova's invaluable role in promoting the harpsichord in the 20th century. An artist of greater energy and integrity, she made enormous strides to establish the instrument as a solo and ensemble concert instrument, and there can be no doubt that the status of the harpsichord today owes much to her pioneering efforts. Embarking on a career when early harpsichord repertoire was barely acknowledged, or else relegated to the piano, she resolved to re-connect Baroque keyboard music to the instrument for which it was written; in her own words 'to rid the harpsichord of its museum nature and make it a living instrument.'" [5]

Contemporary composers have also dedicated works to her, including Jan Rychlík's Hommagi clavicembalistici (1964), and she has premiered works by Emil Hlobil, Hans-Georg Görner and Elizabeth Maconchy.

For 54 years she was married to composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006), and she inspired him to compose several significant works for harpsichord: Six Two-Part Canonic Inventions (1962), Aquarelles (1979), Preludio, Aria e Toccata (1992), and Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1975).[6]

Her career as an educator began at the Academy of Performing Arts in 1951, but only after the fall of communism was she finally given the title professor in 1990. She also established a harpsichord class at the Music Academy in Bratislava where she was guest professor from 1978-82. For twenty-five years she gave master classes in Zürich, with other classes taking place in Stuttgart, Kraków, Budapest, Riga and Tokyo.[6]

Childhood and early life[edit]

Zuzana Růžičková was born in Plzen, Czechoslovakia in 1927. Her mother was Jewish and her father was an atheist.

Her family owned a department store, and her father had spent four years in Chicago in the 1920s, working at the Ginsburg Department store. Although he experienced success in the United States, Růžičková's father returned to Czechoslovakia, which had only recently become independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Růžičková learned English from her father. Růžičková characterized her childhood as "very sweet" and her parents as "very much in love".[7]

Růžičková began taking piano lessons after suffering from pneumonia at the age of nine, as a reward for her recovery. Her piano teacher, Marie Provaníková, introduced her to the works of Bach and encouraged her to take up the harpsichord. Provaníková was so impressed by Růžičková's talent that she wrote to French-Polish musician Wanda Landowska, asking her to accept Růžičková as a pupil at her École de Musique Ancienne in the Paris suburb of Saint-Leu-la-Forêt[6] once she had finished her obligatory schooling at age 15. Ultimately, Růžičková was not able to attend due to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws.

According to Růžičková, her family was historically Jewish. Her mother was an Orthodox Jew, but her father was an atheist. Růžičková described herself as not particularly religious.[7]

For more information on the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia, see History of the Jews in the Czech Republic

Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and World War II[edit]

The Nazis began the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In 1941, the Gestapo began organizing transports to move the Plzen Jews into Terezín, a garrison town built in the late 18th century. The camp's first inmates, known as the Aufbaukommando, were tasked with converting the fortress and surrounding walled town into a concentration camp: known as Theresienstadt: the German name for Terezín.

In Plzen, the Gestapo used Jewish children, including a 13-year-old Růžičková, to deliver "invitations" to other members of Plzen's Jewish community, informing them of the date they would be deported to the camp. Růžičková described the experience: "It was terrible—the delivery of the notices. We saw life at its very worst. It was a nightmare."

In January 1942, three weeks after receiving an "invitation" from the Gestapo, Růžičková and her family were forcibly relocated from Plzen to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The family was taken by train from Plzen to Terezín. Upon arrival, Růžičková encountered Fredy Hirsch, a 25-year-old German Jew. Hirsch undertook the responsibility of caring for the camp's children by arranging activities and exercise for them, and reserving two barracks for "Children's Homes".

Internment in Theresienstadt[edit]

Theresienstadt was originally designated by the Nazis as a "model community" for educated, middle-class Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. More than 150,000 people were held for months or years before being sent to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in occupied Poland. Tens of thousands of people died from malnutrition and disease but despite horrific conditions, hard labor, and no medical care, the inmates managed to provide lessons for children, and staged lectures, plays, operas and concerts.

