The brief but full-lived creative life of Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová was distinguished by many outstanding accomplishments, some of which will be mentioned within the context of her captivating life-story that follows. Although Kaprálová was once regarded as one of the most promising composers of her generation, her music was given less and less attention during the years following her death, resulting in her memory being obliterated by the end of the twentieth century. And yet when her music began to infilitrate our awareness again in the twenty-first, there was no doubt that it had withstood the proverbial "test of time" with admirable ease, proving its relevance to new generations of musicians and music listeners. It should be noted that Kaprálová's legacy is not just a mere torso of "what could have been" for her well-balanced catalogue includes about fifty compositions, among which there are many remarkable works in all categories: piano, chamber, orchestral and vocal music. In fact, her list of works contains as many compositions as that of her composer father who lived thirty-three years longer. Given that Kaprálová was granted nine creative years in total, the amount and quality of the work she managed to produce in such a short time is truly astonishing.
Kaprálová's creative development began in the 1930s in Brno, the regional capital of Moravia. She grew up in a cultured middle-class family and its circle of friends, among whom were some of the finest musicians and scholars of the new Czechoslovak Republic. She also benefitted from the musical offerings of her native town, which in many respects measured up to those of the country's capital, Prague. Her talent was recognized relatively early and nurtured by her musician parents. Kaprálová's mother Vítězslava (born Uhlířová, 1890–1973) was a qualified voice teacher; her father Václav Kaprál (1889–1947) was a pianist, teacher, choirmaster, music critic and one of the few alumni of Janáček's teaching who emerged as composers (besides Kaprál there were only four: Vilém Petrželka, Osvald Chlubna, Jaroslav Kvapil and Pavel Haas). Kaprál played a particularly important role in his daughters early musical development, later also becoming her somewhat self-appointed but nevertheless indispensible agent.
While today Kaprál is basically unknown outside the Czech Republic, during his lifetime he was one of the most respected Czech composers of his generation because he was perceived as having been able to "reconcile Novák's technical precision" and appreciation for form "with Janáček's innovation and emotionality. He was also an outstanding teacher who never stopped educating himself throughout his life. Although his own private music school, which he founded in 1911 in Brno, grew in reputation and continued to attract generations of aspiring pianists throughout the twenties and thirties, he still found it necessary to perfect his pianistic skills with Alfred Cortot in Paris in 1924 and 1925. He also intensified his aptitude for composition under Vítězslav Novák, who was to become in due time also the teacher of choice for his daughter. Throughout the 1920s Kaprál devoted much of his time to piano perfomance: together with his friend Ludvík Kundera they promoted four-hand repertoire and also performed in concert as a two-piano team. In addition to his performing career, Kaprál worked as a lecturer at Brno's Masaryk University, and beginning in 1936 also as a tenured teacher at the Brno Conservatory, where he taught composition.
Music was therefore a natural part of Kaprálová's life since childhood. She was only nine when she started composing, and only twelve when she wrote her Valse triste, already an accomplished piece written in a generic romantic style reminiscent of Chopin. It was her mother's influence, however, that led to Kapralová's lifelong passion for song. In vocal music Kaprálová combined her deeply-felt identification with the singing voice with her love of poetry; she not only had a penchant for selecting high-quality poems to set to music but also wrote good poetry herself. Kapralová's contribution to the genre is indeed significant, and her songs represent one of the late climaxes of Czech art song.
While Kaprálová's parents were generally supportive of their daughter's interest in music, they had rather practical plans for her – she was to take over her family's private music school. Kaprálová had her own plans, however. She had already set her mind on a career in composition and conducting, and it was this double major program that she chose for her studies at the Brno Conservatory when she enrolled there at the age of 15. She was to become the first woman in the history of this institution to graduate from it.
What kind of institution was the Brno Conservatory? Founded in 1919 as a successor to Leoš Janáček's organ school, the conservatory had a wide range of programs: it included an elementary music school, six-year and seven-year programs for various instruments, a senior high school (which included the double major program in composition and conducting that Kaprálová attended), a program for music teachers, and a special five-year program for singers. Until 1928 the institution offered graduate studies in composition and piano interpretation at its own master school. By the time Kaprálová studied there, however, the master classes were no longer offered, so if she wanted to advance her studies at a university level she had to go to Prague and continue at the master school associated with the Prague Conservatory (as she later did).
At the Brno Conservatory Kaprálová studied composition with composer Vilém Petrželka, harmony with Max Koblížek and Jaroslav Kvapil, orchestral conducting with Zdeněk Chalabala (who later moved to Prague on the invitation of Václav Talich to become conductor at the National Theatre), choir conducting with Vilém Steinman, instrumentation with Osvald Chlubna, music history with Gracian Černušák (an esteemed Brno musicologist who wrote many reviews of Kaprálová's music), aesthetics with Ludvík Kundera (who premiered her Piano Concerto of 1935 and Carillon Variations of 1938) and piano performance with Anna Holubová.
