Pianist  Rudolf  Firkušný

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


One of the very few little gimmicks that I used during my interviews of musicians was to get them to do a station break.  I would hand them a card which read, "Hello.  This is _____, and you
’re listening to Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago."  They would then speak it while inserting their name, and it would be done; simple and quick, no muss, no fuss.  While they were sometimes used on the air, they provided me with the correct pronunciation of their name.  One time, the announcer on the syndicated broadcast of a famous orchestra said the conductor’s name wrong and I later corrected it on the air.  I received phone calls telling me that the syndicated announcer must be right and I was a boob for thinking I knew better.  So the next day I brought in the tape I had with that conductor and simply played the station break with artist speaking his own name correctly.  I never heard back from those original callers, but I always hoped they had heard the authentic version.

That story was brought back to my mind when I was editing this conversation with pianist Rudolf
Firkušný because I had been hearing a couple of ways of saying the name of the composer Janáček.  So I asked the pianist directly and he gave me a quick lesson in how to pronounce it.  Being a radio announcer, I wanted to get it right...  He told me that it is virtually three identical syllables.  The natural accent is on the first, but the diacritical mark brings up the second, so it becomes yah-nah-chek, with each given almost equal weight, though there is the slightest extra stress on the first.  So then I spoke it a couple of times and he approved.  His own name comes out similarly, feer-koosh-nee, giving all three syllables about the same with slight emphasis on the first. 

He had a wonderful and glorious career starting at a very early age.  Those details are related in the tribute which is reprinted at the end of this article. 

As always, I used parts of this conversation on the radio a few times, and it is with great pleasure that I present it again on this website.  Naturally, we began with his heritage . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You have a knowledge and a passion for all Czech composers.  Where does Dvořák fit into that catalogue?

Rudolf Firkušný:    We have two great classical composers, I would say, which started, if you want to call it, the National School of Czech Music
Smetana, and Dvořák.  Both a little bit different, because Smetana was more interested in opera, and Dvořák was interested in practically every formsymphonies, chamber music, operas, you name it.

BD:    Can we put them together like, say, Bartók and Kodály, or Wagner and Verdi, as a kind of pairing?

cdcoverRF:    Well yes and no, because Smetana was very strongly influenced by Wagner and by others. 
Dvořák started to write opera early, but his major operas came rather late in his life.  He was much more in the line of Brahms and the Viennese School; he was also writing more symphonies and string quartets.  But there is one similarity:  both of these composers were trying to write operas which would be for the Czech audience, because up to this time there was no Czech opera.  Opera was only German, you know, the modern operas.  There was practically no operatic literature in Bohemia, so when Smetana came back from his stay in Sweden, he became conductor of the National Theaterfor a very short time because he soon became deafand decided that something had to be done to provide the people with repertory.  And of course, he wanted to take something which was very accessible to the general Czech audience, such as Bartered Bride with its village scenes, Dalibor, which is kind of mythological, Libuše, which was one of the mythological princesses, and things that were really more in the folk vein.  And Dvořák did more of less the same, you know.  Dvořák also started to write in this way, with very simple librettos and very simple stories, but the kind of music which was very easy to understand, and which became quite popular in a short time.  His great opera is Rusalka, one of his last operas, which became his Bartered Bride, the most popular opera in Czechoslovakia.  I saw it when I was four years old! [Laughs]  This opera never, never crossed the border.  Of course it was very popular in Czechoslovakia, but it never really came to the international stage, with the exception of Vienna.  In America there was only one production, in Charleston for the Spoleto Festival, and the Juilliard School gave it once.  So when it was just done in Seattle, this was really the first big performance on this continent, and I’m happy to say, a very fine success.  So I hope it travels more now!

BD:    You’re looking for more productions?

RF:    There may be more productions, yes!

BD:    As a pianist, you seem to have an interest in the opera... or is it just all Czech music that is close to your heart?