Růžičková, along with other children in Theresienstadt, did agricultural work, applying manure to fields and working in vegetable gardens. Růžičková was able to sneak food from the gardens to her family. Although she was forced to labor during the day, Růžičková was able to continue her education while she was in Theresienstadt. After returning from work, Růžičková could attend concerts and lectures staged by the residents. She was able to see opera singer Karel Berman perform, take Latin lessons from a former university professor and harmony lessons from pianist Gideon Klein, and join a children's choir.

Růžičková's father died in the spring of 1943, but Růžičková was able to remain with her mother. In December 1943, Růžičková and her mother were sent to Auschwitz after nearly two years in the camp. Růžičková was given a chance to remain in Theresienstadt, but chose to go with her mother.

Internment in Auschwitz[edit]

After three days on the transport, Růžičková and her mother arrived in Auschwitz, a death camp. Having arrived at night, the prisoners were immediately placed in barracks. By this point, many were suffering from hunger and dehydration. The next day, Růžičková and the other prisoners were taken to another barracks, stripped, and tattooed. They were then made to sign a document, which stated that they had been arrested in Theresienstadt for anti-German activities, and accepted their sentence. Soon after her arrival, Růžičková reunited with Fredy Hirsch, who advised her to lie about her age and say she was sixteen, rather than fifteen. Borrowing a coat from her aunt Jirina, with whom she had also been reunited, Růžičková was able to meet with Hirsch, who had organized the children's barracks, much as he had in Theresienstadt.

Růžičková worked with Hirsch as a teacher's helper. In this role, Růžičková was exposed to the extreme reality of Nazi racial theory; German doctors, including Fritz Klein, the "Chief Selector" of the camp and colleague to Josef Mengele, who Růžičková knew in Theresienstadt, visited the children's barracks to take physiological measurements or select children to be removed for experimentation. Růžičková would later credit Fredy Hirsch with her survival. Had he not prompted her to lie about her age, it is likely that Růžičková would have been gassed. Allowing her to work alongside him at the children's barracks kept Růžičková from more dangerous jobs and protected her from the many diseases spreading through the camp.

In May 1944, Růžičková and the other inmates who had traveled with her from Terezin to Auschwitz were scheduled to be gassed.[2] However, their execution was slated for June 6—D-Day. Enduring another horrific selection, Růžičková and her mother were instead sent to Germany.

Slave Labor in Hamburg[edit]

Růžičková was sent to Hamburg, which was being bombed regularly by British and American airmen. Under the auspices of the Neuengamme concentration camp, laborers were assigned to work in sub-camps in the area around Hamburg. Růžičková and the other laborers worked to protect and repair an oil pipeline and to maintain gas tanks, which were subject to daily bombardment. Růžičková was able to remain with her mother, but suffered greatly from hunger and perilous working conditions. However, she was able to earn some extra food from other prisoners by singing for them. In addition to working on the oil pipeline, Růžičková also worked in the shipyards of Hamburg.

In January 1945, Růžičková was moved the Tiefstack sub-camp, where she worked in a cement factory. As Allied forces advanced, the prisoners were made to dig booby-traps for tanks.

Internment in Bergen-Belsen[edit]

At the end of February, Růžičková and the other laborers were transported to the horrific death camp of Bergen-Belsen. She would later say of Bergen-Belsen: "If ever there was Hell, this was the lowest part of Hell. This was an extermination camp—it was really meant for us to die in."[7]

At this point, Bergen-Belsen was disorganized, overcrowded, and stricken with disease. When her mother fell ill, Růžičková was forced to sneak out of the camp to gather turnips in order to survive. In April 1945 Růžičková and the other prisoners who could still walk were ordered to march from the camp to a railway station two miles away. They returned to the camp and woke the next morning to discover the Germans had gone. The guards had abandoned the camp, leaving no food. They had also disconnected the water supply. A few German and Hungarian troops remained outside the camp, randomly shooting into the barracks on occasion. On 15 April 1945 British and Canadian soldiers arrived at Bergen-Belsen.

