The Sufferings and Greatness of a Vulnerable Artist:
In Memory of Fou Ts’ong

By Guangchen Chen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2021)

Fu Ts’ong program note from a performance in New York in the 1965-66 season.

As if 2020 were not bad enough: about a week before Christmas, I received an email from the pianist Patsy Toh; I assumed it was her usual kind holiday greetings. Instead, it was to inform me that both she and her husband and musical partner Fou Ts’ong 傅聰 tested positive of COVID-19. Patsy seemed to be doing OK and was out of hospital already. Ts’ong would stay on for a few more days, and was expected back home for Christmas. I was shocked, knowing how reclusive they were. And I was worried: Ts’ong was 86 and a lifelong lover of pipe smoking. But I was also hopeful, because he had, until recently, always been bursting with vitality and had weathered one challenge after another through his dramatic life. But 2020 proved, right up to the end, deadly: he passed away on December 28.

Fou Ts’ong was a pianist of rare musical sensitivity and formidable cultural sophistication. Born in Shanghai in 1934, he was raised in an atmosphere steeped in learning, both East and West. He was tutored at home by his father, the eminent translator of French literature and art critic Fu Lei 傅雷,[1] who spent his formative years in Europe. Fou Ts’ong grew up in the company of old recordings made by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Edwin Fischer, and the Capet Quartet, among others. With relatively scant formal training, he debuted with the Shanghai Symphony at the age of 17. In 1953, he won the third prize at the George Enescu Competition in Romania, and then the third prize and best mazurka performance at the 1955 Chopin Competition in Poland. Subsequently, he had an international performing career that spanned almost six decades. But what distinguished him as a unique artist was his ability to combine the aesthetics of two distinctively different traditions—the Chinese and the European. Furthermore, he and his family were victims of Mao Zedong’s communism, and the pain he suffered his whole adult life can be heard in a palpable way in his music.

With half a century’s age difference between us, I had known Ts’ong for almost two decades. He was a very dear friend, and my intellectual father. When I was a teenager, I was so fascinated by his recordings that I would imitate them phrase by phrase (I never succeeded), and know his unique tones and articulations by heart. Around the same time, I also began reading the Family Letters of Fu Lei (傅雷家書),[2] which Ts’ong’s father wrote to him while he was studying abroad. It was really under the influence of he and his father that I became a scholar of comparative literature. He was not only a consummate pianist, but an erudite humanist and a free thinker. His sufferings were not unique among Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century, and his erudition was certainly not unmatched. But probably not many were able to maintain the kind of balanced insight between torturous personal experiences and an objective historical overview that he did.

The author with Fu Ts’ong in 2020.

I saw Ts’ong for the last time in February 2020, on the eve before the pandemic swept through London. He had just undergone a back operation, and was finding it difficult to play the piano. His parting words to me were: “I don’t have the energy anymore.” He said it with a smile, but the tone was a bit apologetic. Indeed, back in the old days, we usually met after his recitals and talked until early morning, which seems incredible in retrospect. He was already in his seventies then, but was full of life and as passionate as ever about things that mattered to him, from repeated dotted notes in a Schubert score to social injustice. And his memory was phenomenal: he effortlessly recalled details of his father’s social circle, which consisted of intellectual heavyweights like Qian Zhongshu 錢鐘書, Huang Binhong 黄賓虹, and Stephen Soong 宋淇. He told me about William Empson[3] coming to his concert and enthusiastically praised forgotten giants like Friedrich Wührer. When I mentioned old-timers such as Georg Ludwig Jochum, Josef Krips, Charles Mackerras, and many others, he recounted when they performed together, what they played, and even which of the concerts went especially well. He recalled performing Schubert’s last sonata for the first time in Beijing in 1957, at the height of the Anti-Rightist Movement, and Sviatoslav Richter was sitting right there in the balcony. He reminisced about what Daniel Barenboim said to him when they went together to hear Richter’s London debut, and he knew exactly what Peter Serkin, who just passed away, played in his first London concert. The list goes on. After all, it was a long and rich life, full of legends.

A few years ago, Prof. Serena Jin, a mutual friend, suggested to me that I spend some time in London, go talk to Ts’ong regularly, and write down all his wonderful experiences and reflections. In her words, it was such a brilliant life that it deserved to be properly documented. Sadly, this never came to pass, mainly because Ts’ong was not in a very good mood during his last few years. The fact that it was increasingly difficult for him to play the piano was a big blow. When I told him I just heard his nonagenarian friends Leon Fleisher and Menahem Pressler perform, he lamented that “they put me to shame.” For those who wonder why he was so persistent about reconquering the piano at this age, it helps to keep in mind that music was literally his breath of life, especially when he was so often disappointed by the other thing that mattered to him most: China. It was certainly painful, at his age, to look back: he never saw his parents again after he boarded a plane from Warsaw to London in 1958. They committed suicide in 1966, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, and his younger brother Fu Min, whom he did not see again until the end of the 1970s, was subjected to severe persecution. From the 1940s all the way to the present, he went through cycles of hope and despair about China. He was an unyielding and incurable idealist, exactly like his father.