RF:    I have interest in all music; not only piano music, but opera, chamber music, symphony music, songs, you name it.  And my interest in opera was really due to the circumstances.  I spent my young years in Brno, which was the second largest city in Czechoslovakia.  It is a provincial city where a wonderful man, Mr. Janáček, lived.  But as there was no symphony orchestra, we had more opera than anything else.  So I saw more opera when I was young than I saw when I came out of Czechoslovakia!  I like opera and I saw a number of things which were very interesting
things out of the ordinary like Pelléas et Mélisande.  That was really quite extraordinary for the provincial town which we had!  Then Janáček became a great figure in the city, and the premieres of his operas were done in Brno.  Then they started, of course, to go out to Prague and Vienna and other places such as Germany, and finally even to this country! [Laughs]  It took a long time, but they are coming.

BD:    You studied with
Janáček.  Is he part of a direct line back to Smetana and Dvořák?

RF:    Not quite, but he is in the line.  Smetana and
Dvořák turned very much to the roots of the Czech folklore, Bohemian folklore.  Dvořák certainly also turned to the Moravian folklore.  Janáček also drew his great inspiration from the folklore, but from an area which is quite different from the Czech folklore; it’s from the little part of the country which is very close to the Polish border, called Silesia.  That folklore was much richer and, I would say, much more closely related to the Oriental folklore, like Slovaks and Hungarian.  So in this way they are in the same line, but every one went in a quite different direction.  Janáček was much more advanced than the composers before, and he didn’t study with Dvořák.  He was fairly autodidactic; he didn’t study with anyone.  He just was an extraordinarily talented composer, and was misunderstood for many, many years because the people couldn’t put together that somebody who has not had traditional training and traditional way of composing could do something good.  Finally he proved that he can! [Both laugh]  So in this way, I would say this is a national trend.

janecekBD:    Do you feel that you are the keeper of the flame of

[Portrait of Janáček at right]   

RF:    Well, I studied with him.  Actually he discovered me when I was very young, and took me under his wingwhich was quite extraordinary because he was a man of a certain age.  He was well over sixty, and I was a little nothing of five years.  He took enormous interest in me, showed great patience and really, somehow, became my guidenot in piano, because he was not interested in piano, but in composition and in music theory.  He wanted me to teach piano, and he was somehow always there to give advice.  He took very great interest in me at that time, not only concentrating on music, but in studying and doing other things as well, so that music should be just part of a general education.   Of course it was wonderful for me because even in my very early age, I realized that I am in presence of somebody very, very special and very great.  By this time his fame started to become more recognized and he became a very celebrated composer.  So I was very proud because he invited me always to attend the premieres of his operas in his box in Brno, since I was nine years old.  He always behaved like I was adult.  I mean, he understood the child’s mentality, but he didn’t do anything which would be just for a child.  He treated me as a little adult, and I was taken very seriously.  Naturally that got me very close to his music.  I loved it very much because I was there when it was being created.  I saw practically all the first performances of his great works.  We played his music together on four hands very often when I was older.  So, as Janáček was not recognized as he should have been for a long time even in my own country of Czechslovakia, I decided that my sacred duty is to carry the torch.  The only trouble is he didn’t write enough for piano! [Both laugh]  Really, his most important things are not the ones which he wrote for piano, but operas, and in the later years the Sinfonietta.  Nevertheless, even the things which were for piano, which goes rather to his earlier period, show his individuality.  They are different from others compositions of this period.  He was not influenced by any of the currents which were going at this time; he was just going his own way, and now I’m very happy to see that he’s becoming quite popular.  Many of my colleagues now include Janáček in their repertory, which I’m very happy to see because my labor of love was not completely wasted!

BD:    Is there anything in particular about
Janáček that speaks directly to the Czech people, or is it really a universal music?

RF:    It is universal music, but some of his operas
like the most famous, Jenůfadeal with the Moravian village.  There is a certain kind of atmosphere which is very Moravian, not so much in music because he never used direct quotation of any folklore, but sometimes he tried to compose his music in the way of the folklore.  So of course it’s very close to the people of this region, but I think it’s universal.  The only thing which I think is quite important is that if the Janáček operas can be done in the Czech language, it’s better because his accent, his declamation and his diction were really so much the Czech language.  Even the best translation doesn’t really give the exact feeling.  Everything is connected with the music, you know.  The translations are quite good.  In New York I saw From the House of the Dead, which was in English; it was very good.

