Vitězslava Kaprálová: vibrant rhythms, Slavic melancholy

Waving Farewell is the name of the CD dedicated to Vitězslava Kaprálová, that was released in 2021 on the budget label Naxos. An apt title: two years after she completed the song of that name, she suddenly succumbed to a mysterious illness, probably typhoid. Thus her career was cut short. She would have celebrated her 107th birthday on 24 January 2022.

As so often happens, her music was soon forgotten after her death, as I found when in 2007 I decided to make her Composer of the Week on Dutch Radio 4. Little material was available, and only thanks to Karla Hartl, director of the Canada based Kaprálová Society, I was able to broadcast historic recordings from the Czech Radio. Fortunately her music has since then been gradually rediscovered, and is now available on several cd’s.

PROMISE OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA

During her sadly short life, Vitězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was considered the great promise of Czechoslovakia*. Although she only lived to be twenty-five, at her premature death she left behind an impressive oeuvre of some fifty compositions, varying from orchestral works to intimate chamber music. She elaborated on the style of her compatriots Janáček and Martinů, and was also inspired by the neoclassicism of composers such as Milhaud and Honegger, whom she met in Paris. Her music is full of capricious melodic lines and harrowing harmonies in which a glowing, Slavic passion rages.

Vitězslava Kaprálová was born on 24 January 1915 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic*. She was the only child of composer Václav Kaprál and Vitězslava Uhlirova, a qualified singing teacher. Her father was considered one of the most important composers of his generation and had studied with Janáček, who was also born and raised in Moravia. This region had traditionally been much more Slavic in orientation than western Bohemia, which was more oriented towards German culture. Janáček – and after him Martinů and Kaprálová – deliberately sought inspiration in Moravian folk music.

PRECOCIOUS TALENT

Vitězslava was surrounded by music from childhood. At an early age, she also showed great musical talent, which her parents cherished. Her father was not only a composer but also a pianist and choirmaster, and ran a music school together with his wife. They energetically took up their daughter’s musical education and she wrote her first pieces when she was only nine years old.

When she decided to become a composer and conductor, her parents were initially sceptical, however. For one thing they wanted Vitězslava to continue their music school, but moreover, her father did not believe that a woman could hold her own in two such typically male professions. He hoped to spare her a disappointment.

But the young Kaprálová persevered. At the age of 15, she was admitted to the Brno Conservatory for both “male” professions; composition with Vilém Petrželka – also a former student of Janáček – and conducting with Zdeněk Chalabala. She was very productive and already during her studies realised a large number of compositions. These far exceeded the level of a beginner and were often performed by her fellow students.

The Miniaturni Suite for piano solo from 1931, for example, excels in colourful harmonies and an almost orchestral sound at times. – Four years later, she made a setting for orchestra, in which already her refined sense of timbre manifests itself. The CD Waving Farewell offers a beautiful performance by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kenneth Kiesler.

SONGS & POETRY

Thanks to her mother, Kaprálová developed a great love for songs, and she was an avid reader of poetry. She also wrote poems herself, and during her studies her great talent for setting lyrics revealed itself. In Two Songs opus 4 [not on the CD], for example, the soprano follows the often tricky accents of the Czech language quite naturally, as Janáček had done before her. The swirling piano part is reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, while firmly hammered chords give the melancholy poetry an extra charge.

Kaprálová was only 17 when she composed these compelling songs, and during her short life she would become one of her country’s best-loved song composers. Early on in her career, a critic noted: ‘Her colourful piano parts are not merely accompaniment, but form a close bond with the text. She is a master at creating atmosphere’.

During her short life Vitězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) developed into one of Czechoslovakia’s best-loved song composers. One critic wrote: ‘Her colourful piano parts are not merely accompaniment, but form a close bond with the text.’

In 1935, Kaprálová completed her training with a Piano Concerto, conducted by herself. She graduated cum laude, with the highest marks of her class, and won the coveted Smetana Prize, as the first woman ever. The performance was open to the public and made a great impression on all present. The Piano Concerto received rave reviews in all the national newspapers and even attracted the attention of the international press. The Prager Tagesblatt spoke of ‘an astonishingly spirited musical talent’, but complained that ‘the organisers only had the first part of the work performed’.