There are two occasions that I always recall with particular vividness. At one point, Ts’ong told me he was reading the works of Li Zhi 李贄, the rebellious Ming dynasty philosopher who fiercely criticized the orthodox interpretation of Confucianism of his time, was imprisoned on the order of the emperor, and took his own life in jail. Ts’ong admired Li deeply for his spiritual strength and intellectual integrity. I can still see in my mind his emotional expression when he said this. On the other occasion, he recalled that his father’s friend, the historian Li Pingxin 李平心,[4] often visited to discuss politics during the Chinese Civil War. The discussions were always heated. And Ts’ong said that Li, like many of the intellectuals in his father’s circle, was left-leaning and driven by idealism; few of them ended well after the Communists actually seized power. He even described to me how this other Li committed suicide. Upon returning to Princeton from London, I immediately sent him a copy of Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, which tells the painful story of the poet and archeologist Chen Mengjia, who killed himself in 1966. Just a few days later, Patsy emailed to say that Ts’ong was already half-way through the 500-page book. I was hoping to hear him talk about it next time. This will no longer be possible.

It was these experiences, memories, and the all too intimate contact with twentieth-century Chinese history that profoundly shaped Ts’ong as a person, and made him a very special musician. After all, the most important teaching from his father was encapsulated in this famous quote: “first you must be a person, then an artist, and then a musician, and only then can you be a pianist.” There was something vehement and almost naively obstinate about Ts’ong when it comes to social justice and human dignity, again in a way strongly reminiscent of his father. His temperament and his experiences were translated into his playing, which was characterized by unapologetically strong dynamic contrasts and carried an infectious emotional intensity. Without them, he would have been just another great pianist.

A person with such a temperament is no doubt very sensitive, and can at times go to extremes, but they are also vulnerable. It was this vulnerability that constituted Ts’ong’s greatness as an artist. This might sound oxymoronic, but let me quote his own words to explain what I mean. During our conversations, names of his musician friends would often pop up. At one point, he made a comparison between Martha Argerich, Barenboim, and himself. Argerich, in his words, is a “pianist” in the sense that she was born with all the technical proficiencies that have allowed her to conquer the keyboard effortlessly. Few problems on the fingers bother her, and she is able to solve them intuitively. Barenboim is a “musician” in the sense that his intellectual prowess allows him to immediately grasp the core harmonic logic and structure of a musical work, so he seldom, if ever, makes any “grammatical errors.” He himself, on the other hand, was an “artist”—and he immediately proceeded to stress that this was not a way to praise himself, as the term seemed to suggest. The only defining quality he named of such an “artist” was none other than vulnerability, which was not, of course, necessarily an advantage.

As I understand it now, such a “vulnerable” artist always struggles between the ideal state they envision in their mind, and their own very real limitations. They might get closer and closer to that ideal vision without ever reaching it. The more they try, the more the vision becomes crystalized in their mind, but inevitably along comes increased frustration at their own imperfections and serious self-doubt. Yet these difficulties also inspire equally strong willpower to overcome them, which is why vulnerability makes the struggle so moving, and ultimately so human. Technical proficiency is no doubt a blessing, but it is not without its pitfalls. For those who are not endowed with it, they may nonetheless develop a heightened sense of refreshing alertness and self-criticism. Those who knew Ts’ong are well aware that he was almost never satisfied with himself. Artur Schnabel, one of Ts’ong great heroes, famously said that he was only interested in music that he considered to be better than it can be performed.

To employ a different set of examples, I would compare Barenboim to Qian Zhongshu, and Ts’ong to Wang Guowei 王國維. Qian, a friend of the Fu family, was arguably one of the most erudite persons in the last century. As a literary scholar, he was born with all the talents imaginable, and he knew it early on. So he was never in doubt; all he needed was to protect his precious talents from real-life turmoil, and nurture them into one learned treatise after another. Wang Guowei, Ts’ong’s personal favorite, was the opposite. He published his greatest masterpieces in literary criticism before the age of thirty, then went through a painful process of reassessing the value of what he had done, disavowed them all, turned to ancient history and archeology, and started all over in midlife. But he never overcome his self-doubt and frustration, and took his own life at fifty. If one asks who between the two is a greater scholar, the answer is definitely that they both are great. But if the question is whose life and work are more touching, then I am afraid it is Wang, because he showed a relatable, deeply humane vulnerability in his pursuit of the unattainable.

