Fou Ts'ong Dies of Covid-19

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pianoman
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Fou Ts'ong Dies of Covid-19

Post by pianoman »

Politics aside, Ts'ong's version of the Chopin Mazurkas is an all-time great recording, in my opinion up there with Gould's Bach and Serkin's Beethoven. (He made a single-disc recording of Mazurkas on a period instrument in 2005; I refer to the 1984 recording available on Sony Classical.) Other recordings are not as popular (many dislike his Nocturnes), but Ts'ong's playing was always interesting and he recorded a good deal of repertoire. His Scarlatti is phenomenal--so precise yet so expressive. His Debussy is great. I find his Schubert rhythmically interesting. Ts'ong was probably the greatest Chinese pianist to have ever lived. RIP.

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https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/31/obit ... -dead.html
Fou Ts’ong, Pianist Whose Family Letters Inspired a Generation, Dies at 86

Driven from China during Mao’s rule, he kept up a correspondence with his father that became a beloved book in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

By Amy Qin
Published Dec. 31, 2020
Updated Jan. 1, 2021

Fou Ts’ong, a Chinese-born pianist known for his sensitive interpretations of Chopin, Debussy and Mozart, and whose letters from his father, a noted translator and writer, influenced a generation of Chinese readers, died on Monday at a hospital in London, where he had lived for many years. He was 86.

The cause was the coronavirus, said Patsy Toh, a pianist, who had been married to Mr. Fou since 1987.

Almost overnight, he became a national hero. To China’s nascent Communist-led government, Mr. Fou’s recognition in a well-known international competition was proof that the country could stand on its own artistically in the West. Chinese reporters flocked to interview Mr. Fou, while many others sought out his father, Fu Lei, a translator of French literature, for advice on child-rearing.

But the authorities’ good will did not last long.

Two years later, Mao Zedong initiated the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals, including Mr. Fu, were persecuted. Many were tortured and banished to labor camps. Mr. Fou, then studying at the Warsaw Conservatory in Poland, was made to return to China to undergo “rectification” for several months.

Not long after going back to Warsaw, he found himself in a quandary. Having witnessed the increasingly tumultuous political climate back home, he knew that if he returned to China upon graduation — as the government expected him to do — he would be expected to denounce his father, an unimaginable situation.

So in December 1958, Mr. Fou fled Communist Poland for London, where he requested political asylum.

“About my leaving, I always felt full of regret and anguish,” he recalled in an interview. So many intellectuals in China had suffered, he said, but he had escaped. “I felt uneasy, as if I owed something to all my friends,” he said.

After his defection, Mr. Fou maintained a written correspondence with his father in Shanghai — a special privilege that was said to have been approved by Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier.

Then, in 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos that upended Chinese society. Militant Red Guards accused Mr. Fu, a translator of writers like Balzac and Voltaire, of having “capitalistic” artistic taste, among other crimes. They humiliated and tortured him and his wife for days until the couple, like many other Chinese, were driven to suicide. Mr. Fou, still in London, did not learn of his parents’ deaths until months later.

In 1981, after China’s post-Mao government posthumously restored the reputations of Mr. Fou’s parents, a volume of letters written by his father, primarily to Mr. Fou, was published in China. Full of advice, encouragement, life teachings and stern paternal love, the book, “Fu Lei’s Family Letters,” became a best seller in China.

For many, Mr. Fu’s disquisitions on music, art and life offered a welcome contrast to the propaganda of Cultural Revolution, in which sons turned against fathers, students against teachers and neighbors against neighbors all in the name of politics.

“If you imagine the environment we grew up with, it was very rigid,” said Xibai Xu, a political analyst who first read Mr. Fu’s letters in middle school in Beijing. He added, “So when you read ‘Fu Lei’s Family Letters,’ you realized how a decent human life could be — a life that is very delicate and artistic, with real human emotions and not just ideology.”

Besides influencing a generation of Chinese, Mr. Fu’s words resonated long after his death with the person for whom they were intended.

“My father had a saying that ‘First you must be a person, then an artist, and then a musician, and only then can you be a pianist,’” Mr. Fou once recalled in an interview. “Even now, I believe in this order — that it should be this way and that I am this way.”

Under the strict supervision of their father, Mr. Fou and his brother, Fu Min, were educated in the classical Chinese tradition and grew up surrounded by both Western and Chinese cultural influences. As a child, Mr. Fou studied art, philosophy and music, frequently making use of his father’s phonograph and large record collection.