BD:    But you would prefer it in Czech with supertitles?

RF:    In Czech, with supertitles, yes.  I think somehow it goes better with the music.  But of course, I know it in Czech, so the moment I hear it, I hear it anyway in Czech!  No matter how they sing it — they can sing it in Chinese or Japanese
I still will hear it in Czech! [Laughs]

martinuBD:    I see!  Now the other modern Czech composer is Martinů.
    [Photo of Martinů at left]   

:    Martinů, yes.  I would say he is the continuation of this line
Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, because although he spent most of his life outside of Czechoslovakia, he really became very Czech composer.  He came very much back to his roots and he also came back to the folklore, not using it directly, but in a general way.  So I think that this tradition continues in Martinů although he didn’t study with either Dvořák or Janáček.  He was also practically an autodidact, and his only study actually was in France with Albert Rousselwhich was way away from the Czech.  But then more and more, especially when he was older, he was getting closer and closer and closer to the Czech folklore.  So finally I think he really became really a Czech composer.

BD:    Is there more piano music from Martinů than there is from

RF:    He wrote a lot, yes.  He wrote a lot of piano music because he was very prolific.  He wrote in all kinds of combinations
operas, trios, chamber music, sonatas.  For piano he wrote many, many, many smaller pieces and then he wrote two important pieces.  One is called Fantaisie and Toccata, which, by the way, he wrote for me and dedicated to me; and then the Sonata.  He also wrote six piano concertos, so I really can’t complain! [Laughs] There we have plenty.

BD:    Have you played all six?

RF:    Not all six, but I’ve played four of them.  The first I don’t consider that interesting because it was very early work, and one was commissioned by a lady pianist who had the exclusivity for some time, so I didn’t get into it.  But maybe I will still do it.  The third was also written for me, and I played it a long time ago here with the Chicago Symphony. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your time between concerts with orchestra, and solo recitals, and chamber music?

RF:    Here in the United States, I would say there are more orchestra appearances than recitals.  In Europe, it’s just the other way around — more recitals than orchestras.  And chamber music, I just do it whenever the opportunity comes.  I don’t have any ensemble which would be playing always together; I play with different groups, with different colleagues.  I love chamber music; it’s a great joy for me, so whenever I have the opportunity and am asked to do it, I do it!  I’m looking forward now to playing in New York, with the Chamber Music Society there.  We will do the
Dvořák Quintet, which of course is the great quintet in the literature.  With these colleagues, we never played it together!

BD:    So you’ll all explore, then?

RF:    Yes.  I know them all, but we never played this particular piece.

earlyBD:    Well, from the huge repertoire of piano music, either concertos or solo literature, how do you decide
beyond the Czech literaturewhich pieces you will study and spend time on, and which you will let go?

RF:    I was always, of course, especially interested in Mozart, which you can do all your life and you are never ready! [Laughs]  This is not speaking of Beethoven, of course, not speaking of Brahms, Schumann, and the great classical things.  And then I was always interested also in the contemporary works.  As I mentioned, I played the Martinů Concertos.  When I was in Czechoslovakia, I played concertos of the contemporary composers.  In the United States I did a performance of the Howard Hanson Concerto, and the Gian Carlo Menotti Concerto.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]  I was always trying to go with the time.  I was very curious to see what’s going around, and whether to bring my contribution to the music of my day.  And of course you have to naturally concentrate most on the so-called stand-out classical repertory because this is mostly in demand.

BD:    If someone brings you a brand new work and you look at it, how do you decide if you will play it or if you will pass it along to someone else?

