Fou Ts’ong, celebrated Chinese pianist, dies of coronavirus at 86

Mr. Fou had obtained a visa to perform in Britain and had no intention of returning to communist China. His father, Fu Lei, a leading intellectual and celebrated translator of French literature, had been targeted in Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign against perceived critics of the communist government. If Mr. Fou returned, he would be forced to denounce his father and was likely to suffer persecution himself.

“All signs told me that I stood no chance, and I was especially scared because in this case it wasn’t only myself but also my father,” Mr. Fou said years later in an interview.

After arriving in London, where he lived for the rest of his life, Mr. Fou became one of the first Chinese pianists to rise to the front ranks of classical music. He never saw his father again, their contact limited to letters brimming with intellectual vigor, paternal concern and filial devotion that decades later were published in a best-selling volume in China.

In 1966, at the outset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Mr. Fou’s father and mother, Zhu Meifu, hanged themselves in Shanghai after Red Guard paramilitaries invaded their home. “My anguish when I received the tragic news cannot be described,” Mr. Fou once told noted piano teacher Carola Grindea.

Mr. Fou, who continued performing until recent years, earning renown for the sensitivity he brought to the works of Chopin, Mozart, Schubert and Debussy, died Dec. 28 at a hospital in London. He was 86. The cause was covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said his wife, Patsy Toh.

Mr. Fou’s recognition at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw — a symbolic victory for Chinese communists seeking to demonstrate their cultural achievements on an international stage — predated by three years Texan pianist Van Cliburn’s triumph at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, another event with geopolitical significance that resonated far beyond the concert hall.

Jindong Cai, a conductor and director of the U.S.-China Music Institute at Bard College Conservatory in New York, compared Mr. Fou’s defection to ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s decision to leave the Soviet Union for the West in 1974. To Mr. Fou’s admirers, he was a vital link between East and West, a performer who made them listen anew to musical works they had heard innumerable times.

“His Chopin or his Mozart is very special, very different from almost all other Western pianists,” Cai said in an interview. “Your instinct for the music [comes] from yourself, from within. . . . What you lived, what you experienced, influences your music.”

Fou Ts’ong was born in Shanghai on March 10, 1934. His name, he told the London Independent, meant “good ear.” “The Chinese character for it is composed of an ear, an open window and a heart,” Mr. Fou said. “It’s a natural and poetic way of saying, speak straight to the heart. As Mozart should. As all music should.”

Mr. Fou’s father had studied in France and produced Chinese translations of the works of Voltaire and Balzac, as well as the novel “Jean-Christophe” by Romain Rolland, based in part on the life of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

Fu Lei sought to instill in his son a profound appreciation for Western and Eastern cultural traditions and often counseled him, Mr. Fou recalled, that “first you must be a person, then an artist, and then a musician, and only then can you be a pianist.”

“My father was an extraordinary person, a Renaissance man of great humanism; that is the way I was brought up,” Mr. Fou said in an interview with Jessica Duchen, a classical music writer. “This kind of classical education even in my generation is very rare,” he continued. “My father, when he was teaching me Lao-Tse or Confucius, would also quote Aristotle or Plato or Bertrand Russell or Voltaire.”

Mr. Fou was drawn early on to Western classical music, which he heard on his family’s collection of records. He began piano lessons in 1940 and studied during and after World War II with Mario Paci, an Italian pianist and conductor who led the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra.

In his teens, Mr. Fou had a youthful dalliance with communism. He described himself as “making revolution all over the place, falling in and out of love all the time, drinking and playing bridge” until he settled into serious study of the piano.

“He was a rebellious, difficult pupil — a boy of that age, after all, does not find it easy to stick to hours of practice,” his father wrote in an essay relayed in an email by Cai. But Mr. Fou’s “love for music was so great that I found the severest punishment for slackness was to lock the piano and forbid him to play. He would look at the instrument and cry his eyes out.”

In their letters, the two men exchanged thoughts on music and on life. During his studies in Poland, he confessed to his father that he was 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?’ ” Mr. Fou told Duchen. “Now that’s how I feel, always.”

Published in 1981 as “Fu Lei’s Family Letters,” the correspondence riveted Chinese readers.

“These letters were no dry sermons, but were instead the sole vehicle for intimate confessions of a father and a person of integrity at a time of universal hypocrisy and extreme political pressure,” Guangchen Chen, a professor at Emory University and longtime friend of Mr. Fou’s, wrote in an essay published in the volume “A New Literary History of Modern China.”

“The two were each other’s soul mates, finding consolation in the values they both cherished.”

Mr. Fou’s first marriage, to Zamira Menuhin, a daughter of the acclaimed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Hijong Hyun. In 1987, he married Toh, a piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Besides his wife, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Lin Siao of Shanghai; a son from his third marriage, Lin Yun of London; a brother; and a grandson.

Richard Curt Kraus, a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and author of the book “The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture,” wrote in an email that he considers Mr. Fou “a tragic figure, a brilliant musician whose career was impeded by political currents and family pressures beyond his control.”

“It took two decades and massive political changes for China to forgive him [for his defection], cutting Fou off from his natural audience base,” Kraus wrote. “Fou avoided becoming a pawn in cold war propaganda, but his politically charged status cannot have helped his career.”

Mr. Fou returned to China for the first time in 1979 and made more frequent trips back in the later years of his life to teach and perform. He gave his final public recital in Shanghai at age 80.

Of all the composers whose works he performed, Mr. Fou said he felt closest to Chopin, who died in 1849 in Paris and was buried there at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, although, on his request, his heart was returned to Poland. “He, too, was an exile,” Mr. Fou told the Independent, “with a feeling of longing, and anguish.”

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