This is indeed a pity, because the Piano Concerto brims with youthful energy and in the last movement it is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s tempestuous rhythms. On the portrait CD, the Taiwanese pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng strings pearly virtuoso runs and subdued lyricism to solid pillars of chords with self-evident ease, and receives lively counterplay from the University of Michigan Orchestra and conductor Kiesler. 

MASTER STUDENT AT PRAGUE CONSERVATOIRE

The fame of the talented and charming Kaprálová had rushed from Brno to Prague, where she was admitted to the Master’s programme of the Conservatory immediately after graduation. There she had access to the best teachers in the country. She was accepted into the composition class of Vitězslav Novák, an absolute master who himself had been trained by no one less than Antonín Dvorák. She was also admitted to the conducting class of Václav Talich, chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and director of the National Theatre in Prague. – This was by no means a matter of course: Talich considered only five students worthy of his master class; Novák also accepted only five students that year.

At the Prague Conservatoire, Kaprálová again commanded respect with her great talent and enormous drive – and once more she was top of her class. Because Novák thought highly of her, he subjected her to rigorous training. Under his guidance, Kaprálová developed into one of the most respected composers of her generation. In no time her music was on the programmes of prestigious institutions such as Pritomnost (‘attention/presence’), the most important association for contemporary music, and the artists’ circle Umělecká Beseda (‘artist’s talk’), co-founded by Smetana. Both organisations are still active today. Kaprálová’s music was regularly broadcast on Czech radio.

Her greatest love was still the composition of songs, but at Novák’s insistence she immersed herself in other genres as well. This did not always go smoothly. After she had composed a string quartet in a short time in 1935, she wrote a somewhat frustrated postcard to her parents: ‘Too bad I didn’t finish my songs. I stopped working on them because Novák did not want them.’

Kaprálová conducting (date and photographer unknown)

MILITARY SINFONIETTA

In 1937 Kaprálová concluded her studies with her strict composition teacher with the Military Sinfonietta, which she dedicated to Edvard Beneš, president of the young republic of Czechoslovakia. These were difficult times, for the independence that had only been obtained in 1919 was already under threat from Hitler’s expansionism.

In her own commentary, Kaprálová writes how she had tried to capture her emotions on the theme of national identity in music. The word military in the title is, according to her, ‘not a call to war’ but represents her need to ‘defend that which is sacred to our nation’. The Military Sinfonietta, with its clarion call and Balkan rhythms, recalls Janáček’s piece of the same name. – the world premiere of which had been directed by her teacher Talich in 1926.

In November 1937 Kaprálová herself conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere of her Military Sinfonietta. Initially, the musicians of the renowned orchestra reacted sceptically. Kaprálová was only 22 years old and, perhaps even worse, she belonged to the so-called ‘weaker sex’. But thanks to her energy and professionalism, she managed to win over the unwilling after just a few bars and the performance was a resounding success. A year later, the piece also meant her international breakthrough; it is performed brilliantly on the CD.

PARIS

In 1937, the year she graduated with Novák, Kaprálová met her compatriot Bohuslav Martinů, who lived in Paris, for the first time. During a visit to Prague, he was deeply impressed by the young composer and conductor and suggested she come and study with him. Kaprálová had actually wanted to go to Vienna to spread her wings with the pianist, composer and conductor Felix Weingartner, but she was persuaded by Martinů. She applied for, and was granted, a scholarship by the French government and settled in Paris.

In addition to her composition lessons with Martinů, she studied conducting in the French capital with the world-famous Charles Munch at the Ecole Normale. As before in Prague, Kaprálová threw herself wholeheartedly into the fashionable Parisian life and broadened her intellectual and artistic horizons. She visited galleries, lectures and literary evenings and listened eagerly to the latest works of composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, Prokofiev and Milhaud, at concerts of the Sociéte de la musique contemporaine.

She developed a deep friendship with the twenty-five years older Martinů and conducted his Harpsichord Concerto with great success. They shared many musical interests. Both cherished their Moravian roots, but embraced modern developments as well. In particular, they were inspired by neoclassicism, which was popular in Paris at the time, and in which composers drew on models from the classical period.