A lover of classical music from a young age, Mr. Fou began taking piano lessons when he was 7. One of his later teachers was Mario Paci, the Italian conductor of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra.

But the chaos of wartime China prevented him from receiving a systematic musical education. In 1948, Mr. Fou, then in his teens, moved with his family to the southwestern province of Yunnan, where he went through what he described as a rebellious period. It was only after returning to Shanghai several years later that he began to dedicate himself in earnest to the piano.

Mr. Fou made his first stage appearance in 1952, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The concert caught the attention of officials in Beijing, who selected him to compete and tour in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Fou moved soon to Poland, where he studied at the Warsaw Conservatory on a scholarship. To prepare for the fifth Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955, he practiced so diligently that he hurt his fingers and was nearly cut from the first round of competition.

After the deaths of his parents in 1966, Mr. Fou stayed abroad and became a renowned concert pianist on the international circuit, best known for his interpretations of Chopin but also winning acclaim in performing works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Debussy. Reviewing a 1987 recital in New York, Bernard Holland of The New York Times wrote of Mr. Fou’s “sensitive ear for color” and “elusive gift of melody.”

“We should hear Mr. Fou more often,” Mr. Holland wrote. “He is an artist who uses his considerable pianistic gifts in pursuit of musical goals and not for show.”

In 1979, after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Fou was granted permission to return to China for the first time in more than two decades, reuniting with his brother to hold a memorial service for their parents.

On subsequent visits he performed and lectured, becoming known as the “Piano Poet” for his lyrical musical interpretations. Later editions of “Fu Lei’s Family Letters” were updated to include some of Mr. Fou’s letters to his father.

Mr. Fou’s death came at a time of resurgent nationalism in China. On Chinese social media, some ultranationalist commentators called him a traitor to the country for defecting decades ago, echoing accusations that Mr. Fou faced in the 1950s after settling in London.

“What would I tell them? There was nothing to say,” Mr. Fou said of such critics in an interview. “It’s not that I was longing for the West.”

“I was choosing freedom,” he added. “It was not an easy situation. There was no other choice.”

Many other Chinese honored his memory, including well-known pianists like Li Yundi and Lang Lang, who called Mr. Fou “a clear stream in the world of classical music and a beacon of light in our spirit.”

“Fou Ts’ong’s legacy was to show people and musicians the importance of integrity, character and music beyond technique,” said Jindong Cai, a conductor and the director of the U.S.-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Mr. Fou’s first marriage, to Zamira Menuhin, a daughter of the prominent violinist Yehudi Menuhin, ended in divorce, as did a brief marriage to Hijong Hyun. In addition to his wife, Ms. Toh, Mr. Fou is survived by a son from his first marriage, Lin Xiao; a son from his marriage to Ms. Toh, Lin Yun; and his brother, Mr. Fu.

Mr. Fou remained devoted to music in his later years, playing piano for hours every day even as his fingers grew frail. It was a love that he invoked in interviews, alongside nuggets of wisdom from his father.

“When I was very young, I wrote to my father from Poland that I was sad and lonely,” he once recalled. “He wrote back: ‘You could never be lonely. Don’t you think you are living with the greatest souls of the history of mankind all the time?’”

“Now that’s how I feel, always,” Mr. Fou said.

pianoman
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Re: Fou Ts'ong Dies of Covid-19

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Jessica Duchen is a classical music editor and writer in Britain and was a student of Ts'ong's wife.

https://jessicamusic.blogspot.com/2020/ ... -2020.html
Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Farewell to Fou Ts'ong (1934-2020)

Late last night the tragic news reached me that the great Chinese pianist Fou Ts'ong has died, aged 86, of Covid-19. This phenomenal artist was part of my childhood, as from the age of 10 to 17 I studied piano with his wife, Patsy Toh. He would flit by occasionally, a somewhat shy and shadowy figure in a doorway or in the hall, and my small self was rather terrified of him. I knew little of his story then, nothing about the horrific fate of his family in the Chinese Cultural Revolution or his dramatic escape via Poland after the Chopin Competition - though I did know he was friendly with Richter, because I once turned up for a lesson to find that Richter was there in the house, practising Schubert. Finally, as editor of what was then Classical Piano Magazine in the 1990s, I had the chance to interview him on the occasion of his 60th birthday. I asked him one question and he talked for two hours. Fortunately I still have the text, so I am rerunning it below in tribute to him.