Kaprálová wrote quite a few compositions during her studies at the conservatory. One of the earliest, from 1931, was a piano suite which already shows a seriousness of purpose and emotional maturity as well as increased pianistic demands; its colourful harmonic language at times evokes an almost orchestral sound. Kaprálová must have been aware of this quality when she decided to orchestrate it four years later under the title Suite en miniature and assign it a first opus number. Other noteworthy compositions followed: Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 3 (1932); the song-cycles Dvě písně, op. 4 (Two Songs, 1932) and Jiskry z popele, op. 5 (Sparks from Ashes, 1932–1933); and the remarkable song Leden (January, 1933) for higher voice and flute, two violins, violoncello and piano, set to a text by Vítězslav Nezval.
Among the finest compositions Kaprálová composed in Brno, however, were the virtuosic two-movement Sonáta Appassionata, op. 6 (1933) and the Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 7 (1934–1935), her graduation work. The composition convincingly displays the versatility of Kaprálová's musical talent, with its typical energy and passion, lyricism and intelligent humour, spontaneity as well as discipline. Its performance at Kaprálová's graduation concert received highly favourable reviews not only in the regional newspapers but also in major dailies, including the German Prager Tagblatt, whose reviewer expressed his disappointment over the conservatory's decision to present only the first movement of Kaprálová's Piano Concerto which, in his opinion, attested to an extraordinary talent: "Es ist zu bedauern, daß die Veranstalter nur den ersten Satz des Werkes aufführen liessen, doch auch diese kleine Probe zeigt eine erstaunlich temperamentvolle musikalische Begabung." Indeed, the concerto's last movement already anticipates the composer's new creative period which was to blossom under the guidance of Vítězslav Novák at the Prague Conservatory.
In the autumn of 1935 Kaprálová was accepted into the master school of the Prague Conservatory, where she continued her double major studies, this time with the best teachers available in her own country: composition with Dvořík's pupil Vítězslav Novák, and conducting with Václav Talich, chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and music director at the National Theatre in Prague. It is worth mentioning that in the academic year 1935–1936, when Kaprálová began her studies in Prague, Talich's master class was opened to only eight first-year students; Novák's lass was even more competitive, with just five students.
The master school and the musical scene of the country's capital provided a stimulating environment for Kaprálová, in which her natural talent, coupled with her strong work ethic, continued to thrive. She joined Přítomnost (Present), a new music society chaired by avant-garde composer Alois Hába, and she regularly participated in Silvestr Hippmann's musical Tuesdays of Umělecká beseda (Artistic Forum), exposing herself to new contemporary music, both Czech and international. The two societies later also became important platforms for premiering Kaprálová's works.
During her studies at the Prague Conservatory Kaprálová composed some of her best-known music, namely the song cycle Navždy, op. 12 (Forever, 1936–1937) and the art song Sbohem a šáteček, op. 14 (Waving Farewell, 1937), which she later orchestrated in consultation with Bohuslav Martinů in Paris. Other noteworthy creations of Kaprálová's Prague period include her maliciously witty Groteskní passacaglia (Grotesque Passacaglia), the splendid String Quartet, op. 8 (1935–1936) and her most popular work for piano solo, Dubnová preludia, op. 13 (April Preludes, 1937), a work she dedicated to Rudolf Firkušný, who brought attention to its qualities several years later by his masterly performance in Paris.
But one composition in particular brought her public recognition: the Vojenská symfonieta, op. 11 (Military Sinfonietta, 1936–1937), Kaprálová's graduation work, which was premiered by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of the composer on 26 November 1937 in Prague. It was with the sinfonietta that Kaprálová achieved not only wider recognition at home but also abroad when it was performed on the opening night of the 16th International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in London on 17 June 1938. The British premiere of the sinfonietta, in which Kaprálová conducted the excellent BBC Orchestra, was transmitted across the ocean to the United States, where it was broadcast by CBS. According to a reviewer of Time magazine, Kaprálová not only fared well in the international competition at the festival, but she also became the star of the opening concert. Among all the reviews mentioning her performance, Kaprálová would probably have cherished most that of her colleague Havergal Brian, who in his festival report for Musical Opinion wrote: "The first work played and broadcast at the recent festival, a Military Sinfonietta by Miss Vítězslava Kaprálová of Czechoslovakia, proved an amazing piece of orchestral writing; it was also of logical and well balanced design. But it is unlikely that Kaprálová ever read it.
Kaprálová travelled to the ISCM festival in London from Paris, where she had lived since October 1937. She arrived in the French capital on a one-year French Government scholarship to advance her music education at the Ecole normale de musique, initially hoping to continue her double major studies: conducting with Charles Munch and composition with Nadia Boulanger. However, her knowledge of French was not good enough to study with Boulanger, so she decided to enrol just in the conducting class, because with Munch she could communicate in German. She also accepted an offer of private consultations with Bohuslav Martinů, who was by then established in France and well-respected both in Paris and in his native Czechoslovakia. Kaprálová knew Martinů from Prague – they first met on 8 April 1937 during his short visit to the capital, where he arrived to discuss with Václav Talich the details of the premiere of his new opera Julietta at the National Theatre.