RF:    Well, you know, this is very easy.  It’s not as easy now as it used to be, I must say, but when I was younger I was a very good sight reader.  I was able practically to sight read anything which came on the piano.  So I just played it through and it gave me some kind of general idea whether I feel the affinity with this kind of music or not.  The moment I had the feeling that I could somehow cope with it, then I started to study it.  So it was not a difficult choice.  Beside that, there was such a great choice; there were so many things, sometimes you would have loved to do not one, but three or four things.  But the time was too short to do everything you would love to do!  Now it’s a little bit different — I am speaking of the very latest compositions, the school of the avant-garde and electronics, and all this.  This is a little bit foreign to me, I must admit.  I don’t have this feeling that I understand it well enough to dig into it.  I’m very much interested in it and I love to listen to it.  I’m very curious about it, but I don’t have this feeling that I would really understand it as much as I would like to.  So therefore, I don’t play any of the very, very, very last pieces.  I stopped the studying with Schoenberg.

BD:    We seem to be coming back to a little more tonally centered music.  Does this please you?

RF:    It’s very interesting to watch what is going on because I think that musical evolution will be quite interesting in the next years.  I don’t know if it will go back to tonality or not; that is hard to say.  But something is happening and I think it’s good.  But still, it’s very hard to say what will stay and what will change, or what will follow.  It’s very hard.

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write piano music?

RF:    No.

BD:    [Somewhat amazed]  None at all???

RF:    No, because the composer has to write what he feels and what he wants to write.  If nobody likes it but he, that’s good enough! [Laughs]  This is the privilege of the creative artist.  He can really do what he wants, but basically the piano music is very good in modern composers.  It’s a fine instrument, you know.  Somehow it seems that it’s very easy for the composers to write for piano, and maybe a few can in such an extraordinary way, like Ravel or Prokofiev, or this kind of really super-pianistic works.  But it’s always interesting.  Always there are some very, very fine things in piano literature.

BD:    When you’re playing a piano work by any composer, from Mozart right through to today, do you find that you are creating it, or are you merely interpreting?

RF:    I think creating is a too strong word.  Of course, we are trying to do justice to the written text which the composer left us, and we try to be as humble as possible and try to follow or to understand his ideas.  But actually there is something of you which always comes in, which I think is right because otherwise it would be very difficult if everybody would play the same thing.  Everybody brings some kind of individual touch to it, but basically, in my case, I always try somehow to observe as much as possible the composer’s intentions.

BD:    And this brings me to one of my favorite questions
what is the purpose of music?

RF:    Well, that’s a good question.  First of all, I think it’s absolutely necessary to have music around because especially in the times like this one
in fact, any timesit’s something which is here, which is eternal, which is always moving, which is always lifting people up.  I am very sorry for the people who don’t like music.  I think they are poorer because the music can give you a great, great deal of not only pleasure, but also a great deal of satisfaction and a great deal of passivity of thinking and meditating.  And it can give all kinds of fantasies, you know.   You don’t need to actually have the knowledge of a musician; you can just love music and you can enjoy it.  I think that’s the purpose of music, to bring this.  We have Raphael and Michelangelo and Da Vinci and others in the visual arts; we have Bach and Mozart and Beethoven which are like gothic cathedrals of music.  It’s something which belongs to civilization and to the general humanity.  It’s not only music, it’s part of something which gave us this world.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I asked about advice to composers.  What advice do you have for young pianists coming along?

cdcoverRF:    There are many wonderful pianists and they are all very good.  I think they just have to try to find themselves, in a way, because at the beginning they are going in certain directions.  Especially nowadays when there are so many competitions, that gives you some kind of ideas which they want to do.  But later they start touring and they start to develop their own personality, and I think it’s important.  I think a personality is important because that is what makes the music really alive.  Someone is coming who is playing the notes
which are always the samebut nevertheless it’s different if you hear it from A or from B.  It’s really the question of touch and of the sound and of general conceptions.  That’s what makes the music alive, otherwise it would be a dead thing.  The same goes for recording.  You can hear the most wonderful recordingand there are wonderful recordings — but after a while it’s always the same.  It’s great, but you know this is it.  When you go to the concert, it’s then a performance which may be not so great as the recording, but it lives.  It’s there and somehow you hear that it’s created right on the spot on the spur of the moment.