Ts’ong was like Wang: he had his frustrations and imperfections. He had serious problems with his fingers later in life, partly due to a lack of solid training in childhood. He was always discovering his own inadequacies: he felt ashamed of making an error in a Chopin recording; he showed me details in Schubert’s sonata D. 840 he had not understood before; and he was grateful that Jan Ekier’s[5] new Chopin edition helped him clarify many confusions. Patsy told me that toward the end, he wanted to return to Chopin’s preludes, which he performed throughout his career, because, as he would often say, “I’m only beginning to understand it.”

However, he also had from the beginning a very clear vision of a profound spiritual world. Take his Chopin as an example: he tended to avoid the flashy pieces, which in lesser hands all too often become hackneyed, kitschy crowd-pleasers. Instead, he cultivated some of the least melodically attractive ones. For me, his single most sublime Chopin interpretation is the late Polonaise-Fantaisie, a difficult work of monumental dimension, characterized by snarling contrapuntal lines, a complex structure, a lack of hummable melodies, and a cosmic range of emotions. Ts’ong often chose it to conclude his recitals, and he liked to compare the beginning of this piece to the closing lines of a poem by Mao Zedong who, despite the unspeakable sufferings he had caused, remained a poet that Ts’ong admired. The poem was composed after a brutal battle, and ends thus:

The dark-blue mountain is like the sea,

The dying sun is like blood.[6]

Ts’ong was deeply moved by the visionary imageries the poem invoked, and he heard something strikingly similar in the opening of Polonaise-Fantaisie. So when did he start playing it? His earliest recording in my collection is a vinyl released by the Czech label Supraphon in 1953, when he was nineteen. The playing is confident, mature, perfectly judged, and thoroughly thought through. And it is not the only piece of such complexity on the record: the other works include the last two nocturnes, op. 62, and the most mysterious and elusive mazurka in c minor, op. 56 no. 3, all from Chopin’s late period, performed convincingly and idiomatically by a nineteen-year-old. By intuition, he got them all right.

Fu Ts’ong joint recital with Yehudi Menuhin, 1965.

There is another telling anecdote worth mentioning. When Ts’ong was a teenager, he had a serious argument with his father, which led to his running away for quite some time. The cause was a disagreement about Beethoven’s violin sonatas. Ts’ong considered the lyrical and formally intriguing G major op. 96, which he would later perform with Yehudi Menuhin on tour, as the composer’s greatest, while Fu Lei, a learned scholar but not a musician, insisted that the A major “Kreutzer” sonata was agreed by experts to be Beethoven’s highest achievement in the genre. Fu Lei was angry about what he perceived to be a youngster’s arrogance and ignorance. But Ts’ong came to his assessment through his innate musical taste, and scholars’ opinions mattered little to him. After all these years, I asked him, which one was better? He replied, decisively, “of course it was the G major!”

In fact, Ts’ong choice of repertoire, in a subtle but unmistakable way, reflected the degree to which he was steeped in his cultural tradition. He considered Beethoven’s G major piano concerto supreme, but had problems with some of the composers more famous works, where he found too much “ism.” And this was not an isolated personal preference, but part of a “genealogical” understanding. When I was working on my translation of Albert Schweitzer’s Bach biography, we often had discussions about the St. Thomas cantor. Of course, everyone likes to talk about the lineage from Bach to Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and so on, and you can add Schubert somewhere in between if you like. But Ts’ong always stressed a different lineage, starting with Handel,[7] whose music held a lifelong spell over him, and continued through Gluck, Mozart, and then Beethoven. Handel also served as a key reference point for Ts’ong’s other favorites, which included Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, and Debussy, with Haydn as a late-life addition. These were the composers whom Ts’ong could most easily relate to the classical Chinese poetry he read in childhood, while the religious mysticism and penitent sentiments of Bach seemed very distant in comparison. He would compare Schubert to Tao Yuanming 陶渊明, the poet who wrote about nature and death with a philosophical resignation. Chopin was like Li Yu 李煜, the tenth-century ruler who spent his last years in captivity, writing poems with poignant longing for the homeland. Furthermore, decades ago, Ts’ong already remarked to his father that he found something otherworldly in Chopin, to which his father responded, “this is why [a good Chopin style] should not be too sedate, nor should it be too lively or objective. I think in this sense, Chopin is quite similar to the poetry of Li Bai 李白.” And last but not least, Debussy was for Ts’ong the most “Chinese” composer who ever lived.

