Considered in 1954 as the „first Czech composer of importance“ by the Grove’s Dictionary, Julie Reisserová has since disappeared from all successive printed editions of the great English-language dictionary. Apart from the short entry published in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1989), and an entry that is no longer included in the second edition of the encyclopedia, few reference works devote even a brief note to her. She was also the subject of only one article and on short monograph in 1941 and 1948 respectively. However, Julie Reisserová played a major role in the diffusion of Czech culture in Europe between the two wars and was at the origin of the creation of Albert Roussel’s opéra bouffe, Le Testament de la tante Caroline, at the Olomouc opera house on 14 November 1936. Her disappearance from the musical landscape is probably due to her premature death, to the fact that her music was banned from public performance in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic after 1949, and to the lack of access to her published works. These are almost absent from the collections of large public libraries, and one must rely on chance to find one of them.
Daughter of Vojtěch (Adalbert) Kühnl (Kühnel, 1859–1905) and Marie Majdalena Neander (1862–?), Julie Emilie Aloisie Marie Kühnlová (Kühnelová) was born in the old Prague parish of St. Gilles on 9 October 1888. Her mother was an excellent pianist and her father an important figure in the cultural life of the city. Her older brother, Vojtěch (30. 4. 1886 – 9. 2. 1942), worked as an engineer, but distinguished himself above all for having translated the libreto of Wagner’s Siegfried into Czech for the first series od performances of the opera at the Brno National Theatre in April and June 1931. Coming from a bourgeois and Catholic family, the two children benefited from a careful education. Julie studied with Václav Talich, and then piano with Adolf Mikeš. From about 1914 she trained as a dramatic soprano with Richard Figar (Hofer), and focused mainly on Wagnerian roles. At the same time, she studied languages, which enabled her to teach English and French. As early as 1911, she frequented a circle of intellectuals gathered around the musicologist Zdeněk Nejedlý, who would later become the first Minister of Culture and Education of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1948. Thus, she became acquainted with, among others, the musicologist Vladimír Helfert and the composer and conductor Karel Boleslav Jirák.
In 1919, Joseph Bohuslav Foerster accepted her as a composition student. Her marriage in 1921 to the diplomat Jan Reisser (1891–1975), himself a musician and scientific editor of articles and documents on Smetana, opened new horizons for her. During their stay in Geneva and Bern between 1921 and 1929, she was able to perfect her musical training with Ernst Hohlfeld (1886–1973) and to conduct choirs and orchestras, then, taking advantage of her geographical proximity to Paris, to receive the advice od Albert Roussel. After leaving Switzerland, her husband’s functions as ambassador, first in Belgrade from 1930 to 1933, then in Copenhagen between October 1933 and August 1936, favored numerous contacts with renowned personalities.
Her stay in Denmark was particularly fruitful, since it was in Copenhagen that she had the opportunity to publish some of her scores and to forge a reputation as a musician during parties organized at various Embassies. If her husband’s professional activity and her growing reputation allowed her to have her music performed in more and more prestigious venues, it was nevertheless the festival accompanying the International Congress of Music Composers, organized in Vichy from 2 to 9 September 1935, that truly launched her career as an international composer. Under the presidency of Richard Strauss and vice-presidency of Albert Roussel, this congress brought together a large number of French and foreign composers. It was under the bandstand of the Parc des Sources, a stone’s throw from the Palais de Congrès, that the Pastorale maritimo conducted by Louis Fourestier attracted the interest of the journalists and musicians present. Thus, in La Revue hebdomadaire, Gustave Samazeuilh did not take the trouble to list all the names of the composers played each day under this bandstand bud did not omit to mention „Mme Reisserova (whose delicate pastorale represented the Czechoslovak school).“ The Vichy Congress was an important step in her musical life. The contact with Sophie Drinker’s women’s choir, The Montgomery Singers of Philadelphia, thanks to the women vocalists who had created Reisserová’s female-voice choir Festive Day (Slavnostní den) by the end of 1937, was another promising one in her feminist activities. The premature death of Julie Reisserová at the Podolsk sanatorium in Prague on the afternoon of the 25th of February 1938 pit an abrupt end to her career. René Dumesnil echoed the general opinion on the deceased’s works: they „express a nobility of spirit and a remarkable distinction as well a deep sincerity. And it is these qualities, indeed, that all those who knew her and who today deplore her end appreciated in her.“ On 11 April 1938, the Danish radio broadcast a commemorative concert during which most of her scores were given, including the song cycle March (Březen), and the Pastorale maritimo conducted by Erik Tuxen.
By Jean-Paul C. Montagnier
Published with courtesy of Ries & Erler Verlag in Berlin