Rudolf Firkušný (11 February 1912, Napajedla – 19 July 1994, Staatsburg, New York, USA) was a world-famous Czech pianist.
Firkušný was born the youngest of three children to the family of Rudolf Firkušný, a notary public. His musical talent was soon evident, since by the age of three he was already able to reproduce folk tunes on piano by ear to his own improvised accompaniment. Upon his father's premature death, Firkušný's mother moved with her children („Ruda“, his brother Leoš, later a noted musicologist, and their sister Marie) to Brno to search for better opportunities. /p>
Firkušný received his first music lessons from a theatre flutist in Brno, but the crucial moment, affecting his entire further career, was meeting with composer Leoš Janáček. Feared as an „enemy of child prodigies“, known as moody and a controversial teacher, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about little Ruda. After a very thorough examination, which revealed Rudolf's highly sensitive perfect pitch, he exclaimed, „such talent is born once in a century“. Janáček recommended that the boy study composition with him (the “boy” later passed the entrance auditions to the music school playing his own composition), and piano initially with Ludmila Tučková, the first interpreter of Janáček's well-known Piano Sonata (and the same lady, who saved its original score for future generations).
Under Janáček's supervision at the „organ school“ (promoted in 1919 to a conservatory, and today housing the Janáček Museum), Firkušný received his elementary education in a rather atypical way. Theory was taught exclusively in a hands-on manner. Firkušný and Janáček would play four-hand arrangements of the newest pieces by foreign authors (Debussy, Stravinsky, etc.), and also Janáček's own compositions; they attended concerts and operas, and analyzed orchestral scores. Janáček was in no way trying to impede Firkušný’s creative development; on the contrary, he constantly encouraged his student to create his own compositions, and at the same time tried to point out hidden consequences in the musical and extramusical content of the pieces, as well as the quest to find new solutions. While he was against concert tours in the „Mozartian“ manner, he personally helped organize the young pianist’s earliest performances. This young boy, whom Janáček addressed in a formal way, as though he were already an adult person, was for the composer like a substitute for his own lost children. Attesting to his love for „Ruda“ is one of his generous Christmas gifts, a score of „The Diary of One Who Vanished“ with a personal dedication, which Firkušný treasured to the end of his life.
After being admitted to the conservatory in Brno, Firkušný was accepted as a pupil of the most respected Czech pedagogue of the time, Professor Vilém Kurz, studying initially under the guidance of Kurz’s wife, Růžena Kurzová. Since he was also still a student of Leoš Janáček, he shortly thereafter became matriculated in the so-called „Master Course“ at the conservatory – thereby being simultaneously enrolled for a time at three different academic levels– elementary school, conservatory (high-school) and university (the master course). After his first official recital in 1920, at which he also improvised on folk songs, he soon came to be regarded as the foremost prodigy of the Czech performing school. After further impressive performances to extraordinary critical acclaim, he was chosen for the highest possible honor – on January 14th, 1922, just shy of his tenth birthday, he appeared as soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (playing Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto in D major).
Additional concerts in Vienna, Berlin and Paris followed, including both recitals and orchestral appearances (he had managed to learn many Mozart concertos and all of Beethoven’s during his early conservatory studies). He finished conservatory in 1927 (playing the 4th piano concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns) and later also graduated from high school in Bučovice, thereby fulfilling the wishes of both Janáček and Masaryk, who both insisted he have a well-rounded education. On the basis of a recommendation and a private audience, President Masaryk subsequently provided him with a scholarship for further studies abroad.
Firkušný concluded the Czech phase of his studies in 1929 when he graduated simultaneously from the class of Vilém Kurz as well as from his composition studies with Josef Suk, pupil and son-in-law of Antonín Dvořák, and Rudolf Karel, by playing his own piano concerto.
Thanks to the government scholarship, Firkušný could visit the „École normale de Musique,“ where he longed to study with the renowned French pianist Alfred Cortot. He took part in master classes by Marguerite Long and Yves Nat, but when he met Cortot to audition for him, the latter embraced him and said: „You do not need a teacher, but an audience!“ Instead of studies he offered him a performance, which he himself conducted, and invited him to be a member of the jury for a piano competition.