BD:    You’ve made a number of wonderful recordings.  Do you ever feel you’re competing against them when you play the same work in a concert?

RF:    Well, you know, we try always to do something different, which unfortunately you can’t do when you finish the recording, because it’s there to be.  That’s the certain advantage of concerts
you can afford this luxury to try to do something a little bit different.  When I listen to the recordings, very often I say, “Oh, my, I wish I could do it again!” because now I do it another way.  But it’s there, so you can’t change it!

BD:    Are you pleased, though, with the recordings that you’ve made?

RF:    We’ve tried to do our best.  We’ve tried to be honest and to do it in such a way that we don’t feel to be ashamed of ourselves in the future.  But naturally, you sometimes have different ideas, and sometimes I hear the recordings and I would like to do them again today.

BD:    Is one idea right and the other wrong, or are they just different?

RF:    We are changing and becoming more involved in the things.  Sometimes it depends very much on the actual mood
— you have the feeling that you are doing something that’s just right in this moment.  Other times I wish I could do something else, but I have to do what has to be done!

BD:    Do you ever feel you’re a slave to the keyboard, or a slave to your fingers?

RF:    Well, we have to practice, unfortunately! She’s a necessary evil!  But it’s also a pleasure, you know.  If you like it, you don’t mind it.

BD:    You tour all over the world, and when you come to a new city, you come to a new piano.  How long does it take before that piano, under your fingers, is your instrument?

cdcoverRF:    Ah, that’s the greatest problem for the pianist because each pianist is different, as is each piano.  No matter how good it is, it’s still a different piano, no matter what.  Sometimes it doesn’t take long and you have the feeling that you are in harmony with the piano; sometimes you just have to fight it and you never feel that you are a hundred percent master of it.  On the other hand, again, there is a little compensation because each piano is a little different, so it also forces you to see a little bit differently and to try the possibilities of the instrument.  So it has two sides.  But nowadays, most of the pianos are pretty good.  In the older days it was a different story.  Sometimes I played a horrible piano, and then of course you can’t do anything.  But now it’s very, very good.  Occasionally you still find a bad piano. [Laughs]  And of course, the other important thing is the acoustics of the hall; the same piano can sound different in one hall than the other hall.  In one hall it is wonderful and in the other hall it doesn’t sound at all.  It’s very important to know about things other than the instrument, meaning the acoustic conditions and all this.

BD:    Do you take into account the audience that is there
— not just acoustically but also in your interpretation and your feelings?

RF:    The audience?  Yes, of course.  I am aware of the audience, but I forget the audience.  I’m aware of it, that it’s there, but I’m not conscious of it!  When I go onstage, I start to get completely involved in the music, and I am not thinking there are people.  Of course, I know the audience is there, so I have to behave! [Both laugh]

BD:    [Peevishly]  You mean if the audience was not there you would not behave?

RF:    Well, maybe not!  Who knows! [Laughs] I might say, “Well, I don’t want to play this piece; I want to play something different.  I don’t want to follow the program which is printed; I’ll play, instead of this sonata, the other sonata.”  But then you come and there’s an audience and a printed program, so you have to play what is there!

BD:    Couldn’t you say that in place of this I will play that?

RF:    Well, you can, but it’s not always very popular because some people say, “Oh, we just wanted to hear this particular piece, and then he didn’t play it!”

BD:    I see.  Now some of these pieces you have played for years and years and years.  When you come back to them after either not playing them for a number of years, or even from a series of performances, do you rethink and restudy the score right from the beginning?

RF:    Yes, always, always, yes.  I always come to it as if I am playing it for the first time.  I start sometimes from scratch.

BD:    You get a clean score?

RF:    Mm-hm.  Of course there are certain things which are basically always the same, but I always start and will try to find something which we didn’t see before.  Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t succeed.  It depends.

BD:    Do you find more in greater music?