For better or for worse, Ts’ong’s artistic life was shaped by the politics of modern China. It is almost an accident that we could still hear him perform after 1958. Were it not for that fateful flight, he would have been a legend that ended before it barely began, like the other wonderful pianist Gu Shengying 顧聖嬰.[8] His music was deeply moving because he put his life’s struggle into it. Patsy said to me that he seemed never able to fully process the blow of his parents’ death, so there was a certain anger in his music. This is most true in his Chopin, of course. But you can hear that even in his Mozart, because that blissful music comes from the heart of someone who suffered so terribly.

Ts’ong was no doubt a victim; he and his family were the ones who were betrayed. But he went out of his way to make sure he was not used by anyone as a political pawn, even though he had plenty of opportunities to do so had he wanted to. However, this by no means suggests that he did not have an opinion about politics. On the contrary, permanently rooting out the evil cause of the Cultural Revolution was probably the one thing that he cared about most besides music. Since the 1980s, when he started to perform and give interviews in China, he never publicly voiced his personal grievance, but frequently shared his reflections on the recent dark history, as well as his hope for the future. And he was disappointed, again and again. When I visited him in 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, we talked for more than an hour about politics. His anger was palpable. Then, after a few seconds’ silence, with a smile, he threw an unexpected question at me: “What concerts are you going to this time in London?” For the next hour or so, the topics of our conversation shifted from Mao and Xi Jinping to Berlioz, Faust, and Colin Davis. It has now dawned on me that this was a symbolic moment, one that echoes the abrupt, magical modulation from c sharp minor to C major in the slow movement of Schubert’s last sonata. Suddenly, a better world was summoned into existence, out of nowhere. This is why music mattered so much to him, and also why he aged so noticeably when he realized he could not control the keyboard anymore. Confucius’s self-description applies to him equally well: “he is the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice the onset of old age.”[9]

Like his music, Ts’ong as a person had a strong impact on those around him. His passing left a vacuum that cannot be filled. I am now thinking of the encore he played at a 2007 concert, Schubert’s allegretto in c minor. Toward the end, the music descends all the way to the lower register, and I can picture his two hands hitting the last chord. It was not a loud one, and you will not find any unusual indications in the score. But that tragic tone, that resolute and indignant plunge into emptiness, made me tremble. I was with his brother Fu Min, who was apparently shaken by that same chord, too. And it became the only thing we talked about that night. Ts’ong brilliant life, together with countless such moving moments musicaux, are now gone. When we listen to his recordings, may we all remember the person—and the history.

Guangchen Chen 陳廣琛
Emory University

[1] Fu Lei (1908-1966) translated major works by Balzac and Voltaire, as well as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, into Chinese. The latter was particularly influential among Chinese readers. A professor of European art history at Shanghai Art Academy, Fu Lei was also a connoisseur of Chinese painting, being an early champion of the painter Huang Binhong 黃賓虹.

[2] Fu Lei and Fou Ts’ong began correspondence after the latter left home for Poland, and ended shortly before the former’s suicide during the Cultural Revolution. The letters were edited by his younger son Fu Min and first published in 1981, subsequently becoming a bestseller in China.

[3] William Empson (1906-1984) was an English literary critic. His most influential works include Seven Types of Ambiguity. He lived in China from 1937 to 1939, and then briefly in the 1950s, teaching at Peking University among other institutions.

[4] Li Pingxin 李平心 (1907-1966) was a historian and activist. He was a professor of history at the East China Normal University.

[5] Jan Ekier (1913-2014), Polish pianist and editor of the Polish National Edition of the Works of Chopin.

[6] Mao Zedong, “Loushan Pass.”

[7] Fou Ts’ong’s love of Handel can be traced to as early as 1961. Noticing his son’s interest in Hellenism, Fu Lei made an exquisite manuscript copy of the chapter on Greek sculpture in Hippolyte Taine’s Philosophy of Art, which he just finished translating, and sent it to London. Upon reading it, Fou Ts’ong replied that “Handel’s music, especially his oratorios, are the nearest to the Greek spirit in music. His optimism, his radiant poetry, which is as simple as one can imagine but never vulgar, his directness and frankness, his pride, his majesty and his almost physical ecstasy…” This passage was quoted in Fu Lei’s letter to Fou Ts’ong on August 1, 1961.

[8] Gu Shengying (1937-1969) was a talented and promising pianist, a prizewinner at the 14th Geneva International Music Competition, and Fou Ts’ong’s one-time classmate. She committed suicide at the age of 29, during the Cultural Revolution.

[9] The Analects: Sayings of Confucius, translated by D. C. Lau. New York: Penguine Books, p. 84.