Nevertheless, modest Firkušný wanted to study more, despite the fact that he was already gaining an international reputation. He went on to attend master classes by the famous German pianist and pedagogue Artur Schnabel, and managed to impress him highly. It was thanks to Schnabel's recommendation that he was given the chance to collaborate with great conductors like George Szell and Erich Kleiber, which also proved helpful to his further career. At the age of twenty he was already touring Austria, Italy, Germany and Great Britain. When he finished his studies at the Master Course in Prague in 1931, he was recognized by the jury as an „accomplished virtuoso“.
Feeling that his main destiny lay with interpretation, he abandoned the path of becoming a composer and also stopped improvising at his concerts. He turned all the more assiduously to studying new works – during the thirties he played an unprecedented number of concerts featuring a broad repertoire, particularly Czech authors, including the contemporary ones. In 1933, under the baton of George Szell, he introduced Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor (in Kurz’s edition), initiating his lifelong mission of establishing this neglected work as part of the standard repertory. Around the same time he became friends with Bohuslav Martinů, and after a superb performance of the latter’s 2nd piano concerto, Firkušný became, up until the composer’s death, the foremost champion of his works. Naturally he also championed the works of his teacher Janáček (by now posthumously), and works by other Czech composers, such as A. Dvořák and B. Smetana, as well as J. Suk and V. Novák; also included were works by contemporaries such as Bořkovec, Blažek, Kvapil, Jirák, Kaprál, Hlobil, Petrželka, Štěpán, Husa, Jan Novák and Vítězslava Kaprálová, and the Slovak composers Suchoň and Moyzes. His friendship with Rafael Kubelík also dates to the thirties. Both titans of interpreting Czech and international music, together they embarked on many successful performances and recording ventures. Another conductor, who served as a source of inspiration and at the same time provided a strong support to Firkušný’s artistic career was the aforementioned George Szell, with whom Firkušný collaborated many times up until conductor's death in 1970.
Firkušný made his U.S. debut in 1938. He was still quite young, and while the performance was successful, it did not manage to create a sensation yet. Upon returning to his homeland, he had to cope with the upcoming military crisis in Central Europe. After saying goodbye to Czech audiences in 1939 in a performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Kubelík, he embarked on a concert tour that eventually led to emigration. At first he waited in France, in the company of other Czech artists (J. Mucha, B. Martinů, R. Kundera, etc.). Later on, with some luck and the help of friends, he was able to get through Spain to Portugal, and finally to New York, not yet knowing that this city would become his home for the rest of his life. This time he didn't leave anything to chance. At first, thanks to the help of Sir Thomas Beecham, he was invited to the open-air festival in Ravinia (playing Dvořák's Piano Concerto). Following this success, in 1941 he performed a carefully prepared recital in Town Hall. This time he was not only able to show himself off as a virtuoso, but also as a master „par excellence“. His performance received a strong positive reaction not only from the press but also from the distinguished audience, which included some great pianists, many of whom were residing temporarily or permanently in the U.S. at that time (these included Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau, and many others). All at once, upon signing an exclusive contract with the foremost concert agency of that time, Columbia Artists Management, Inc., the gates to the whole world were opened to him.
During the forties, thanks to his enormous dedication, Firkušný finally succeeded in establishing himself as one of the world’s great pianists. He embarked on many successful tours in North and South America (at Argentina’s Teatro Colón he even managed to break several notable records), and played with the foremost conductors and orchestras of the time. He returned to his fatherland after the Second World War, already hailed a world-class performer and the greatest Czech pianist in history. With Rafael Kubelík he performed an unforgettable rendition of the Dvořák Concerto at the Inaugural Prague Spring Festival in 1946. The next year he had to be absent due to an arm injury, and in 1948, as he, along with his friend Martinů, were anticipating the first performance of the composer’s Third Piano Concerto (written to be tailor-made for Firkušný), they received the unexpected news about the Communist coup. The persecution of the pianist’s friends and colleagues, the hunt after Talich, and especially the death of his close friend Jan Masaryk; the trampling and belittling of all the ideals of Masaryk’s „first republic;“ these factors led the pianist to make the difficult decision not to return to his homeland, but to stay in the USA.