RF:    Of course, yes.  In the great music there is so much hidden which sometimes the lifetime is not long enough to really grasp it completely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there a different technique when you’re playing in front of an orchestra than if you’re playing alone or playing chamber music?

cdcoverRF:    No, it is the same.  Of course in chamber music you have to try to balance the sound with the other instruments.  With the orchestra, usually there’s always the so-called leading actor of the drama.  The orchestra usually is trying to go a little bit down, to give the soloist the possibility to come through.  When you play alone, you can afford to do things which maybe you couldn’t do with the orchestra; certain pianissimos, certain nuances which you can’t do in the orchestra.  You have to be a little bit careful, because after all, playing with the orchestra is like playing chamber music.  I speak of the great concertos like Brahms and Mozart and Beethoven.  It’s not just accompaniment; it goes all together.  The orchestra is as important as the solo instrument, so you have to take it into consideration and when it’s necessary, you have to go in the background to give the orchestra the lead.  At other points, the orchestra goes in the background when the soloist has the lead.  So it’s a kind of give and take.  And the conductor is very important because he is the one who is trying to find the right balance between instruments.  He has to follow the soloist and he has to hold the orchestra together.  So the conductor is very important.

BD:    The conductor has to follow the soloist?

RF:    Usually they try, yes.  They are very kind and they know the soloist has played this piece for many years and has a certain way of playing.  If they don’t quite agree with everything, they try to follow
unless you come to some open clashes, which happens occasionally! [Laughs]

BD:    What can you do if you’re fighting the conductor?

RF:    Nothing.

BD:    Nothing at all?

RF:    I don’t know; I don’t think so.  I must say I have never had to, with one exception; otherwise I never had any difficulties with the conductor.  But I know some cases that are little dramas.

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago after this engagement?

RF:    No, not this year.

BD:    Perhaps in succeeding years?

RF:    I don’t know yet.  Maybe.  At my age, I don’t make the plans.  They are making some plans, but I don’t make the plans anymore.

BD:    You let them make the plans for you?

RF:    Exactly.  When it comes, it comes.

BD:    Well, we’re glad you have come and hope you do return.

RF:    I’m very happy to.  I always like to come to Chicago because it’s a wonderful city with a wonderful audience and a wonderful hall.  And I’m sure of a good piano!  I understand that Mr. Barenboim is taking over the Symphony.  Is Solti still here?  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.] 

BD:    Solti will become Conductor Emeritus and he will come back almost as much as he did during his directorship. 

portraitRF:    It’s a great orchestra, really a great orchestra, Chicago.  Wonderful orchestra.  You know, I played with them a long time ago, in 1941 at Ravinia with Thomas Beecham.  That was the first time I played here.  It was sort of a distant orchestra, but now it became super.  I think Barenboim is a good man for the position.  I think it was a good choice.

BD:    Is it impressive for you that we have a pianist as conductor rather than, say, a violinist or some other kind of conductor?

RF:    I think it’s wonderful to have a pianist conductor.  Not many of them are really pianists; they are string players.  Toacanini was a cellist.  Of course sometimes it’s an advantage for a conductor if he was a string player because he knows the bowing and other things which he can explain to the string players.  With the pianist, you don’t have this knowledge.  But Barenboim has such a great experience conducting for so many years; he’s as at home with the baton as he is with the piano.

BD:    Is playing the piano fun?

RF:    Yes, yes, it is and it is not!  It depends.  But mostly it’s fun. 
Fun maybe is not the right word, but it gives you great satisfaction so let me put it this way.  And if you really live with it, it’s practically part of you.  You feel that the piano belongs to you, and even you belong to the piano!  So that’s nice.  It’s like any instrument.  The violinist has his violin, and it is his second wife — or first wife, sometimes.

BD:    Well, do you feel you’re married to your piano?

RF:    In some ways, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about the little bagatelles with harmonium.