"I am always a beginner. I am always learning..."
Fou Ts'ong tells Jessica Duchen the extraordinary story of his childhood in China and his escape to the West


Fou Ts'ong's life and career have been unconventional in almost every way, sometimes spectacular, sometimes unobtrusive, yet always sincere, taking him from the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s through Poland in the 1950s to the shores of Lake Como in the 1990s. There, under the auspices of the International Piano Foundation, he works with other eminent teachers and a select group of the best young pianists, creating, as he puts it, "the Davidsbündler of our time".

Fou talks with great enthusiasm (and an astonishing gift for mimicry) about his childhood and the early part of his career. This world could not have been more different. "My childhood would have been peculiar anywhere," he begins, "but was especially so in China, then a country of 450 million people over 90% of whom were peasants and the small core of intellectuals a tiny percentage." Fou belonged to that minimal number, being the son of a leading Chinese scholar, Fu Lei, who, having travelled freely to Europe and studied in Paris for five years, was exceptionally equally well versed in both Classical Chinese and modern philosophy. Among his works he counted the translation into Chinese of Romain Rolland's immense and influential novel Jean Christophe and the complete works of Balzac. [Fu Lei's Family Letters, a best-seller in China, published the correspondence of father and son and the progress of the youthful musician's piano studies.]

"Jean Christophe was an enormous influence in China, much more so than in Europe," explains Fou. "I think that was because it represented the liberation of the individual. To the Chinese this is the crucial issue - to this day it is not solved. My father was an extraordinary person, a renaissance man of great humanism; that is the way I was brought up. I was taught classical Chinese from a very early age by my father himself and this kind of classical education even in my generation is very rare. And my father, when he was teaching me Lao-tse or Confucius, would also quote Aristotle or Plato or Bertrand Russell or Voltaire."

"Those were very frenetic years in China, we were under Japanese occupation from 1941-45 - and for four years my father never went out of the house. There was hardly any food, just very coarse rice. Very hard times, but also it was a very hopeful time because the whole of China was in a ferment; everybody felt that fascism was evil, and evil and good were very clear cut. We were good, so we fought for the cause."

Fou's family also possessed a large number of records of classical music. Fou grew up to the sounds of artists such as Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Pablo Casals. From a very early age he was mesmerised by music, yet it was not until he was 17 years old that he began to take the piano seriously as the focus of his life. Early lessons when he was ten were given by a pupil of his father, a young woman who had studied with a Russian pianist in Shanghai. Her loving and encouraging approach provided "the greatest joy in my life" for the otherwise strictly reared child. He progressed by leaps and bounds, but when he was sent instead to the Italian pianist and conductor Paci, one-time assistant to Toscanini at La Scala Milan and the founder of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra - who had "got stuck" in Shanghai thanks to a passion for gambling - he found himself facing a very different approach which took all the joy away. He was given nothing but exercises to play for a year, plus the indignity of balancing a coin on the back of the hand.

After the family moved to Kuming in Yunan province, Fou became a rebellious teenager, passionately committed to the idea of communist revolution. His father, among the first Chinese to realise the truth about Stalin and the lies of Bolshevik communisim in Russia, acted as "a Cassandra of his time" and foretold disaster. His son disagreed and eventually a family split ensued. His father went back to Shanghai while Fou, alone in Yunan, was thrown out of school after school and finally, running out of schools and excuses, applied to and was accepted at the University of Yunan at the age of 15. He enrolled for English literature but spent his time "making revolution all over the place, falling in and out of love all the time, drinking and playing bridge!"

But word got out that he could play the piano. When two rival churches in the town both put on Handel's Messiah at Christmas they competed for Fou's services as accompanist. Fortunately the performances were on different days, so he played for both. By exam time he was terrified, having done no work. Instead, he put on, with the help of fellow students, a concert in one church where he played an album called 101 Favourite Piano Pieces from cover to cover on a wartime upright. At the end a collection was made for him and immediately he had enough funds to make his way back to Shanghai by himself to continue his musical development.

The 17-year old thoroughly impressed his father with his difficult two-month solitary journey; his father agreed to help him pursue studies with the aim of becoming a concert pianist. These took on a distinctly surprising slant as Fou had very few lessons; one piano teacher emigrated to Canada after three months; next, what lessons he did have were from not a pianist but a violinist, the aging Alfred Wittenburg, a refugee from Nazi Germany, ex-concert master of the Berlin Opera and chamber music partner of Artur Schnabel. After Wittenburg's death, "I studied by intuition, thinking and reading books. I studied on my own and made my debut one year later. In Shanghai that made such a stir that central government, who wanted to send someone abroad for a competition, came to Shanghai to search out for me as one of the candidates."