Subsequently he became an American citizen, but that didn’t mean he relinquished his sense of nationality, or the culture in which he was raised. Quite the opposite. His commitment to promoting Czech music grew even stronger. In the early fifties he became the first person to release internationally a recording of Janáček’s piano works (for Columbia); Dvořák’s Piano Concerto (at this time still the Kurz edition, with some additional cuts; also for Columbia); and Smetana's Czech Dances (Capitol). He performed Dvořák's concerto for broadcast in collaboration with Guido Cantelli, and of course introduced a number of works by Bohuslav Martinů (premiering among others the Third Concerto; Fantasy and Toccata; Etudes and Polkas; and Ritournelles). He was likewise recognized as an interpreter of the international repertoire – his recordings of the Brahms D Minor Concerto and Beethoven Nos. 3 and 5 (with Steinberg and Süsskind, respectively), were acclaimed as among the best. Firkušný also became a much sought-after interpreter of new works by major American composers. Gian Carlo Menotti dedicated his Piano Concerto to him; Carlisle Floyd wrote him a Piano Sonata; Howard Hanson a Piano Concerto; and the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera gave him one of his personal favorite works to premiere – the Suite de Danzas Criollas. Samuel Barber personally made it possible (with permission by Vladimir Horowitz, himself a friend and admirer of Firkušný), for him to be the second interpreter (after Horowitz) to play his Piano Sonata, and the first to record his suite „Excursions“. Among other noted composers whose works Firkušný performed (often in collaboration with them), we should mention Carlos Chávez, Philip Glass, Francisco Mignone, Luigi Dallapicolla, David Diamond, Richard Yardoumian, Virgil Thompson and Paul Reif. For Capitol, he prepared a series of now legendary recordings of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Debussy. At the end of the 1950's, Firkušný’s longtime friend Bohuslav Martinů passed away. One of the crowning works of his later years is the Fourth Concerto. Known as „Incantation“, it was also written for Firkušný, who played it to great acclaim all over the world.
In the sixties, established as a pianist of world renown and a star in his own right, Firkušný decided to settle down. Known in the States as a seasoned „New Yorker“ (he appeared annually with the New York Philharmonic and was a regular guest at national festivals, as well as at the legendary Carnegie Hall), it was a completely logical step to choose for his teaching platform what is one the most renowned conservatories in the world – the famous Juilliard School. In addition to an apartment in Manhattan, he also purchased a summer residence in Staatsburg, close to New York, where he could devote his spare time to relaxation and study. Naturally he didn’t want to be alone in such a place – he decided to get married late in life, and met the woman who was to be his wife during a personal visit to his native country. Young Tatiana Nevolová became not only a wonderful life partner, able to ensure his privacy and organize his busy schedule, but also the mother of his two children, daughter Véronique and son Igor.
During that time he continued to make recordings, including successful albums for prestigious companies like Philips (Schubert), Deutsche Grammophon (Ravel, Mussorgsky), and Decca. For the latter company he also recorded an acclaimed collection of violin sonatas by Franck, Mozart and Beethoven, partnering with violin virtuoso Erica Morini. This collaboration received a GRAMMY nomination, as did his collaboration with the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (Chopin, Prokofiev). Firkušnýs reputation as a universal interpreter had already been established at time of his collaborations with other legendary performers, such as violinist Nathan Milstein (Beethoven), violist William Primrose (Brahms), and cellist Pierre Fournier (first performance of the cello sonata No. 1 by B. Martinů; recording of Brahms cello sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon). For VOX (Turnabout) he recorded piano concertos by Schumann and Mendelssohn (conducted by Froment). He would return once again to the Dvořák Concerto, this time recording his own arrangement, combining both editions and getting a little closer to Dvořák’s original version (and with no further cuts). In 1968 he played a recital at Carnegie Hall as a tribute to Czech emigration and to his native land’s musical heritage, presenting a cross-section of Czech music.
By the seventies he already had performed in more than forty countries across the world and at the most famous music festivals. Apart from his teaching work at The Juilliard School and at the Aspen Music Festival and School (Colorado), he would often sit on juries of prestigious competitions. He was nonetheless reserved about them, and always pointed out that a performer had to earn his fame above all on the concert stage. Once he walked off a jury, with whose decision he didn't agree. At The Juilliard School he passed his experiences on to a limited number of carefully selected pianists, mostly at the Master and Doctoral levels. Among his students during his almost thirty-year tenure as a member of the faculty, there were many successful piano virtuosos and pedagogues, including Eduardus Halim, Carlo Grante, Yefim Bronfman, Alan Weiss, Sara Davis Buechner, Avner Arad, Sergej Edelmann, Daming Zhu, Douglas Buys, Richard Cionco, Robin McCabe, Dora Nováková – Wilmington, Ken Noda, Edith Kraft and Donna Lee. Among his private students we should mention Annlynn Miller, Anya Laurence and Nina Deutsch. In addition to his distinguished artistry, he passed on to them his passion for Czech music. Many of them now carry on performing and recording pieces by Czech composers and further spreading the tradition across the American continent and the world.