RF:    Oh, it’s interesting.  They are charming pieces which
Dvořák wrote for his friends.  In the home they performed it, they didn’t have a piano but they had the harmonium.  He just made it for a nice gift to a group of his friends who played chamber music.  In the older days there was a lot of chamber music playing at homeespecially in my country — by people who were not actually musicians, but pharmacists or lawyers or doctors.  They started to play quartets.  It was a kind of hausmusik, and these pieces were written for this occasion.  They are very charming pieces, but it sounds better on the piano, anyways.

lpcoverBD:    [Surprised]  Oh, really?  I don
’t think I’ve heard them with piano.

RF:    I think so, yes.  The harmonium is all right, but this harmonium, which is the one on the recording, is a modern harmonium which is not the harmonium for which
Dvořák wrote it.  He wrote for the old harmonium.

BD:    You mean even for harmonium we have to go back to an
original instrument?

RF:    This is electrical, you know.  It’s electrical.

BD:    Oh, I see — you didn’t have to pump it.

RF:    That
’s right.  And this changes the sound a little bit.  The old one has a little bit gentler sound, but they couldn’t find an old harmonium in New York.

BD:    [Incredulous] Really???

RF:    Impossible, no.

BD:    Not even in a church basement, or something???

RF:    No — yes, but electric. 

BD:    We have all these original-instrument movements in the orchestra, perhaps we should start an original-instrument movement for the harmonium!

RF:    There’s not much written for it, but it was a popular instrument in our country because the pianos were expensive, and many people couldn’t afford to have a piano.  A harmonium was a little bit more accessible, so the schools had a harmonium. 
Janáček had a harmonium.  His first piano piece was written for harmonium.  Not for piano, but for harmonium!  And at the end of his life when he returned to the place where he was born and spent all the summer there, he had the harmonium there and he composed on the harmonium.  So the harmonium is important.  But now, even in Bohemia, they don’t have many of these old harmoniums!

BD:    Are we losing the tradition of hausmusik?

RF:    Yes, definitely.  There are too many recordings and too many radio programs.

BD:    [Laughs]

RF:    Now you can hear the symphony everywhere.  Before, you had to go to a concert or you had to do yourself.  Now you push the button and you can hear whatever you want.

BD:    Guilty as charged! [Both laugh]

RF:    Well, it’s wonderful.  It’s wonderful, but in a way it’s true, you know.  The people don’t have this feeling of doing it themselves.  They say, “Why should we bother?  They do this much better than we ever would.”  So that’s a pity, but that’s how our world’s changed.  There’s not so much time; there’s too much going on
television, and all this.  Before, there was nothing.  The greatest joy was people meeting to make music or to play cards!  That was the entertainment; not even movies in the old days.

BD:    Well, is music art, or is music entertainment?

RF:    Both.

BD:    And where is the balance?

RF:    How to approach it.  For the professional musician, it’s the art.  For the amateur, it’s entertainment because it gives him joy.  He knows that he’s not doing it the way a professional would do it, but it gives him, sometimes, more joy than it does the professional.

BD:    Thank you for bringing so much art
— and joyto us.

RF:    Thank you.  It was nice meeting you.

Rudolf Firkusny, an Elegant and Patrician Pianist, Is Dead at 82

Published: Wednesday, July 20, 1994, in the New York Times

Rudolf Firkusny, a Czech-born pianist known for his elegant performing style and his warm, patrician manner, died on Tuesday morning at his country home in Staatsburg, N.Y. He was 82 and lived in New York City.

The cause was cancer, said his press agent, Constance Shuman.

During a long career, Mr. Firkusny was a favorite of audiences, piano connoisseurs and Czech-music specialists alike. He achieved still wider recognition in his late years in unexpected ways. In 1990, at 78, he appeared on a basketball court in concert dress, as a foil to David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs in a popular television commercial for Nike sneakers. "Music needs all kinds of encouragement," Mr. Firkusny said at the time.

Honored in His Homeland

Shortly afterward, he made a triumphant return to Czechoslovakia, as the country was then still called. Although he had not performed there for 44 years because of his staunch opposition to Communist control, he was recognized for his lifelong contributions to Czech music and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague.