That was how Fou went to a competition in Bucharest, where he won third prize, and then, fatefully, to Poland, where the government sent Andrzej Panufnik himself to listen to him to find out if he was worthy to participate in the Chopin Competition. Panufnik raved, "and soon everyone in Poland was raving. 'Have you heard him play mazurkas? Listen to those mazurkas!' I became a sort of performing monkey, everyone was asking me to play mazurkas all the time!" Fou laughs. He duly entered the competition and won the mazurka prize.

https://youtu.be/SqFOylOw2Ls

After the competition Fou studied in Warsaw and Cracow, thriving on the enthusiasm and encouragement he received there and falling in love again, this time with Mozart, an affair which lasts to this day. Professor Drzewicki, who also taught Halina Czerny-Stefanska and Adam Haraciewicz, sat and smiled through Fou's lessons. "After the competition he told me, 'Ts'ong you are different, you are so original and personal, you should only come to my lesson maybe once a month, no more'. Altogether I can count on my fingers the number of times I went. He said, 'I am here only to guide you if you go out of way'.

"I was a great counterfeiter because I managed to hide all my troubles by my unique way of fingering, by my imagination, somehow by hoping to produce the goods. I always wanted to realise whatever vision I had in my head - in what way I don't know, I found it in my own way. Unless the vision was presented in a way that didn't show its deficiencies I would not allow it to go out. In a way I am my own downfall because I camouflage so well. In some ways it's also good because my way is original. But the struggle I have had with pianistic problems over the years is unbelievable, even to this day. I have to practise awfully hard; I envy pianists who have a great facility because I wish I had more time to play more music. Musically I am very greedy!'

Fou extended his stay in Poland as long as he could, for by then it had become dangerous for him to return to China where the anti-rightist movement - "the dress rehearsal of the Cultural Revolution" - had begun, and condemned him and his father. "It was a matter of life and death." He was desperate to go to Russia where a new friend and supporter was doing his best to offer help: Sviatoslav Richter, who wrote an enthusiastic article about Fou for a communist magazine entitled Friendship, published jointly in Russia and China. Richter had hoped thus to help Fou come officially to Russia, but while the article appeared in the Russian edition, the Chinese never carried it; nothing came of the scheme. Fou did not learn of this episode until many years afterwards.

His dramatic escape to Britain was made possible by the help of some more eminent beings: Wanda Wilkomirska, who helped to persuade the Polish authorities to "look the other way"; a music-loving wealthy Englishman named Auberon Herbert, who helped arrange an invitation for Fou to play in London, for which he could obtain a visa; and the pianist Julius Katchen, who lent him the air fare. To help throw the Chinese authorities off the scent, a "farewell"concert was announced at the last minute; Fou Ts'ong would perform two concertos, Mozart 's C major K503 and Chopin's F minor (both of which he learned in a week - on Saturday evening, 23 December. Another red herring, a farewell recital, was also announced for a later date, though pianist and organisers knew it would never happen. Early the next morning - a Sunday and Christmas Eve in a strongly Catholic country, a day on which "even the most diehard military police will become a little bit lax!" - Fou Ts'ong took a British Airways plane to London. He was free and an immediate celebrity in the West. Caught in the Cultural Revolution in China, Fou's father and mother both committed suicide.

Today, looking back over this extraordinary story and his varied fortunes since that time, Fou has some sensible advice to offer young would-be pianists. "First, you must have good self awareness, to know what you're made of. If you really have got it in you, not only talent but real aspiration, that means you are ready to sacrifice your life for it, totally dedicated to it, that's almost more important than talent. And even with these two, you have to be prepared to get nowhere in terms of worldly 'success'. You must know what you're in for! I wouldn't advise anyone to go on for the wrong reasons.

"I consider myself terribly lucky, although I wouldn't consider my career that easy, partly because I have my deficiencies, also partly and largely because of my character. My wife Patsy [pianist and teacher Patsy Toh] says to me, 'You shouldn't complain, because you made your own destiny'. And that's true. Today I think to myself, thank God, now I'm really beginning to understand music. But I consider myself a beginner. I am always a beginner. I am always learning. I think I am very lucky that I never had so much success that I could be blinded by vanity. And to be in music, you are very lucky. When I was very young, I wrote to my father from Poland that I was sad and lonely. He wrote back: 'You could never be lonely. Don't you think you are living with the greatest souls of the history of mankind all the time?' Now that's how I feel, always."

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