In Paris, Martinů became first Kaprálová's mentor, later also her friend, and in the end her soulmate. From the very beginning he was generous with his contacts and time, and besides hours of free consultations he opened quite a few doors for Kaprálová. Soon after she arrived in Paris, Martinů introduced her to a circle of composers who were members of Triton, a Parisian society for contemporary music whose concerts Kaprálová diligently attended. He also entrusted her with the task of conducting his Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra on 2 June 1938 in Paris, just two weeks before her well-received ISCM Festival appearance. In addition, he facilitated the publication of one of her compositions which he admired greatly, the Variations sur le carillon de l'église St-Etienne-du-Mont, op. 16 (1938), by La Sirene editions musicales in Paris.
In the autumn of 1938 Martinů spent much time and effort to secure another stipend for Kaprálová so that she could return to France. His anxiety over the rapidly worsening political situation and over his separation from Kaprálová found its way into his Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, whose score he finished on the very day of the Munich Agreement. During the same time Kaprálová continued to work back home in Moravia on her Partita for Strings and Piano, op. 20 (1938–1939), in which Martinů, as he wrote in his reminiscence published by editor Pražák in 1949 "interfered more than he would have liked but both (he and Kaprálová) looked at it as a learning exercise (for Kaprálová). However, he did not interfere in her Suita rustica, op. 19, commissioned by Universal Edition London, which Kaprálová composed in just three weeks during late October and early November 1938, nor did he interfere in her Concertino for Violin, Clarinet and Orchestra, op. 21 (1939), whose last movement and incomplete orchestration Kaprálová later set aside and did not finish. It received its extended life thanks to Miloš Štědron and Leoš Faltus, two Brno musicologists who completed the work's orchestration in 2000.
The Triton concerts and the thought-provoking discussions with Martinů were some of the stimuli of Kapralová's new environment that accelerated her creative development. During the two years she lived in Paris she produced almost as much music as she had during the five years in Brno and her two years in Prague. The highlights of her first Parisian period, from October 1937 to May 1938, include the already mentioned Carillon variations and her delightful (but unfinished) reed trio.
During her second Parisian period, from January 1939 to May 1940, Kaprálová became even more productive. Soon after her return to Paris in January 1939, she composed two pieces of chamber music honouring the memory of Czech writer Karel Čapek, whose passing on Christmas Day of 1938 was mourned by the nation: the Elegy for Violin and Piano, and the melodrama Karlu Čapkovi (To Karel Capek) for reciter, violin and piano on a text by Vítězslav Nezval. On 15 March 1939 German armies marched into the streets of Prague. Devastated by the occupation of her homeland, Kaprálová sought solace in her music. The result was Concertino for Violin, Clarinet and Orchestra, op. 21 which reflects much of the composer's mental state at the worst period of her life. She scribbled "Job 30:26" on the score, a telling reference to a passage from the Book of Job: "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness." With its bold ideas and modern musical language, the concertino was to be Kaprálová's last major work; only two more high points were to follow: the song cycle Zpíváno do dálky, op. 22 (Sung into the Distance, 1939) and the Deux ritournelles pour violoncelle et piano, op. 25 (1940), her last composition.
The German occupation of Czechoslovakia changed Kapralová's life literally overnight. As returning home was not an option, she now faced the arduous task of earning her own living. She no longer received financial aid from home (as financial transactions were subjected to new, strict rules), nor her stipend. During the final year of her life, she spent much of her precious time on small commissions in an effort to support herself. One of them was the lively Prélude de Noël (1939), an orchestral miniature that Kaprálová composed for a Christmas program of the Paris PTT Radio.
Throughout the spring of 1939 she tried to obtain a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School so that she could relocate to the United States (in the company of Martinů). Nothing came of the plan, however, and by the end of summer 1939 she depended entirely on the assistance of several of her friends and a few benefactors. Lacking regular income, Kaprálová joined the household of her young artist friends who found themselves in a similar position and decided to pool their resources to get through hard times. One of these friends was her future husband Jiří Mucha. She also joined the efforts of the Czech community in Paris that organized activities for and around the newly-formed Czechoslovak Army. Soon she became heavily involved, from founding a choir and writing reviews for the exile weekly La cause Tchecoslovaque to composing music for the radio, the stage (she collaborated with Martinů on stage music for a theatre project directed by Karel Brusák) and even the screen (most possibly a commission facilitated by Kapralová's friend, film actor and director Hugo Haas).
In the final months of her life, Kaprálová also resumed her studies at the École normale, adding to her already busy schedule. In April 1940, less than two months before her death, she married Jiří Mucha. In early May, she exhibited the first symptoms of her terminal illness. Since Paris was threatened by German invasion, she was evacuated on 20 May 1940 by Mucha to Montpellier, near his military base in Beziers. By then Kaprálová was already seriously ill, and, following several weeks of suffering, she succumbed to her illness on 16 June 1940.
In 1946, in appreciation of her distinctive contribution, the foremost academic institution in the country – the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Arts – awarded Kaprálová membership in memoriam. By 1948, this honor had been bestowed on only 10 women, out of 648 members of the Academy. Only one of the ten women was a musician – Kaprálová.
By Karla Hartl
Published with courtesy of The Kapralova Society