He said in an address on that occasion that a musical interpreter, like a philosopher, is engaged in an eternal search for the meaning of human existence. "If, throughout my life, I had not been asking myself exactly those questions over the scores," he added, "I would feel today that my life has been wasted by piano playing which was basically useless." He was greeted on that visit by President Vaclav Havel.

Mr. Firkusny's visibility grew in recent years even without particular action on his part. Although he was always a versatile artist and became especially involved with Mozart and Beethoven, his great specialty was the music of his compatriots, Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Martinu. Long condescended to as quaint nationalists, these composers have come into their own of late, and Mr. Firkusny's contribution has finally been recognized at its full value.

He played a major hand in the 1993 Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which centered on Dvorak. He gave a Janacek recital in the composer's hometown of Brno in October. His last performance was a recital in January in Covington, Ga.

Mr. Firkusny was born on Feb. 11, 1912, in Napajedla, Moravia. For 10 years, from the age of 5, he studied with Leos Janacek. "It was not piano but music that I studied with him," he said. "I composed also. It was a great experience."

He went on to study piano with Vilem Kurz and composition with Josef Suk, Dvorak's son-in-law, at the Prague Academy of Music. He pursued piano studies abroad, traveling to France to work with Alfred Cortot and to Germany and Italy to work with Artur Schnabel. "You do not need a teacher anymore, only the public," Cortot told him after conducting a Paris concert in which Mr. Firkusny was the soloist.

Imprudently billed as "the greatest pianist Czechoslovakia has ever produced," Mr. Firkusny made his American debut in 1938, at Town Hall in New York. In a review in The New York Times, Noel Straus remained skeptical beneath faint praise: "It seemed difficult to believe that his interpretative gifts, meager as they proved, or even his technical abilities, were superior to those of Dussek, Moscheles, Dreyschock or Stradal, to mention the first Czech pianists who come to mind."

But three years later in Town Hall, Straus found a "gain on the interpretive side as well as in technical virtuosity," which helped place Mr. Firkusny "well to the front among the younger pianists of the day." Subsequent New York reviews were remarkable, almost tedious, in their uniformity of praise for Mr. Firkusny's artistry. "Rudolf Firkusny comes with a guaranteed-to-please label, money back if not satisfied," Harold C. Schonberg summed up once and for all in 1971 in The Times.

Became American Citizen

Mr. Firkusny settled in New York in 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. With the Communist takeover in 1948, he abandoned plans to return to his homeland and became an American citizen. A fierce advocate of democracy, he returned to Czechoslovakia only to visit family and friends. He and his wife, Tatiana, were married there in 1960, and he maintained close ties with the family of the nation's first president, Tomas Masaryk.

In making music, Mr. Firkusny once said: "I have never considered myself the most important man. That is the composer." He gave up serious composition early but continued to cultivate relationships with composers, American as well as Czech, throughout his career. He formed a special friendship with Bohuslav Martinu, and brought several of his works to life. He played Martinu's Second Piano Concerto on his return to Prague in 1990.

Mr. Firkusny performed all over the United States as well as in Europe and Japan. He was a frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic and other major American orchestras and a favorite collaborator of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a regular fixture at the Mostly Mozart festival and in other series in New York and a valued chamber musician. He taught at the Juilliard School.

He made many excellent recordings, notably his third version of the Dvorak Piano Concerto, with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic; a superb disk of Janacek solo works, and a collection of Czech songs with Gabriela Benackova, all on RCA Victor. Awaiting release from RCA are Martinu's Second, Third and Fourth Piano Concertos.

"If I want to play, I have to play damn well, otherwise I might as well close up shop," the perennially self-effacing pianist said two decades ago. He continued to please audiences and critics at least through the Bard Festival last year and closed up shop only in recent months, when he was physically unable to carry on.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Veronique Callegari of Manhattan; a son, Igor, of Boston, and two grandchildren.

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 2, 1990.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB the following year and in 1992, 1994 and 1997.  The transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2009. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.