Liberation and Aftermath of WWII[edit]

Růžičková, along with many prisoners suffering from starvation, became seriously ill after eating the food rations provided by soldiers. At the time of liberation, she weighed only 70 pounds. Růžičková was taken to a hospital, where she was treated for ulcers, typhus, malnutrition, and eventually diagnosed with malaria. Since she spoke English and many other languages, as she healed, Růžičková became an indispensable translator for the medical staff.

Although Růžičková's mother remained gravely ill, they were able to return to Czechoslovakia in July 1945, where they found their family home occupied and possessions gone.[7]

Musical education[edit]

Despite the extreme conditions she endured during the war, Růžičková's love of music thrived. In Theresienstadt, she took harmony lessons from fellow prisoner Gideon Klein. Before her transport to Auschwitz, Růžičková transcribed a Bach piece onto paper to bring with her to the camp.[2] While working in Hamburg, she heard Chopin on the radio and fainted.

One of the first people Růžičková encountered upon her return to Plzen was her former piano teacher, Marie Provaníková. Růžičková recalls that when Provaníková saw the conditions of her hands after four years in concentration camps, she wept.[7]

The four years Růžičková had spent in concentration camps had not only hurt her physically and psychologically, they also caused a significant delay in her progress as a musician. In order to be accepted into a music school, Růžičková had to pass a series of examinations. She started in classes with children to regain her fundamental skills, and managed to advance every few months, from a third grade level to the required eight grade level. Růžičková began studying piano again with Bohdan Gsölhofer,[6] and in 1947, she was able to enroll in to the Academy of the Performing Arts in Prague. Despite her rapid improvement, one of her professors discouraged her from being a professional musician. Nevertheless, Růžičková entered the Academy and decided to specialize on the harpsichord and early music. She passed her BA and went on to earn her MA. In 1950, Růžičková was also able to secure a position at the Academy, teaching composers to play the piano. One of her students was her future husband, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis.

Career in Communist Czechoslovakia[edit]

After the 1948 coup d’état by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) Růžičková was pressured to join the Communist Youth Movement. However, she refused to join the Communist Party. As a student in Prague, Růžičková was called in front of a committee when she was discovered reading the works of Sigmund Freud, whose literature had been banned. As a faculty member at the Academy of Performing Arts, Růžičková was subject to performance reviews that evaluated her both professionally and politically. As a Jew, Růžičková was still vulnerable to persecution under the Communist government. An example of anti-Semitism in communist Czechoslovakia are the Slánský show trials of 1952, in which 14 members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia were subject to a public trial intended to purge the government of dissident voices. 11 of the 14 defendants were Jews. The situation was so perilous that Růžičková tried to persuade Viktor Kalabis not to marry her. Nevertheless, they wed in December 1952.

In 1956 Růžičková won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich[2] and was offered a scholarship from jury member Marguerite Roesgen-Champion to continue her harpsichord studies in Paris. Kalabis was also invited to study in Paris, but the couple was not allowed to travel abroad together, to discourage them from defecting. Viktor went to Paris, but Růžičková remained in Czechoslovakia.

Even though she was not able to study in Paris, Růžičková's win at the International Music Competition led to further invitations to perform all over Europe. Since she was highly paid for these performances, the government allowed her to travel, but confiscated all of the foreign currency that she earned. Růžičková's talent and success made her valuable to the state, but as a non-party member, she remained under suspicion from the Communist government. She was not allowed to teach music to Czech students. Furthermore, her participation in the Czech Philharmonic was restricted due to her Jewish heritage.

The pressures on Růžičková were eased slightly following the death of Stalin and the relaxation of his policies. She was able to travel more freely and occasionally with her husband. However, Růžičková did not try to defect, as she and Kalabis still had family members living in Czechoslovakia. For the first time, Růžičková was able to record music for international distribution, which increased her fame and strengthened her association with the music of Bach. This coincided with the revival of baroque music in Western Europe. In 1965, Růžičková was contracted to record the complete keyboard works of Bach.

