ZUZANA: MUSIC IS LIFE is the triumphant story told by Zuzana Ruzickova, now 90, and how she became a world-famous harpsichordist and interpreter of Bach under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia after surviving three concentration camps during her teenage years. Zuzana Ruzickova’s story is remarkable not just because she returned to Czechoslovakia after the war to fulfill her childhood dream of a career in music; but also in how she navigated Communist and anti-Semitic persecution at home, while becoming a tour-de-force in concerts and competitions around the world. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Zuzana and her husband, famed Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, worked tirelessly to bring musical education to people throughout the Czech Republic. They are widely credited with helping create Prague’s reputation as a musical city.
Speaking in English with candid wit and piercing irony, Zuzana tells how she went from having bubonic plague and damaged hands, to becoming the first and only person in the world to record all the keyboard works of Bach. As she navigates a life of hope and fear, the little-known story of Czechoslovakia emerges, from the promise of 1930s democracy to the Nazi invasion, followed by the grinding brutality of forty years behind the Iron Curtain. When Zuzana fell in love with Viktor, a critic of the regime who was not Jewish, both knew that their marriage put him in danger. The communists deprived them both of salaried teaching positions and university degrees. Describing her revulsion at mandatory Marxist-Leninist youth camps, Zuzana strikes a fragile balance between rejecting membership in the Communist Party, and performing Bach for the profit and prestige of the regime. When she was sent to Germany in 1956 to compete in the Munich ARD Music Competition – which she won – Zuzana recalls her reluctance to go, fearing she’d see former prison guards in the audience. But her husband said that she had a greater purpose: to be ‘the Jew who brought Bach back to Germany,’ thus helping rejuvenate the sophisticated culture that the Nazis destroyed.
Zuzana Ruzickova chose to play only the harpsichord, because Bach composed all of his keyboard music for that instrument. She was lauded for her transcendent interpretation of Bach, and is widely credited with helping revive the harpsichord during the 1960’s, which was considered obscure and outmoded. Born in 1927, Zuzana Ruzickova is among the last articulate, eye-witnesses to Eastern European history during the Nazi and Communist regimes.
When we embarked on this production, the idea resonated with historical meaning. Three years later, with the accelerating rise of fascist politics around the world, Zuzana’s first-hand accounts are imbued with a new level of stark, cautionary meaning. Few films this harrowing leave people feeling buoyant and inspired. But Zuzana’s story resonates through the music, her optimism and her conviction that her survival was due not just to a hundred miracles, but to her love of Bach.
The Complete Keyboard Works of Bach, which took a decade to record starting in 1964, was digitized and re-released by Warner Music in a 20-CD box set in October. Since then Zuzana Ruzickova has been interviewed in print, radio and TV by BBC, NPR, London Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, ZDF, Die Zeit, Jewish Chronicle, ‘Playground’ in Italy, and Gramophone UK.
Our film trailer has had 21,300 views on Facebook.
In Zuzana Ruzickova's words: Being a performer behind the Iron Curtain
"Every three months we had a so-called evaluation when somebody from the (Communist) Party came and asked us questions. One day one of them said, 'Well okay, it is wonderful that you have great critics from abroad—but what about your political work?' .... So I said, 'Well you see, Bach was an employee of the Leipzig City Township. And as such he had to write these cantatas for the church. Maybe if Bach lived today in Prague, he would be an employee of the city of Prague. And that means he would have written his cantatas about Lenin'.
Well the man was flabbergasted. And afterwards of course I prayed to Bach and said, please excuse me...."
1968 – Artist of Merit (CZ)
1989 – National Artist (CZ)
Professor or the Academy of Music in Prague (CZ)
2004 – Chevalier des Arts et des Lettre (France)
2004 – Medal of Merit 2. Grade for Arts and Culture of the President of the Czech Republic
1993 – Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft der Freistadt Hamburg
1997 – Medal for Contribution to "Golden Funds of Supraphone"
2001 – Medal of "Harmony“ Musical Review
2001 - Prize for Contribution to Czech and World Music
Grand Prix Charles Cros (J. A. Benda, J. S. bach)
Diapason d´Or (Henry Purcell)
Golden Disc Supraphone (300 000 LP´s, CD´s 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 (Czech Republic)
Honorary citizen of the township Praha 3