Firkušný continued making recordings and also helped to prepare an edition of Mozart's violin sonatas for Schirmer (with R. Druian). His Deutsche Grammophon recording of piano works by Janáček (this time including the „concerto“ pieces performed with R. Kubelík), was nominated for many awards and now deservedly has reached the status of a classic. The set of recordings of Czech music featuring works by Dussek, Voříšek, Tomášek, Benda and Dvořák (VOX - Candide), was similarly esteemed. It was at this time that, after much consideration, Firkušný decided to return to the original unabridged version of Dvořák's Piano Concerto (recording with Walter Süsskind for VOX). In collaboration with The Juilliard String Quartet, he recorded Dvořák's piano quintets and quartets to great acclaim (Sony Classical). He performed Janáček's „Diary of One Who Vanished“ with the legendary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. He once again recorded Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 (with Kempe and Segal, respectively). A several times planned complete recording session was unfortunately never realized.
In the eighties Firkušný, in addition to his usual American and European tours, would appear more and more often in Asia, and he recorded a marvelous collection of LP's for the Audio Lab company, which are now sought-after collectors’ items (included are works by Beethoven, Schubert, Janáček, Mussorgsky and Mozart). By this time he already possessed a legendary status and his concerts were regarded as important occasions. He received an award from the city of New York for his longtime contribution to culture. Finally, he also recorded the piano concertos by Mozart, which he had interpreted successfully all his life (recording for the Intercord label with Ernest Bour conducting). In addition he continued playing recitals, as well as many chamber performances, such as those with American cellist Lynn Harrell and the Guarneri Quartet.
In the late eighties and early nineties Firkušný prepared a series of recordings for the well-known recording company RCA Victor. These included works by Janáček, Martinů (solo works and piano concertos with Libor Pešek); Dvořák (piano concerto with Václav Neumann; quintets with the Ridge Quartet); and Franck (Symphonic Variations). This was fleshed out with a recording of Czech songs with Gabriela Beňačková, and a recording of Martinů’s complete cello and piano sonatas with János Starker. Among the more unusual of his appearances was his starring in a TV commercial by NIKE.
Firkušný’s fervent activity on the brink of turning eighty (and exceptionally successful activity – four of the aforementioned recordings were awarded international prizes, and received several GRAMMY nominations), was not only a result of the pianist’s inexhaustible energy, but also of the significant changes taking place in his homeland, which eventually led to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Firkušný was among first who were asked to return to perform at the Prague Spring Festival. And so he did. After more than forty years of exile, he finally returned to his native land and chose for his performance in 1990 the 2nd Piano Concerto by his cherished friend, Bohuslav Martinů. Firkušný appeared with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek. In his homeland, where he hoped to settle down again, he performed more unforgettable concerts, including a recital with violinist Josef Suk, a performance of the Dvořák Piano Concerto (again with Jiří Bělohlávek), and the Piano Concerto in C Major by Mozart with Rafael Kubelík. In Brno he presented a recital dedicated to his Master, Leoš Janáček, and also played in his birthplace of Napajedla. He received several national awards, honorary doctorates from the Charles University in Prague and Masaryk University in Brno; the Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk Medal (given in recognition to persons who have made significant contributions to humanity, human rights and the development of democracy); and also an honorary doctorate from the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, the first time this institution honored anyone with such a tribute.
Rudolf Firkušný was a model patriot, always committed to his country's needs. He would generously donate his fees to art schools and foundations. One of his final accomplishments was an edition of selected Czech Piano works (Dover, 1995). He also planned to give a master class on Janáček's piano works at the Janáček Academy, but sadly this never came to pass. His recording of Mozart's Piano Quartet with the Panocha Quartet also remained unfinished. He died on July 19, 1994, at his home in Staatsburg, surrounded by his family, after a serious illness. Following the death of his wife Tatiana in 2005, his children decided to fulfill their parents’ mutual wish to be buried together in their homeland. Thanks to Professor Alena Veselá, this was made possible, and today Rudolf and Tatiana Firkušný rest among a circle of distinguished countrymen, including Leoš Janáček, at the Central Cemetery in Brno.