The Ground Beneath Her Feet
The harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova recalls a life anchored in music to survive a world of pain.
The worst train accident in the history of Czechoslovakia, “the Steblova Train Disaster”, happened on ’s birthday in 1960. Of the 230 people severely injured, 118 did not survive the collision. One of those that did, a musician called Zuzana Ruzickova, was jolted down from her berth and knew something serious had happened to her spine. But her mind was wholly taken up with something else — the complications of a Baroque composition she was scheduled to record the day after. She had no time left for pain, it was either bad back or good Bach.
In this memoir of Wagnerian highs and lows, of traumas dulled by triumphs in Nazi-occupied and then Stalinist-controlled Eastern Europe, Ruzickova appears an attractively modest performer who attributes her spectacular success as a harpsichordist to her capacity for focusing on inner passion in order to close out a world of pain. From an auditory perspective her genealogy shows Bach and Beethoven as ancestors, both of whom were debilitated by personal grief and found in music-making a survival strategy as well as personal salvation. Many such stories exist anecdotally in the neurologist Oliver Sacks’ investigations of music’s affects on the mind in Musicophilia (2007). Ruzickova’s story could have been titled Harpsichord v. Holocaust, for it is about how her instrument worked as a talisman and got her past both Hitler and Stalin.
The harpsichord seems an ironically appropriate instrument of choice for an Auschwitz survivor, for this antique version of the piano had itself been through something like a devastation. Around 1700, an Italian called Bartolomeo Cristofori metaphorically made a gas chamber for the older instruments when he invented a keyboard system called “pianoforte” which produced mellow sound via hammers that hit strings — instead of quills that plucked them, as did the harpsichord.
Despite the piano’s more fluid and song-like effects, JS Bach, who tried his hand at the new invention in the 1730s, was sceptical. His preference, as that of two other 18th-century musical heavyweights, Domenico Scarlatti and Francois Couperin, remained the harpsichord and between them these three composers wrote more than a thousand compositions for it. Many of their pieces were transcribed and played on the piano, most notably by Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz.
Simultaneously, between the 1920s and 1950s, the first renowned modern music antiquarian, Wanda Landowska, revived the original versions. She is reputed to have told the cellist Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way, I’ll play him ‘his’ way.”
Ruzickova, who was prevented from studying under Landowska by the rise of the Nazis, finished what the Polish-Parisienne had begun. Over nine years in the 1960s and 1970s, while the world stayed fixated on the piano, she became the first artist to record JS Bach’s entire oeuvre for the harpsichord. And why? Because, she says, “Each time I played the harpsichord I felt more in tune with Bach and more out of tune with the piano…he had stolen my heart…he had become my philosophy and my confession…how much we had in common. His two constant companions were music and death.” Bach’s private holocaust had been bereavement by illness. Both his parents, all his siblings, his first wife, four of his seven children by her, and eight of his 13 children by his second wife, died before his eyes. No wonder Bach, the harpsichord, and Zuzana hit just the right note.
That she managed to play at all, never mind play so much fugally complex Bach, will stretch the credulity of anyone who reads this autobiography of grit and endurance. Ruzickova was born in a Czech-Jewish family that was financially affluent and musically rich. There were fine pianos for sale and teachers even in her small town of Plzen, and she soon attracted notice there as a prodigy.
The natural trajectory for promising European pianists, as Mozart and Beethoven had shown, was to head straight for Vienna, which Ruzickova may well have done had it not been for Hitler, who’d taken over the city before Zuzana was out of her pigtails. By the time she was 14, 80,000 Czech Jews had been herded into a ghetto called Terezin. A fellow prisoner whom Ruzickova remembers from this camp was Kafka’s sister. Her clothes apart, the young Zuzana was allowed to take some reading material: her choice was the score of Bach’s English Suite No. 5 because “It was such wonderfully simple music, and so moving. It showed a face one doesn’t usually associate with Bach. It showed tenderness.” It was also much needed — within months, her father died a hideous death in the ghetto.
And yet Terezin was Edenic by comparison with what followed. Ruzickova was transported to Auschwitz. All the horrors of life there are given new weight by her recollections. I looked ghoulishly for the worst thing she recalled and discovered two: first, that the Jews often prayed the gas chambers wouldn’t run out of gas while killing them, because, on the few occasions they did, the Nazis poured petrol on those still alive and put a match to their bodies. And second, the selection of pretty Jewish girls who were led to believe that by sleeping with senior Nazi officers they would be saved from the doom awaiting the rest, but who were repeatedly raped and then thrown to the wolves.
Ruzickova has structured her memoir with an intelligence suggesting her idol’s liking for the fugue — she uses alternating voices that diverge, overlap, and harmonise. Chapters on her intense musical happiness blend contrapuntally with others on the savagery of the world around her.
Schindler’s Ark, The Pianist, Mephisto, Playing for Time, and the genre of Holocaust literature show tiny flames of hope and success being kept alive even during Armageddon. In them, Hitler and Stalin are occasionally evaded or overcome by the subterfuge of art. This book, thematically of a piece with those books and films, is pitched slightly differently. The intensity of its narrator’s preoccupation with Bach, and the magnitude of her professional success in interpreting his work, provide us constant and repeated reassurance that when the devotion to it is absolute and sustained, music is the ultimate and inexplicable miracle.
(Rukun Advani is the publisher of Permanent Black)