Following the Prague Spring of 1968, the Czech government was under pressure to appear stable and progressive. Růžičková was given several state-sponsored rewards, which served as propaganda for the regime. Růžičková was unable to refuse these rewards and was often forced to accept them with great ceremony.

The Velvet Revolution[edit]

Following the events of 17 November 1989, Růžičková participated in the protests against the government. As an artist and academic, she went on strike from the Academy of Music and the Czech Philharmonic. When the Communist regime was finally overthrown in December, Růžičková was able to reclaim her title of "Professor," which had been denied her despite teaching at the Academy since 1951. Růžičková was able to serve as a committee member for music competitions, which had been a significant factor in her own success as a musician.

Růžičková today[edit]

Růžičková still resides in Prague. She stopped performing publicly in 2004 after her husband fell ill. Following the death of Kalabis in 2006, Růžičková became more involved in various musical organizations and committees dedicated to the interpretation and preservation of early music, and to the discovery of young musicians. She is the president of the Viktor Kalabis & Zuzana Růžičková Foundation, vice-president of the Prague Spring International Competition Committee, and a member of the advisory boards of the Czech Chamber Music Society and the Concertino Praga International Competition. Furthermore, she is a supporter of the Hans Krása Initiative,[6] dedicated to the life and music of composer and fellow Theresienstadt prisoner Hans Krása. She is also active in the Terezín Initiative, through which she was able to fund a memorial for Fredy Hirsch [1]. Zuzana Růžičková is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary film about her life and music, called Zuzana: Music is Life. It is set for release in early 2017.[8]

She has recorded around 100 albums.

Partial list of awards and recognitions[edit]


  • Artist of Merit, 1968 (CZ)
  • Nation Artist, 1989 (CZ)
  • Professor of the Academy of Music in Prague, 1990 (CZ)
  • Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, 2004 (Fr)


  • Aachen "Kulturpreis Karl IV" (2011)
  • Medal of Merit 2 Grade for Arts and Culture of the President of the Czech Republic (2004)
  • Medaille fur Kunst und Wissenschaft der Freusradt Hamburg (1993)
  • Medal of Contribution to "Golden Funds if Supraphone" (1997)
  • Medal of Harmony Musical Review (2001)
  • Prize for Contribution to Czech and World Music (2001)
  • Grenade Star of B OHEMIAN HERITAGE FUND, endowmend fund (2013)[9]


  • Grand Prix Cros (J.A. Benda, J.S. Bach)
  • Diapason d’Or (Henry Purcell)
  • Golden Disc Supraphone (300,000 LPs, CDs, and tapes sold)


  • Hon. Member: Direktorium "Neue Bachgesellschaft" Leipzig
  • NEMA (National Early Music Association of Great Britain)
  • The Dvorak Society for Czech Music
  • Honorary Citizen of the town Jindrichuv Hradec (CZ)
  • Honorary Citizen of the township Praha 3


  1. ^ http://kalabismusic.org/
  2. ^ a b c d Jones, Rebecca (19 December 2016). "The miraculous life of Zuzana Ruzickova". BBC News. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  3. ^ http://jsebestyen.org/ruzickova/bach.html
  4. ^ http://www.warnerclassics.com/release/5405676,0190295930448/zuzana-ruzickova-johann-sebastian-bach-the-complete-keyboard-works
  5. ^ Pamela Nash, "Celebrating the 85th Birthday of Zuzana Ruzickova", Sounding Board, June 2013
  6. ^ a b c d e http://www.jsebestyen.org/ruzickova/
  7. ^ a b c d e Interview with Zuzana Ruzickova, 27 March - 1 April 1991
  8. ^ http://www.zuzanathemovie.com/about/
  9. ^ PR. "Zuzana Růžičková první nositelkou Granátové hvězdy". Retrieved 2017-01-12. 

External links[edit]