But unlike the members of the so-called “Groupe des Six”, Kaprálová did not seek to connect with cabaret and vaudeville; she developed a sparkling, but extremely serious voice in which every note has meaning. Beneath the surface, there always shimmers a Slavic melancholy.

LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARTINŮ

Gradually, her friendship with Martinů developed into a love affair; he even for a while considered leaving his wife. In June 1938 he accompanied Kaprálová to the sixteenth meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in London. She had the honour to open the festival with her Military Sinfonietta, in which she herself conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Václav Kaprál, Vítězslava Kaprálová and Bohuslav Martinů
(date and photographer unknown)

Once again, she was the first woman ever to do so. And again she garnered great acclaim, as Martinů proudly reported in a Czech newspaper: ‘Her international debut was a success, both with the critics and the audience, promising and encouraging’.

The critic of the British magazine Musical Opinion called Military Sinfonietta ‘an astonishing piece of orchestral writing, logical and balanced in its conception’. His colleague of Time Magazine even proclaimed her ‘the star of the opening concert’. The recording was not only broadcast by the BBC in England, but also by CBS radio in the United States.

Kaprálová spent the rest of the summer months of 1938 in her beloved holiday resort Tre Studne, some 90 kilometres northwest of Brno. Martinů had left earlier to visit friends and family in his native region and joined her later. The couple enjoyed a few happy weeks together, but Martinů returned to Paris in August. Kaprálová intended to follow him in the autumn, but her scholarship had expired and the French authorities refused to provide another. It took Martinů a lot of persuasion to get the authorities to grant her a scholarship after all, and she returned to France in early 1939.

Meanwhile, the political situation had become grim: in March 1939, Czechoslovakia was annexed by Hitler, as a result of which Kaprálová became cut off from her relatives and attached herself even more strongly to Martinů. Because of the threat of war, they made plans to leave Europe together. Kaprálová hoped to get a scholarship to continue her studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but nothing came of it. She spent the holidays alone in Augerville la Rivière, not far from Paris. Meanwhile, her relationship with Martinů cooled down somewhat.

CZECH RESISTANCE

Shocked by the sudden occupation of her fatherland, Kaprálová sought to join the Czech community in Paris. This included the writer Jiří Mucha, who worked on the libretto for Martinů’s Polní mše (‘Field Mass’). This cantata was intended as a tribute to the Czech volunteers who fought in the French army.

Kaprálová also became strongly involved in the resistance movement in exile. She founded a choir, wrote articles for the exile weekly La cause Tchecoslovaque, composed music for the radio and collaborated with Martinů on a theatre project directed by Hugo Haas. Hugo was the brother of the composer Pavel Haas, who was to be murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944.

Kaprálova & Mucha (date & photographer unknown)

PREMATURE DEATH

Martinů was still not divorced from his wife and Kaprálová got a relationship with Jiří Mucha, whom she married in April 1940. As the Germans advanced further and further towards Paris, Mucha asked her to come to Montpellier, where he was stationed. In this period Kaprálová became seriously ill, but the doctors consulted did not recognise the symptoms.

Mucha finally took her to a hospital in Montpellier, where she died on 16 June 1940. For a long time it was thought that she suffered from tuberculosis, but recent research indicates that she probably succumbed to an attack of typhus. In any case, she was far too young, only 25 years old.

With six compositions, the CD Waving Farewell provides a small, but representative insight into Kaprálová’s enormous talent. Especially her songs are deeply moving. Like Sbohem a šáteček (‘Waving farewell’), after which the CD is named. Languishing vocal lines against passionate notes from the woodwind and brass make the sadness of parting very poignant.

Had Kaprálová been granted time to live, she would undoubtedly have become one of the most valued composers of the 20th century. In 1946 the prestigious Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts awarded her posthumous membership.

*Czechoslovakia was separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Vitězslava Kaprálová: vibrant rhythms, Slavic melancholy

  1. Pingback: Wo ist das Weib? – De vrouw in Het Concertgebouw 1888-2022 – Klassiek van nu

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